Despite the end of the eviction moratorium on Sep. 30, 2021, LA tenants still have (pro bono) options.
Disclaimer: Colin Beckett, the author of this article, is not an attorney. None of the following should be construed as legal advice.
In August 2021, the US Supreme Court overturned the Biden administration’s executive order to extend a federal “eviction moratorium” first established by Congress in March 2020 and then extended by the CDC in July of that year. This ended the only nationwide protections offered to tenants at risk of eviction during the pandemic, and removed one of the last flimsy barriers between many people across the country and homelessness.
For tenants in Los Angeles, the CDC order functioned primarily as a life raft for those who had lost pre-pandemic unlawful detainer (UD) judgements and managed to stay in their homes. For the rest, the most substantial measures came first at the city and then the state level. This is why the federal “eviction moratorium” is a misnomer: from the outset, it did little to keep tenants in their homes, instead providing them with temporary affirmative defenses if their landlord filed suit. This meant tenants who did not understand the process or could not find an attorney were left to fall through the cracks, and tenants who could not fully pay every dollar were provided no guarantee that they would remain protected after the expiration of the order. Each time the federal orders lapsed and were then renewed, landlords could force their tenants back into court to once again defend themselves on the same basis or otherwise face a lockout.
In the early months of the pandemic, the City of LA passed temporary eviction protections that were tied to the state-mandated emergency order, effectively backdated to March 4, 2020, which allowed tenants to defer rent payments without risking legal eviction. In August 2020, the California state legislature passed AB-3088, which established a statewide set of temporary protections and clarified what tenants could expect from courts after the emergency deferral period was over. At the same time, the law — written with input from the California Apartment Association, the state’s most powerful landlord lobbying group — restricted the ability of municipalities to offer tenants additional protections against nonpayment evictions for a set period after its expiration. First set to expire in fall 2020, the protections outlined in AB-3088 have been extended several times, most recently with AB-832, which ends the term on September 30, 2021.
Barring any additional extension, which seems highly unlikely to both tenant organizers and Sacramento whisperers, many of the key protections will expire on September 30, fully reopening the courts and, for the first time since April 2020, putting tenants in Los Angeles who cannot pay their full rent on time at risk of eviction.
What’s Next for Los Angeles Tenants
The rules first established by AB-3088, and most recently extended by AB-832, gave tenants the ability to defer rental payments during the period covered by the laws without risking legal eviction. This means that any rental payments missed between March 2020 and September 2021 would not give the landlord legal grounds for unlawful detainer, provided the tenant jumps through the required hoops:
- Beginning in August 2020, landlords could send a 15-day notice to pay or quit for any missed rental payments. But to be valid, the notice must include a declaration of COVID hardship, which the tenant could sign under penalty of perjury and return within the 15-day window to void the notice. The law entitles the landlord to send a new notice every month that payment was deferred, requiring the tenant to sign and return it every time this happens. Failure to return a notice in time could be grounds for eviction.
- Additionally, the tenant is required to pay 25% of the full amount owed between September 2020 and September 2021, no later than September 30, 2021. It doesn’t matter if you make the payments all at once or go month by month, so long as the landlord receives 25% of the total amount due since last September (just make sure you can document it).
If you have been deferring rent and haven’t taken either of these steps, the most important thing to do now is to make sure you submit a hardship declaration and pay the 25% before September 30. By law, tenants are only required to submit the declaration in response to a 15-day notice, but even if you haven’t received one, the safest move is to send one anyway and document the service, leaving a little less room for your landlord to lie the court and say you were served (in general, you should assume the court will take your landlord’s word and treat you as if you’re lying unless you can definitively prove otherwise). Angelenos can contact the nearest local of the LA Tenants Union (LATU) to receive a template declaration. [Ed. note: Colin Beckett is a member of LATU].
If you take these steps, the state eviction protections remain permanent, and your landlord can never evict you on the basis of rent payments missed between March 2020 and September 2021. But, as far as the law is concerned, you still owe the balance due.
Tenants in the City of Los Angeles who cannot or will not pay 25% of rent deferred will not necessarily face legal eviction, however. The legal defenses extended to tenants by the city do not require tenants facing COVID — related hardship to pay anything at all to — and those protections are set to remain in effect throughout the length of the Local Emergency Order (initially declared on March 4, 2020 and still in effect), and for 12 months after. Provisions in the state limiting the activity of municipalities in regard to nonpayment evictions suggest that, at the very latest, that city mandates would give tenants an affirmative defense against COVID-period nonpayment eviction through May 31, 2023.
LA City Attorney Mike Feuer has indicated that, by his estimation, LA tenants will be able to defend themselves from nonpayment eviction with the city order even after the state law expires — and eviction defense attorneys have told organizers that they are ready to make this case in court. The textual basis for the argument is strong, but whether or not courts, notoriously hostile to tenants even when the letter of the law appears to be on their side, will accept it remains to be seen.
Additionally, while the state law limits the protection that municipalities can offer tenants facing nonpayment eviction, it does not prevent them from extending or expanding protections against eviction for issues like additional tenants or nuisance.
If you want to avert eviction, taking the steps outlined by the state law is your safest move. But those who cannot pay a portion of their debt without sacrificing necessities — or want to knowingly take the risk in order to combat the landlord’s state-backed extortion — should make the fullest use of the city protections.
Evictions in Los Angeles After September 30
Even after taking these steps, however, the risk of eviction still remains high for many tenants. Starting October 1, 2021, you must pay your full rent on time to avoid giving the landlord a legal basis for eviction. So even if you’ve done everything right to keep the permanent protections for previous months, you still need to keep up every month, or else put your hands in the fate of a legal system that offers little leeway for common procedural error to the party with fewer resources to burn.
And, of course, if your unit is not subject to the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance or the California Tenant Protection Act, you will eventually be at risk of no-fault eviction or an unmanageable rent increase. You may not have yet found a new job, or made up the hours you lost: we are still very much in a pandemic. But for the landlords and the courts, things will be back to “normal,” meaning they expect renters to pay on time and perfectly perform every last legal responsibility (even if their landlord does not), or end up on the street.
It’s also incredibly likely that when courts reopen for this wider range of eviction filings, landlords will come up with every possible excuse to evict tenants they want out.
If you receive a notice or summons, do not leave your home. Find an attorney and fight (there are pro bono services available), even if your landlord’s case seems solid. Eviction proceedings can be slow, and will be especially so in the clusterfuck that will ensue after September 30. Fighting it out in court, and by other means, will at the very least buy you time in your home, and serve the collective interests of tenants throughout the city by placing an additional burden on the eviction machine. Tenants are better off when the court malfunctions than when it’s working smoothly.
Additionally, in Los Angeles, the emergency order passed by the city before AB-3088 went into effect will provide additional defenses for tenants hit with UD complaints for nonpayment and other reasons, such as unauthorized additional tenants. It’s not clear yet how the courts are going to square some of the divergences between the city and state orders, but there’s no reason to accept defeat even once you’re no longer protected by the state law.
If your landlord sues for any reason, do not self-evict and do not try to represent yourself in court unless there’s absolutely no other option: landlord-tenant law is a minefield. Without substantial training and experience, it’s very easy to lose an unlawful detainer defense on any number of obscure technicalities. Stay Housed LA, a partnership between LA County, the City of LA, and various legal and community service providers, provides pro bono legal assistance for cases like these. At the first sign your landlord has filed a complaint, immediately request representation through their website, and then contact your nearest LATU local.
In principle, the eviction process should look like this:
- Your landlord posts a Notice to Perform or Quit or a Notice to Quit that notes specific violations of the lease or the law on your part. If it’s a Notice to Perform or Quit, you can avoid court by taking the actions demanded within the period specified by the notice (typically three days). A Notice to Quit, on the other hand, is a prelude to court proceedings that you’ll have no chance to avert without leaving your home (which doesn’t mean you should do that).
- You should receive a summons from the court, either served to you by hand or posted in plain view on your door. This is the most critical moment, since you only have a five-day window to file an answer, or otherwise will lose by default. You’ll want to do everything you can to write and file the answer with an attorney, or at least a seasoned case worker. Demand for help will be very high, so don’t wait to ask for it.
- If you deny the landlord’s claims, once your answer is filed and accepted, the court will set a trial date.
In practice, however, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, it’s up to the landlord to acknowledge that you met the terms of the Perform or Quit Notice, so if you don’t thoroughly document your actions, it will be your word against theirs. The five-day window to respond to a summons is also frequently exploited. Eviction attorneys and tenant organizers often see situations in which landlords will get process servers to hide the notice under your doormat, or not serve it at all, so that you don’t learn there’s been a complaint against you until it’s too late. Though it’s possible to dispute a judgement by default, and to keep fighting in court after the landlord has retaken possession of your unit, legal resources to actually pursue these difficult cases will be hard to come by.
If you have good reason to believe your landlord may have filed a complaint and intentionally botched service of the notice, you can call the relevant departments of the courthouse every morning and ask if a complaint has been filed against you, or anyone at your address. For most tenants in Los Angeles, this will be departments 91 (213-633-1091) and 97 (213-633-1097) at Stanley Mosk Courthouse.
Los Angeles Rental Debt
Then, of course, there is the question of debt. Even tenants who secure permanent eviction protections and manage to keep up with their monthly rent payments will face a significant pile of back rent. Though your landlord cannot try to collect through eviction proceedings, the law treats it as consumer debt, like credit card payments or an auto loan, which can be pursued in civil court.
Many tenants in debt due to COVID hardship will qualify for rental assistance funds through the state, and some of them will even receive it. Need far outstrips the available resources, however, and the plan is designed primarily to bail out landlords rather than keep struggling tenants in their homes. But if you qualify, there’s no reason not to apply. Even if you previously applied for the rental assistance funds being administered by the City of LA, you should apply again through the state’s Housing Is Key website — and check there too if you didn’t qualify under the city’s program, since the state is accepting a wider range of applicants.
In a perfect synecdoche for its preening uselessness, the city originally elected to administer the funds itself through HCID/LAHD (until recently the Housing and Community Investment Department, once again calling itself the Los Angeles Housing Department) rather than letting the state handle it, and then completely botched the administration of the program. The City of LA then asked the state to take over again, creating additional layers of guesswork and confusing bureaucratic burdens for people just trying to stay in their homes and out of debt.
Most tenants will not win the rental assistance lottery. As soon as November 1, 2021, California landlords will be able to file civil suits to collect COVID-period debt from tenants who have been denied or have not applied for rental assistance. Depending on the amount of debt, the plaintiff will have a choice among venues, whether they take you to small claims court (where neither party is represented by an attorney) or a higher civil court.
Whatever the venue, the tenant will have the chance to dispute the amount owed, particularly if the landlord has not kept the unit habitable or violated the tenant’s quiet enjoyment. If there are any issues with your unit or your building, document them thoroughly and make complaints right away — consult the LATU Handbook about which departments get which complaints. These agencies aren’t necessarily going to do much to solve the problem, but your complaint will provide solid evidence in court of the landlord’s negligence. Take every opportunity you can to lower the amount owed.
The state law establishes a few different requirements that landlords will have to meet before they can sue, though it’s difficult to know how the courts will enforce these burdens, if at all. As in the case of post-COVID evictions, much of this will be speculative until these cases start hitting the courts. All of this is new, and we don’t yet have any kind of concrete idea how these cases will be adjudicated. In the worst-case scenario, if the court determines you are responsible to render money to your landlord that you do not have, you could end up having assets seized or a lien placed on your bank account until the debt has been repaid. Hopefully, though, there will be enough pressure on judges to push for smaller settlements that reflect tenants’ ability to pay, or at least make them reluctant to order asset seizures and liens instead of something like a payment plan.
Civil court judgements on COVID-period rental debt will be masked, meaning that they won’t be made publicly available to credit agencies. The spirit of the law seeks to prevent this debt from affecting your credit rating. In theory, it should prevent it, since a landlord who directly reports your COVID debt to a credit agency is violating the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. But in practice, landlords can and likely will do this. If your COVID debt ends up on your credit report, make complaints with every agency (Experian, TransUnion, or Equifax) reporting this info. This will be a time-suck and a hassle, but it should eventually get it removed from your report. You should also consult with an attorney who pursues FDCPA violations, since these suits can — unlike most violations of your right by landlords — yield significant enough damages to interest a lawyer working on contingency.
However the courts are going to handle the debt, you’ll want to do everything you can to force your landlord to the table to negotiate before that. As an individual, you’ll have to be creative about ways of finding leverage that make it easier for them to negotiate than to sue. It will cost them time and money to take you to court, so it’s always worth at least proposing they forgive a portion of the debt in exchange for a smaller sum you can pay now, or over time, without having to file suit.
You will have much more success in striking a workable bargain, though, if you and your neighbors work together to collectively put pressure on the landlord. The landlord has enormous power over a single tenant, but multiple tenants fighting together for their needs can find all sorts of ways to pose a significant financial and social threat to the owner of their building.
If you don’t know your neighbors, start talking to them now to understand their fears and the issues they’re facing in the building. Build the kind of relationships that can form the basis for a strong tenants association (TA). If your landlord owns multiple buildings, start to talk to tenants who live in the other ones, laying the groundwork for a multi-building tenant council. The best way to connect isn’t by talking about your own issues, or launching into a pitch for the TA, but to ask your neighbors about what they’re experiencing, what questions and fears they have, listening closely, and being responsive to their concerns.
If you’re unsure about how to proceed — or you’re in a position where you don’t know or can’t work with other tenants with the same landlord — get in touch with your nearest LATU local. If there isn’t one nearby, or you don’t want to work with the union for whatever reason, work with your neighbors and other political and community organizations in your area, but you can’t do it alone. It is only through collective action that tenants can defend their interests. No matter how well-informed and willing to fight you are, landlords have the advantage in tools and resources. If they’re determined enough, they probably can find a way to force you out given enough time.
No matter how you come to an agreement with the landlord, and no matter what that agreement is, get everything in writing. Any promises or threats your landlord makes to you verbally are meaningless; don’t give them anything they want until you’ve got a good deal in writing.
The State and the Courts Will Not Protect You
The steps outlined above follow the processes lawmakers have sought to establish. What will actually happen remains to be seen.There are many complex details and exceptions that may apply in your particular situation, since above all else these “tenant protections” have served to reprivatize the miseries that tenants began to experience collectively when COVID shutdowns began in March 2020.
Even the best legal advice in the world, though, is going to be less effective at keeping you in your home than avoiding the courts altogether. Nothing did more over the course of the pandemic to protect tenants from eviction than the almost total closure of eviction courts from March to August 2020. Rather than serve to shield tenants from eviction, the “protections” that have come into place since merely streamline and seek to legitimize the terms under which people can be evicted.
If you get sued for eviction or for civil debt, you will have no choice but to fight in the courts, and you should find an attorney as soon as possible and/or prepare to represent yourself in small claims court (and only small claims court). That doesn’t mean you can’t also fight through other avenues, with your immediate neighbors and other tenants throughout the city. Taking the steps to effectively organize and build solidarity among people in your building, and throughout the landlord’s other properties, requires time. Do not wait until there’s a case filed against you or your landlord escalates their harassment. Start now.
It is not only your landlord that needs to feel the full force of organized tenant power. If we want to avert a massive increase to the city’s already obscene levels of homelessness and landlord abuse, we need to make the courts and the politicians fear the consequences of dispossessing so many people in the middle of impossible circumstances. It would be a fatal error to rely on the sham neutrality of the law or the barely feigned concern of politicians to keep us safely and comfortably housed.
The law is fundamentally designed to maintain private property relations and lubricate owners’ ability to exploit them. The courts offer a massive structural advantage to whichever party has the most resources. And many judges — cops who demand, on pain of ruin, to be treated with the exaggerated deference owed a nobleman — are landlords themselves, and nearly all at least owners of one home, utterly alienated from the realities of life for poor tenants.
There is not a single institution with real power in this city, state, or country that cares more for keeping people in their home than it does about keeping the profits flowing to landlords or stimulating development — and the property tax dollars that come with it, to say nothing of the global economy whose growth depends on it.
That does not, however, have to mean we’re fucked. Remember how we got these protections in the first place. In the wake of the sudden shutdowns imposed in response to the global spread of the pandemic in March 2020, tenants sprang into action to defend themselves and ensure their landlords couldn’t demand rent money their tenants couldn’t possibly be expected to have without being able to work. Across the country, tenant unions and emergent autonomous formations of tenants went on rent strike, demanded rent cancellation, and took to the streets. LATU launched its Food Not Rent campaign, urging struggling tenants not to forgo vital food and medicine so they could give money to their landlord, and continued building the power required to ensure they could do so without being thrown into the streets. In the months that followed, the range and depth of tenant self-activity was breathtaking; neighbors who didn’t used to speak to each other fought hard to ensure their collective security and flourishing, standing up directly to landlords and cops to prevent illegal eviction attempts, making life difficult for politicians and shutting down eviction courts.
It was only the threat of tenant refusal or revolt that pushed legislators into action — and only the deeply felt risk of losing control that pushed landlords to accept these emergency interventions. In August 2020, when LA County began enforcing pre-COVID eviction orders for the first time since the start of the pandemic, even the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — notoriously brutal goons — appeared to be afraid of the reception that throwing people out of their homes might trigger in such a context, breaking protocol by giving tenants warning of when they would show.
All of that fear has evaporated. At the start of the pandemic, the state was facing something truly unprecedented, and was nervous to go too far in finding out just what people would accept without massive unrest. Now that more than 600,000 people have died, in no small part due to the state’s preference for attempting to stimulate economic growth over keeping people alive, and a cascade of administrative dysfunction and impersonal cruelty has habituated people to accepting shittier lives with none of the possibility of transformation those early months held, that fear has totally evaporated. In the tenants union, we’ve seen a sharp decline in activity since the minute the statewide protections went into place, allowing exhausted, overworked people to lie to themselves that they’d be taken care of, even when they know better. These protections have served to reinvidualize and complicate what was much more acutely experienced as collective misery.
If your individual efforts to remain securely in your home are to have any measure of sustainability, the scale and militancy of this collective effort must be rebuilt. And soon. We must make it difficult for the courts to function at all, shutting them down entirely when possible, and clogging them with as many long and complicated cases when not, making local governments and landlords burn as many resources as possible to force tenants out of their homes. Judges and politicians must be made to understand that evicting tenants and burdening them with debts they cannot meet will only result in deep and sustained unrest that will echo through every corner of the economy and further undermine the increasingly precarious legitimacy of American law and its enforcement.
Every effort by sheriffs to remove people from their homes must be met by large and highly committed blockades, making deputies more fearful of the consequences of following their orders than refusing them and their bosses dread the political fallout. It must become common sense that if a person sees their neighbor being evicted, they show up and fight with them in whatever way they’re able. Sustaining these efforts in any kind of way will require us to be there for each other, offering what we can to those who need it. These efforts must engage not only housed tenants, but also LA’s large and further swelling population of unhoused tenants, whose landlord is the city, which more and more openly seeks only to disappear and exterminate them.
None of this will be easy. Even broad and determined effort will not be enough to win; we need the kind of strategic creativity that can only emerge when proletarians work together to wrest more control over their lives and fates. It’s a tall order, but we saw it happening all over, in completely unprecedented ways, less than a year and a half ago. Whenever the dust settles on the new realities ushered in by the pandemic, either tenants or landlords will have wrested significantly more power than they had before. We have no choice but to do everything we can, together, to ensure that it’s us.