via Jacobin

Last month, on August 10, tenants from the Hillside Villa Tenants Association lit their eviction notices on fire in the courtyard of their apartment complex in Chinatown, Los Angeles. “It was almost like burning the weight off my shoulders,” said Rosario Hernandez, one of thirty Hillside Villa tenants who had received a three-day notice from their landlord a few days prior. The notice demanded that they pay up to $16,000 dollars in rent debt or vacate their unit.

The tenants, who launched a fight for the city to expropriate their building in 2018 after their rents were raised by 200 to 300 percent, burned their notices on an altar in front of a photo of their landlord, Tom Botz, channeling a Buddhist tradition of burning paper money for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Tenant leader and devout Buddhist Jennie Limheya said of the action: “If [Botz] wants our money, he can have it in the next life.”

The tenants are among the nearly forty thousand who have received eviction notices in Los Angeles since February, an experience Lupita Romero, who has lived at Hillside Villa for thirteen years, described to Jacobin in the following terms:

It was shocking. They put the notice on my door; they didn’t give it to me face to face in my hand. I got depressed. I suddenly had a bad headache. And I was so worried that the next day the cops were going to break down my door and evict me from my housing. So I’ve started to pack. It’s been very stressful.

According to the three-day notice, Romero owes her landlord $13,300.

Tenants and tenant advocates have long been sounding the alarm about the impending post-pandemic eviction crisis. As COVID-19 tenant protections have been peeled away, the recent wave of evictions in Los Angeles reflects a broader trend in cities across the United States. In Los Angeles, following a unanimous city council vote, the last eviction protections were lifted on March 31, requiring all tenants to begin paying full rent from April 1. Meanwhile, tenants who owe back rent incurred in the pandemic’s early stages, between March 2020 and October 2021, were required to repay that debt in full by August 1 — a deadline that is expected to accelerate eviction filings in the weeks and months to come. Another deadline looms on February 1, 2024, when rent debt incurred between October 2021 and February 2023 must be repaid.

Eviction filings began increasing even before the protections were lifted. By the end of 2022, eviction filings in Los Angeles County reached pre-pandemic levels, and, according to a report developed by Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), as of June 2023, they have exceeded pre-pandemic levels and are in fact higher than at any point over the last decade. As a result, there has been a 9 percent increase in homelessness over the past year, with Los Angeles County seeing an estimated 75,518 unhoused people on the streets on any given night.

Meanwhile, according to National Equity Atlas, more than 278,000 households in Los Angeles County are currently behind on rent, owing a staggering combined total of $981 million in rent debt. Notably, this figure does not include “shadow debt,” describing the widespread practice of borrowing money from family or friends, taking out payday loans, or maxing out credit cards to cover expenses like rent — a common practice for many tenants, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. For Los Angeles tenants, 56 percent of whom are rent burdened — with another 31 percent classified as severely rent burdened — this can mean a disastrous convergence of two interconnected crises: the eviction crisis and the debt crisis.

This dire situation was far from inevitable, and steps could have been taken to mitigate its severity. Moreover, the intersection of these crises has been years in the making, generated by a confluence of political decisions and priorities at various levels of government before, during, and after the pandemic. The state’s involvement in eroding public housing programs, banning rent control measures, and facilitating processes such as gentrification and housing financialization, all of which have helped create the ever-worsening affordability crisis, is well-documented. But as millions of people are at imminent risk of displacement, it’s worth revisiting some of the pandemic policies and looking at what cities like Los Angeles are doing — and not doing — to alleviate the situation now.

A Patchwork of Inadequate Policy Interventions
During the pandemic, as unemployment and rent debts grew, and millions of households experienced food insecurity, “cancel rent” became a rallying cry for tenant movements across the country, spurring numerous rent strikes.

The demand reflected both an immediate need for tenants to prioritize “food not rent,” an understanding of the long-term burden of rent debt for individual tenants, and a drive to shift the financial load of the pandemic from tenants onto landlords. Unsurprisingly, despite multiple “cancel rent” bill proposals — including Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would have instituted a nationwide cancellation of rent and mortgage payments, preventing debt accumulation and the associated impact on credit histories — federal, state, and local governments chose a different path, implementing a patchwork of poorly drafted programs and policies that primarily combined temporary “eviction moratoria” with federally funded means-tested rental assistance dispersed through state programs. These programs helped buy tenants crucial time during the pandemic, but ultimately bailed out landlords, while deferring the crises to the present day.

The temporary eviction moratoria — imposed at various times by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local governments, differing in their scope and eligibility requirements — led to a substantial decline in evictions during the pandemic and helped curtail a drastic spike in homelessness.

However, the “moratoria” didn’t actually prevent landlords from filing evictions. Instead, they provided a legal shield for tenants who had experienced financial harm as a result of COVID-19 — although many tenants, understandably assuming that a “moratorium” meant they couldn’t get evicted, didn’t realize they were required to invoke the protections in court in order to utilize them. In Los Angeles County alone, landlords filed more than fifty-four thousand evictions during the pandemic, and as LAist reports, nearly fifteen thousand evictions were carried out between April 2020 and December 2022.

A study carried out by the Eviction Lab has shown that placing the burden of enforcement on tenants undermined the effectiveness of the eviction protections, as did the fact that many tenants were unaware of their existence or how to invoke them, with other tenants precluded by their eligibility requirements. Moreover, the study demonstrates that while the moratoria provided important breathing room for tenants to secure rental assistance, in many cases they merely delayed the eviction process, since rent debt accrued would eventually come due.

Responding to this, in the beginning of 2021, states began rolling out Emergency Rental Assistance Programs (ERAPS), through which tenants unable to make rent could apply for assistance. Billed as interventions into the growing rent debt crisis, they also served as a skillfully camouflaged bailout of landlords and the real estate industry, with publicly funded rental assistance subsidizing often highly inflated rents set by corporate or “mom-and-pop” landlords seeking to extract maximum profits.

Beyond this, different ERAP iterations produced different sets of issues. Last year, SAJE, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and PolicyLink filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) alleging systemic failures within the state’s ERAP program, which, the plaintiffs argued, violated tenants’ due process, discriminated against tenants with limited English proficiency, and harmed black and Latino tenants who were disproportionately in need of assistance. Thirty-one percent of applicants were denied assistance without explanation, with denials near impossible to appeal, although 92 percent of those rejected met the eligibility requirements for relief. In the process, tens of thousands were put at risk of eviction.

Moreover, as of June 5, 2023, when the plaintiffs reached a settlement with HCD that includes improving the appeals process and conducting an audit of prior denials in order to correct those that were wrongful, more than one hundred thousand households were still waiting for a decision on their applications, many of whom have received eviction notices from their landlords in the meantime.

It’s also important to note that the ERAP program did not reimburse shadow debt. According to a University of Pennsylvania survey, the majority of California households who applied for rental assistance took on shadow debt to keep up with rent payments, averaging $3,050 per respondent. Considering that 3.2 million California tenants are already rent-burdened — more than in any other state — and that rents increased 27 percent between 2016 and 2021, while wages have not increased correspondingly, that kind of shadow debt coupled with potential rent debt and high rent can be insurmountable.

Nevertheless, faced with a crisis of this severity, the City of Los Angeles has been predictably slow and inadequate in its response. In January 2023, after persistent pressure by tenants and tenant advocates, city council expanded just-cause eviction protections to cover non-rent-stabilized units, introduced relocation assistance when tenants cannot afford rent increases of more than 10 percent or the Consumer Price Index plus 5 percent, and instituted one-month’s “fair market rent” as a threshold for just-cause evictions.

While these are important and worthwhile expansions, as interventions into the current rent debt and eviction crises they fall short. Considering that the average rent debt is $3,500 and that average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,222, the fair market rent threshold renders the vast majority of indebted tenants “qualified” for just-cause evictions.

Other meaningful measures have arrived too late. In July 2023, in response to more pressure from the tenants movement, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to establish a “right to counsel” in eviction proceedings, which in other cities has been shown to significantly lower eviction rates. While this represents an important victory for tenants that will address the imbalance created by only 3 percent of tenants having legal representation in eviction court, compared to 88 percent of landlords, the ordinance is not expected to take effect until July 2024, leaving the vast majority of tenants who are presently facing eviction without representation.

Desperate Times Call for Ambitious Measures
One recent move, spearheaded by the United to House LA coalition, is expected to alleviate the crisis in the short term to some degree. On August 29, city council passed an amendment to “front-fund” $150 million from the recently introduced “mansion tax,” Measure ULA, which imposes a tax on real estate transactions over $5 million, for a short-term rental assistance program and expansion of the eviction defense and prevention program Stay Housed LA among other initiatives. While it won’t be a panacea, the funds will provide relief and help fend off eviction for some tenants.

Nevertheless, it remains indisputable that the city has had over three years to contend with the impending eviction and rent debt crises — and even longer to confront the interconnected affordability and homelessness crises — and has done very little about it, whether by addressing the crises directly or by confronting the underlying issues.

Instead, Mayor Karen Bass’s administration has spent more than $40 million on the first six months of her controversial Inside Safe program, with another $250 million authorized for its expansion. Yet of the 1,372 people who have been swept from encampments and placed in motels as part of Inside Safe, less than 6 percent have transitioned into permanent housing, the program’s ostensible purpose. Moreover, as L.A. TACO recently reported, the city spent nearly two-thirds of the $1.2 billion in COVID relief funds it received through the American Rescue Plan Act on police and firefighter salaries, while channeling no funds whatsoever toward housing.

As these crises converge, they underscore how city governments have, for far too long, seen their remit as increasing land value for developers and treating homes as speculative assets. While the occasional incremental reforms and ordinances with a veneer of progressivism have been passed, these have failed to shift the power dynamics of the housing market or change the terms and conditions of housing in a substantive way.

A fundamental rethinking could draw inspiration from Barcelona’s Right to Housing Plan, which involves doubling the city’s public housing stock by 2025, Seattle’s I-135 initiative, which created the Seattle Social Housing Developer and is intended to acquire, build, and manage public housing, and the Housing Production Fund in Montgomery County, Maryland. Without ambitious initiatives like these, consequences for individual tenants are potentially catastrophic.

Hernandez, who has lived at Hillside Villa for more than thirty years, described what her eviction notice might mean for her future: “Well, really, we don’t have any place to go. So if we get evicted, we’ll be on the street.” Hernandez moved to Hillside Villa after being displaced from her Downtown apartment in the 1980s, when the building was seized through eminent domain and demolished to make room for the Staples Center and L.A. Live — the same legislation that Hillside Villa tenants have been arguing over the past five years should be used by the city to seize their building to preserve affordability and secure tenants’ right to stay put.

Although city council voted unanimously to approve the funds to purchase the building in May 2022, the housing department and Mayor Bass, who campaigned at Hillside Villa, have done next to nothing to execute that decision. Now the tenants, who are currently on rent strike as they continue to fight for expropriation, risk mass eviction as a result of the city’s irresolution and their exploitative landlord’s practices. Nevertheless, after years of organizing and overcoming obstacles, the tenants remain firm in their resolve. Romero says, “There have been so many things over the past five years, and it’s been really stressful. But I really have faith that we’ll figure a way out of this.”

As Hillside Villa illustrates, the likelihood of the city shifting priorities on their own volition appears to be slim. Similarly, government-initiated rent debt forgiveness seems unlikely — despite the government forgiving $757 billion in pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program loans, 77 percent of which went to business owners and shareholders as opposed to actual paychecks.

However, there is potential power in the growing number of debtors, provided they organize. As the Veritas Tenants Association demonstrated with their rent debt strike last year, if individual indebted tenants reframe their collective rent debt as leverage and withhold that debt, they can force significant concessions from their landlord and possibly change the terms and conditions of their housing — exercising power, as Hannah Appel, cofounder of the Debt Collective, writes, “over a system that for too long has prioritized housing not as shelter for people, but as a profitable asset for investors.”

With more than 278,000 households behind on rent in Los Angeles County, the potential of organized tenants leveraging their debt as power is significant.

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