L.A. has a coronavirus eviction ban, but landlords are finding ways to demand rent

Liam Dillon
Simona Boneva, left, and roommate Gayle Curry stand outside their East Hollywood apartment.  (Allen Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Simona Boneva knew she wasn’t going to be able to pay her rent this month. Her shift as an office manager at a media company was cut in half, and her bartending job went away entirely because of the citywide shutdown over the coronavirus outbreak.

When she went to talk to her landlord, the company responded with a letter outlining terms for it to agree to temporary relief and a repayment plan — among them that she turn over any money from a federal stimulus check or from a charity within five days.

“I can’t believe that they would legally be able to do that,” said Boneva, 27, who rents a two-bedroom apartment in East Hollywood with a roommate. “They’re not entitled to the money for your rent above all else.”

Boneva didn’t sign the agreement. The landlord, Rom Residential, says the letter was a draft that never should have been sent to tenants suddenly struggling to pay rent. But the letter is just one example of how many landlords in Los Angeles have been pushing their tenants to agree to repayment plans that are far more onerous than what’s required under state and city laws passed to prevent evictions during the pandemic.

Some have informed tenants that they must produce pay stubs and bank statements, showing how the coronavirus has hurt their incomes. Still others have told tenants that all back rent is due when the government-declared states of emergency end.

Neither is true.

Under the city’s anti-eviction rules, Angelenos simply have to notify their landlord within seven days that they’re unable to pay because of economic or health circumstances caused by the virus, and they have up to a year after the emergency declaration expires to pay past-due rent.

Pressure from landlords to sign repayment plans before the full effects of the coronavirus are known may lead renters already unsettled by job losses and government stay-at-home orders to sign away their rights and ultimately facilitate their own evictions, tenant advocates say.

“It may lock them into an agreement they may not be able to fulfill, and then they might end up getting evicted anyway,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which advocates for tenants. “It puts them in a horrible situation, and they don’t know otherwise."

Elena Popp, an attorney and director of the Eviction Defense Network, said that since April 1, nearly two dozen tenants in L.A. have sent her letters from their landlords, asking for financial statements or repayment obligations that go beyond what the city says is required.

Confusion over the anti-eviction rules stems in part from the haphazard patchwork of federal, state and local tenant protections that has emerged in the last few weeks.

As part of the federal stimulus package approved last month, there is a nationwide eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent, but only for renters whose landlords have mortgages backed by the federal government — something most tenants don't know and would have a difficult time figuring out. Gov. Gavin Newsom has agreed to delay eviction proceedings for renters affected by the virus, but only through May. And dozens of mayors and city councils across the state have come up with their own rules like the ones enacted in L.A.

Landlords are struggling to understand which rules they have to follow, said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. At the same time, many are also navigating a similarly haphazard patchwork of government protections for late mortgage payments.

“It’s really unfair what’s being done,” Yukelson said. “We did not go in the business to be lenders to tenants. And that’s what we’re being asked to do.”

Leeor Maciborski, a partner at Rom Residential, said he was sorry the company had asked tenants to turn over their stimulus checks. The company, he said, was trying to figure out what it was allowed to require and sent the letters prematurely.

Staffers at Rom Residential, which manages about 1,500 apartments, have been speaking with tenants individually to try to understand their circumstances and develop alternatives, such as providing a discount if they’re able to pay on time, Maciborski said.

“We’re working really hard to get everyone what they need,” he said. “It’s been a flood.”

Rom Residential is sending out a new letter that eliminates some requests but still tells tenants to turn over documents proving they’ve been affected by the coronavirus.

The city of L.A.'s eviction protections don't require tenants to do this; instead, they ask tenants to keep such records as a defense against a potential eviction in court.

Noah, who declined to give his last name, participates in a demonstration with members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union and their supporters at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights recently.  (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“Everything is so uncertain,” said Margaret Lebron, a tenant at a different Rom Residential building in Los Feliz. “I don’t know if I’m going to lose my job. My boyfriend doesn’t know when he’s going to get back to work. He doesn’t know when he’s going to get his unemployment. We don’t know if we’re going to get sick. It just seems reckless to plunder our savings to pay something that we’re not legally obligated to pay right now.”

Lebron said she and her boyfriend debated whether to pay their April rent, even though they were aware of the eviction protections, because they feared their landlord might retaliate against them by withholding their security deposit or being slow to make repairs.

Ultimately, they decided to pay half.

Simone Pascal, a 72-year-old actress and artist who lives in East Hollywood, made a different decision. She decided to pay her full rent for April.

Also forced out of work by the pandemic, Pascal said she received a letter from her property management company, Crescent Canyon Management, saying tenants who couldn't pay their rent needed to submit a bank statement and pay stub within a week. The company also insisted that all back rent would be due once the city's emergency declaration has ended.

“Most of my money is going toward the rent,” Pascal said of her new financial vulnerability. “I’m getting [services from] Meals on Wheels, and that’s helping.”

Crescent Canyon has since revised what it is telling tenants. “Any confusion related to prior notices was unintentional, and we are working to correct it as quickly as possible,” the company said in a statement.

Both Rom Residential and Crescent Canyon received letters from L.A. City Councilman David Ryu after he became aware of what they were telling their tenants. Ryu, whose district stretches from the Miracle Mile through the Hollywood Hills to Sherman Oaks, said he planned to continue sending letters to landlords that violate the city’s anti-eviction rules.

But he said the entire situation shows that the City Council should have enacted a blanket moratorium on evictions across L.A., rather than the more limited version that's in place now and may require tenants to go to court to prove that the virus affected them.

A Ryu-supported motion that would have implemented a blanket ban failed by one vote at last week’s council meeting.

Meanwhile, the city's Housing and Community Investment Department is developing a template for landlords and tenants to use when they work out a plan for paying back rent, said Rushmore Cervantes, the department's general manager. The city is encouraging both landlords and renters to call the housing department for help.

“I really think April 1 is a precursor,” Ryu said. “If we can’t figure this out for April 1, on May 1 we’re going to be in even more of a world of hurt.”

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