Saturday, May 18, 2024

L.A. City Council votes to dramatically expand tenant protections ahead of deadline

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With pressure mounting and the clock ticking, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Friday to dramatically expand protections for renters, heading off what advocates had feared could become a wave of evictions.

The vote comes just 11 days before the city’s long-standing COVID-19 anti-eviction rules were set to expire. The new policy is expected to go into effect before the Jan. 31 deadline.

Friday’s vote underscores the growing political might of the council’s progressive bloc, which successfully championed a more aggressive set of policies. The new legislation is also widely viewed as a victory for tenant rights advocates.

The COVID-19 emergency rules were passed amid unprecedented disruption at the start of the pandemic, along with similar measures at other levels of government. But Los Angeles’ anti-eviction protections remained in place even as other measures expired, with local leaders wary of exacerbating homelessness and overcrowding problems that had already reached crisis proportions.

The council’s action was preceded by more than two hours of public comment, with dozens of renters elucidating fears and making impassioned pleas to the council to pass a muscular policy before the emergency order sunsets.

“I’m in a wheelchair. I’m 67 years old. And as soon as you guys lift the protections, I’ll be out on the street. … We are human beings and we deserve to live with dignity,” Maria Briones told the council, imploring members to pass the legislation.

Numerous opponents also spoke out against the proposal, with some arguing that the soon-to-expire emergency rules had already unduly burdened small landlords and that the new regulations could further harm their ability to stay afloat.

“The city can no longer ignore the needs of landlords or further burden them with the task of solving the city’s housing crisis,” Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. representative Abby King told the council by phone.

The new policy will establish a minimum threshold for eviction for tenants who fall behind on rent, and require landlords to pay relocation fees in some situations in which a large rent increase would result in the tenant’s displacement.

Landlords will no longer be allowed to evict tenants in any rental property, including single-family homes, unless there was unpaid rent, documented lease violations, owner move-ins or other specific reasons. That provision will go into effect after six months or when a lease expires, whichever comes first.

Some renters, including those in rent-stabilized units, already have “just cause” eviction protections, but making them universal expands the protections to about 400,000 additional units, according to the city’s Housing Department.

The new policy will also block evictions until February 2024 for tenants who have unauthorized pets or who added residents who aren’t listed on leases, and create a new timeline for paying rent owed from the emergency period. Tenants would have until Aug. 1 to pay back-rent accumulated between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, and until Feb. 1, 2024, to pay back-rent accumulated between Oct. 1, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2023.

The council also voted to direct city departments to report back within 30 days with recommendations for the establishment of a new relief assistance program for mom-and-pop landlords.

Mayor Karen Bass plans to sign the ordinance in the coming days.

“I want to congratulate our City Council — especially the Chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee Councilmember Nithya Raman — on passing these important protections, which are crucial to combatting a potential spike in homelessness in our city,” Bass said in a statement. “In order to confront this crisis, we must continue get people housed but we also must stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.”

The new policy will be particularly significant for tenants who live in apartments that don’t fall under the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, which generally applies only to apartments built before October 1978.

Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez — who has described himself as the only tenant on the City Council — at one point during the meeting held up a copy of the two-page lease for his own East Hollywood apartment.

“There’s a reason why I’m not afraid. It’s because I’m in an RSO unit — I have those protections,” Soto-Martínez said, referring to just-cause eviction protections.

What the council was really talking about, Soto-Martínez said, was the question of whom voters had tasked their elected officials with protecting. The answer, he argued, was vulnerable working people at risk of falling into homelessness, and not “corporate landlords.”

Soto-Martínez’s comments came during a heated back-and-forth about when the expanded just-cause eviction protections should go into effect.

Raising objections about potential unintended negative effects on short-term rentals, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield had fought successfully during a Wednesday committee meeting to have the protections kick in when a lease expires, or after 12 months, whichever comes first, rather than immediately.

That provision was subject to vigorous debate on the council floor Friday, with Blumenfield arguing that the council was “splitting hairs.” Other council members contended that the new time frame would leave more tenants vulnerable and create unnecessary confusion, since there is no similar waiting period for rent-stabilized units.

“We are splitting hairs, but these are thousands of people and families,” Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez said, echoing a point also made by Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

A representative from the city’s housing department estimated that there were about 80,000 households in the city who’ve been in their units for less than a year, meaning they wouldn’t immediately be covered by the just-cause protections.

The council ultimately settled on a six-month compromise.

Councilmembers John Lee and Traci Park both raised concerns about possible legal problems that the new regulations could create for the city. They and other council members also underscored the burdens faced by small landlords, with several raising fears that they might leave the market altogether.

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