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Housing and Homelessness

LA Tenants Approved For Rent Relief Are Still Facing Eviction. Here’s Why

Janine Johnson sits on her couch wearing a white tank top and looks out the window. A large fern is up against the outside of the window.
Janine Johnson had to fight off an eviction after being approved by the state’s rent relief program.
(David Wagner
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Californians applying for rent relief were supposed to be protected from eviction. But many are still getting dragged into court by their landlords.

LA Tenants Approved For Rent Relief Are Still Facing Eviction. Here’s Why

“When I started into this rent relief program, this was my fear. And my fear has come true,” said Janine Johnson, a 70-year-old renter living in Venice.

Johnson applied for rent relief last year. The state approved her landlord to receive funding. But she still found herself fighting an eviction for months, constantly worrying about losing her home.

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State and local laws currently make it very difficult for landlords to evict tenants over unpaid rent.

Instead, eviction attorneys say they’re seeing an increasing number of cases involving L.A. landlords trying to remove tenants over nuisance claims, which are still grounds for eviction during the pandemic.

“What I've seen is creativity from landlords’ attorneys,” said Freddy Vasquez, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who represented Johnson. He said landlords are “becoming skilled at finding ways to go around the current moratoriums the city has in place.”

Tenant advocates believe those nuisance claims are often exaggerated, and are a smokescreen for the real reason landlords want to evict tenants: months of back rent that have not been repaid through slow-moving government rent relief efforts.

Despite the state’s rent relief program launching about a year ago, most applicants in L.A. County have yet to receive funding.

Her Landlord Said She Was Running An ‘Illegal Hotel’

Entering Janine Johnson’s Venice apartment, one of the first things you notice is all the colorful sticky notes.

“They’re everywhere,” she said, pointing to notes with handwritten phrases. One said, “This is my home.” Another said, “I won my case.”

With a court date coming up, Johnson said these notes helped her envision a positive outcome in her case.

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“Although I wouldn't lie that I have a lot of fear and anxiety, what I do is manifest, every day, positive thoughts,” Johnson said.

Multicolored sticky notes are on a white closet door. In the foreground, a blue note saying "I" is placed above a pink note that says "won."
Johnson covered her apartment in sticky notes that reminded her to envision a positive result in her eviction case.
(David Wagner

Johnson’s anxiety started last November, when she found a bundle of eviction papers taped to her door. She said after she posted a Craigslist ad looking for a roommate, her landlord accused her of running an illegal hotel out of her apartment.

“This is a very expensive place to live,” Johnson said. “And I've always had roommates to help with the rent.”

Johnson said she took down the Craigslist ad and never got a roommate, but the eviction moved forward.

70 Years Old And Facing Eviction

Johnson said during the pandemic, she lost work as a landscape designer and could no longer afford her rent. State and local laws protected non-paying renters like her from eviction — as long as COVID-19 was the root cause of their inability to pay.

Last year, Johnson applied for California’s rent relief program, a multi-billion dollar effort to clear tenants’ debts and make landlords whole. She ultimately got approved, and her landlord was set to receive nearly $47,000 on her behalf.

Johnson recalled feeling relieved to know that her back rent would be paid off. “I called the people that you talk to, and they said ‘Yes, you've been approved.’ I said, ‘Great! So they've got their money?’ They said, ‘Well, no. It's gonna take a while for the money.’”

Janine Johnson, wearing a white tank top, stands inside her front door, looking at the sticky notes posted on the door. A salmon note at the top says "I," a pink one below it says "won," a blue one below that one says "my" and a yellow one below the blue one says "home back."
Johnson at the front door of her apartment in Venice.
(David Wagner

According to the state’s rent relief website, those payments for her landlord were still pending. Johnson’s situation was not unique. To this day, most rent relief applicants in Los Angeles are waiting for funding.

Based on what she’d heard about ongoing state and local tenant protections, Johnson thought that just applying for rent relief would protect her from eviction. But she found out the hard way that wasn’t true.

At 70 years old and still struggling to find work, she worried that if she got evicted, finding another apartment in L.A. would be impossible.

“People are saying well, move to a senior citizen home because nobody else is going to take you in,” Johnson said.

Landlord: ‘We Have Always Valued Each And Every Resident’

Johnson’s landlord is a subsidiary of the publicly traded firm Apartment Income REIT Corp., also known as AIR Communities, which is a corporate spinoff of the real estate investment trust AIMCO.

AIR Communities has a portfolio of more than 26,000 apartments nationwide, according to the company’s latest annual financial report.

AIR Communities spokesperson Stephanie Joslin said the company filed for eviction because Johnson violated the terms of her lease.

“AIR does not pursue the eviction of any resident who is in compliance with the terms of their lease,” Joslin said in an email.

In addition to the accusation of running an illegal hotel, Johnson’s eviction notice cited verbal arguments she had with neighbors. Johnson said at times she had fairly typical and minor disputes over pets and noise, but she didn’t believe those arguments were grounds for eviction.

“AIR Communities is committed to providing quality apartment homes in a respectful environment, and we have always valued each and every resident,” Joslin said.

A sidewalk heads off into the distance between two two-story apartment buildings.
The Lincoln Place apartments complex in Venice is one of 13 properties controlled by AIR Communities in the Los Angeles area.
(David Wagner/LAist)

State Says Landlords Can Collect Rent Relief And Still Evict

Last year, California lawmakers extended statewide eviction protections for tenants seeking rent relief through the end of this month. Back then, they said tenants needed time to apply for rent relief without having to worry about eviction.

But under the state’s current rules, there are situations in which landlords can collect rent relief on behalf of non-paying tenants and still evict those tenants, according to Geoffrey Ross of the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

“Unfortunately, what we do know happens is that there are sometimes bad actors,” Ross said. “We're absolutely, always concerned about the status of the folks we're trying to serve.”

The state should not be giving public money to landlords who evict tenants during a pandemic, argued Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network.

“This is a waste of taxpayer funds,” she said, “because it's a bailout for landlords without saving the housing.”

It’s hard to say how many rent relief applicants have faced eviction. Courts seal eviction records, and many cases never make it to court. Often, tenants simply leave at the first sign of trouble. But Popp said she’s seeing more and more cases like Janine Johnson’s. About half of her caseload involves nuisance and lease violation claims, rather than non-payment claims.

“Greed always finds a way to get around the law,” said Popp. “And state lawmakers didn't make the law strong enough.”

After I spoke with Johnson, her landlord agreed to settle her case and allow her to stay in her apartment. Johnson knows that on paper, this case had nothing to do with her unpaid rent. But she said she’s always suspected that was the real reason her landlord wanted her out.

“There's no question in my mind that this is why people are getting evicted — because landlords are just fed up with not getting their money,” Johnson said. “They're finding other reasons to try to evict you, and it's terrifying.”

Pretty soon, landlords may not need to find other reasons. Some local protections will continue, but statewide rules against eviction over non-payment of rent are set to expire on April 1.

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?