LA’s Expiring COVID Protections Raise Fears Of An Eviction Crisis. For Many Renters, The Crisis Is Already Here
Los Angeles County’s eviction protections for renters harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic will end on Friday after being in effect for three years. Housing advocates and elected officials worry that the expiring rules could lead to an eviction crisis in April.
But for many renters, that crisis has already arrived.
Local COVID-19 protections have not stopped landlords from evicting renters. In recent months, filings in L.A. eviction courts have started to match and even exceed pre-pandemic levels. Data also shows that by late 2022, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department was serving evictions at rates similar to those seen in years leading up to the pandemic.
“Evictions are as high as they've been in quite some time,” said Kyle Nelson, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow who collects and analyzes data on L.A. evictions.
Early in the pandemic, lawmakers enacted COVID-19 protections that caused evictions across the region to plummet. During the last nine months of 2020, eviction court filings in L.A. County fell by about 83% and evictions served by the sheriff’s department declined by about 85%, compared with the same period in 2019.
The rules were successful at curtailing evictions early in the pandemic, Nelson said, but there has never been a true “moratorium” on evictions. As the health crisis stretched on, and lawmakers slowly peeled away federal, state and local protections, evictions began rising in 2021. By late 2022, evictions had returned to pre-pandemic levels, even with L.A. County’s COVID-19 limits still in place.
“That's the kind of paradox here. We're constantly hearing about an ‘eviction moratorium.’ But the data tells a very different story,” Nelson said.
Even with protections, tens of thousands faced eviction
Throughout the pandemic, Nelson has collected data on eviction filings from 11 courthouses across L.A. County. That data shows that landlords have filed more than 54,000 eviction court cases during the pandemic.
Not all court filings led to tenants being locked out of their homes. Some tenants stayed housed after invoking the county’s COVID-19 eviction rules in court. Those protections gave renters a defense from eviction if they couldn’t pay on time due to pandemic-related layoffs, illness or loss of income.
To understand how many court cases actually led to actual evictions during the pandemic, LAist filed a public records request with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which carries out the work of serving evictions and locking renters out of their homes. The data we obtained shows that nearly 15,000 evictions were carried out between April 2020 and December 2022.
Renters caught off guard
During the pandemic, some renters who thought they were protected due to COVID-19 hardships were surprised when they had to defend themselves from an eviction.
“A lot of tenants were extremely confused,” said Amy Tannenbuam, an attorney with the legal aid organization Public Counsel who represents tenants facing eviction. “They would get papers, they would ignore them… You needed to actually take it seriously and go to court. Since about September 2020, tenants have been in court defending themselves.”
Heidi Gonzalez Toledo, a single mother with a 2-year-old daughter, lost her job as an in-home nanny early in the pandemic. Her savings covered the rent on her Koreatown apartment for a while. But one month in the summer of 2021, she asked for a few extra days to pay the rent. She said that’s when the property manager told her to leave.
“I told her I knew I had rights as a tenant,” Gonzalez said, but the dispute still led to an eviction court filing.
Gonzalez said she reached out to the city’s of L.A.’s housing department and legal aid organizations for help. She said, “They were all telling me, they can't evict you. But then I just got the paperwork from the court. They were able to file an eviction.”
After months of fighting, Gonzalez decided to leave. She has since downsized from her two-bedroom Koreatown apartment to a studio in Lincoln Heights.
“Sometimes I have to work from home, and it's just hard to have my daughter with me and be able to work, because we have to be in the same room,” Gonzalez said.
Lawmakers say tenants need more help fighting evictions
Cases like this have led some L.A. elected leaders to call for increased resources for renters facing eviction.
The L.A. City Council recently voted in favor of pursuing a “right to counsel” ordinance, which if passed into law would provide free attorneys to renters in the city facing an eviction.
LAist has put together a comprehensive guide to L.A.’s evolving tenant protections. The guide covers rules around the repayment rent from earlier in the pandemic, and the new L.A. protections that may help some renters stay housed moving forward.
“We need to continue to pass more renter protections like the right to counsel. Otherwise, we're going to see a lot of people living in the street,” said City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez.
But landlords view evictions during the pandemic differently.
Fred Sutton, the L.A. spokesperson for the California Apartment Association, said even if eviction filings and lockouts have risen in recent months, the numbers are still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.
“The data set clearly shows that this concept of an eviction tsunami, or wave of evictions, is simply not bearing out — both in the sheriff interventions and in the court filings themselves,” Sutton said.
More recent increases could be the result of changes in the L.A. County rules last year that limited COVID-19 eviction protections to renters earning no more than 80% of the area’s median income, Sutton said. He also noted that court filings in 2022 paled in comparison to the levels seen during the Great Recession in 2009, when eviction cases were twice as high.
“It can be expected that you'd see a slight uptick, due to the backlog of three years,” Sutton said. “To say that this is a crisis, I think the data just does not support that.”
Providers brace for rise in homelessness
But homeless service providers worry that with evictions already hitting pre-pandemic levels, the expiring COVID-19 protections will only cause evictions to rise.
“We’re absolutely seeing more people being affected by this,” said Anne Miskey, CEO for Union Station Homeless Services. “[Landlords] will try to get new people in who can pay more rent. It’s a really frightening situation. We're doing everything we can, but there just aren't enough resources.”
Following her eviction from her apartment in Koreatown, Heidi Gonzalez Toledo found part-time work with Eastside LEADS, an organization offering legal assistance to other renters at risk of eviction. She said it has been hard to explain to tenants that they can be evicted, despite the ongoing COVID-19 protections, which end Friday.
“There’s a lot of people that still today, they don't know,” Gonzalez said. “I tried my very best to fight for my rights, and it didn't work.”
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