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Your guide to renting in this complicated — and expensive — place.

LA Banned Rent Hikes During The Pandemic. But Complaints Are Higher Than Ever

 A medium-dark skin-tone woman who appears to be middle aged poses for a photo, Her image is reflected in a mirror beside her.
Enoe del Carmen Nolasco lost work as a housekeeper due to COVID, and struggled to afford rent increases during the pandemic.
(David Wagner
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In the city of Los Angeles, many protections set up to help renters during the pandemic have now gone away. But one big one remains: rent increases are still banned in most L.A. apartments.

LISTEN: Illegal Rent Hike Complaints Rise In LA

The rent hike ban has been in place for three years now, but many tenants still don’t know about L.A.’s COVID rent freeze. And some landlords are continuing to demand higher rent.

Through public records requests, LAist obtained data on illegal rent hike complaints in the city going back to 2012. The data from L.A.’s housing department shows that complaints declined in 2020 and 2021, after the city’s COVID rent freeze was first enacted.

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But over the past year, complaints have risen. Tenants filed 3,433 complaints about illegal rent hikes in 2022 — more than in any year leading up to the city’s COVID rent freeze.

The numbers mirror Mateo Gil’s experience. He’s a community organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, and he’s seen more renters coming to their tenant rights clinics looking for help with illegal rent hikes.

LAist Rent Hike Cheat Sheet:
  • Do you live within the rent freeze boundaries? How much can your rent go up right now? Here’s your guide to local rules on rent hikes. 

“Right now there's no deterrence in place for landlords who illegally raise the rent,” such as fines, Gil said. “This makes them more likely to test the policy and see what they can get away with.”

Right now there's no deterrence in place for landlords who illegally raise the rent.
— Mateo Gil, a community organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy

Landlord advocates say many rent hikes are likely the result of confusion. Daniel Tenenbaum, the founding principal of Pacific Crest Real Estate, believes most rent freeze violations were not coming from bad actors.

“We, as an apartment industry, have received a whole slew of legislation — often contradictory between the county and the city,” he said. “There's probably some confusion amongst some apartment owners.”

But tenants already burdened by L.A.’s infamously high rents, COVID-related job loss and family member deaths say illegal rent hikes only worsened their financial and mental health.

‘Everything’s expensive’

In one apartment building in L.A.’s Mid-City neighborhood, rent increases during the pandemic brought tenants together for a common cause: fighting back. Enoe del Carmen Nolasco had her rent increased by almost $80 per month.

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Speaking in Spanish, Nolasco said, “The landlord told me he was going to increase the rent because he had to pay bills here.”

At the time, Nolasco was struggling. She had lost work as a housekeeper due to COVID.

“Sometimes the rent wouldn’t even leave us with enough money to buy an onion, a tomato,” Nolasco said. “Everything’s expensive.”

At first, Nolasco and her neighbors didn’t know the increases were illegal. Then they connected with members of the L.A. Tenants Union, who informed them about the city’s COVID rent freeze.

L.A.’s ongoing rent hike ban applies only to rent-controlled housing, which makes up about three-quarters of all apartments in the city. It’s scheduled to last until Jan. 31, 2024. The policy is unique in California. Other parts of the state have gotten rid of such protections.

Eddie Robinson, an organizer at the L.A. Tenants Union, said the city’s rent freeze may sound great for tenants, but it only works when they know how to defend their rights.

“There are things written in legal language that seem good in theory, but the housing department doesn't have much of an enforcement arm to it,” Robinson said.

So, with the help of the tenants union, the Mid-City renters filed complaints with the city’s housing department. They were far from alone.

The data LAist analyzed shows that the city received more illegal rent hike complaints last year than any time before the rent freeze took effect. Neighborhoods with high complaint volumes in 2022 include Historic South-Central, Pico Union, Florence and Koreatown.

This map shows the number of illegal rent hike complaints filed in different ZIP codes across the city of Los Angeles during 2022.
This map shows the number of illegal rent hike complaints filed in different ZIP codes across the city of Los Angeles during 2022.
(Dan Carino/LAist)

If rent hikes are banned, why are complaints rising?

Housing experts say the trend in L.A. reflects a statewide reality: Despite more state and local laws designed to limit rent increases, California rents are rising sharply.

“What we have seen in the last year or so is an acceleration of an extreme amount of rent burden across the state, and particularly in places like Los Angeles,” said David Garcia, policy director for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Terner Center researchers have noted that after state lawmakers passed a 2019 law to limit rent hikes to no more than 10% per year, asking rents in cities like L.A. only began to rise faster, at levels frequently exceeding the law’s caps.

Garcia said none of this proves landlords are breaking the law. Under the 2019 state law, landlords can set asking rents however high they want after tenants move out. Similarly, rent hike complaints in L.A. don’t necessarily mean a violation took place. Some tenants may be filing complaints from newer buildings not covered by L.A. rent control or the city’s rent freeze, for example.

But, Garcia said, the spike in complaints across the city does raise questions.

“There may be some confusion on the part of either the tenant or the landlord on whether or not they’re protected by local or state law,” he said.

Landlords are confused, too

Landlords told LAist they have been genuinely confused by the city’s ever-changing rules.

David Kim owns the Mid-City apartment building where tenants filed complaints. He said the rent increases were an honest mistake.

“At that time, I did not know,” Kim said. “I had no knowledge that I shouldn't raise rent at that time. So I paid back everything.”

I had no knowledge that I shouldn't raise rent at that time. So I paid back everything.
— David Kim, owner of an apartment building in Mid-City

Kim is 80 years old and relies on rental income in his retirement. He said the city never told him that routine annual rent hikes are now illegal.

“The housing department did not send me a notice,” Kim said. “If they sent me a letter, I wouldn't do that.”

In an email, L.A. housing department officials said all landlords were sent annual notices about the rent freeze. The letters were sent in English (Kim’s first language is Korean).

Landlords who have complied with L.A.’s rules say the city’s COVID rent freeze has made it difficult to recoup losses from unpaid rent earlier in the pandemic.

Rich Kissel said expenses have skyrocketed at his two Mid-City L.A. apartment buildings. Insurance, maintenance and trash pickup costs are all up, he said, but rental income is down.

“There's no excuse for people not paying rent for three years,” Kissel said. “I've got two of those situations right now. That's an extreme burden. And it could force me out of the business.”

L.A. landlord Rich Kissel, photographed seated at his desk looking at paperwork, says L.A.’s COVID eviction protections and rent freeze have him considering selling his properties.
L.A. landlord Rich Kissel says L.A.’s COVID eviction protections and rent freeze have him considering selling his properties.
(David Wagner/LAist)

To cover some of those losses, Kissel received rent relief funding from the state earlier in the pandemic. But California’s rent relief program ended in April 2022, and some of his tenants still aren’t paying.

Kissel said none of his apartments rent for more than $2,000 per month. He feels like the city’s tenant protections are pushing small landlords like him toward selling their properties, and he thinks larger landlords will be unlikely to keep rents low.

“A lot of these older buildings owned by people just like me, that's our affordable housing stock,” Kissel said. “You can't duplicate that.”

City’s housing department responds

L.A. Housing Department officials declined to give an on-the-record statement or interview for this story.

Officials said in addition to annual notices, the information about the rent freeze was posted on the housing department’s website, where it could be translated into multiple languages.

Housing department leaders did not want to be quoted, but in a call with LAist they attributed the rise in illegal rent hike complaints to tenants becoming more informed about their rights.

LAist Eviction Guide
  • Want to know the latest on renter policies across L.A. County? LAist has an in-depth guide to how local rules are changing.

But tenant advocates say many renters are not filing complaints at all, often because they simply don’t know about L.A.’s COVID rent freeze or where to file a complaint. Some also face language barriers or don’t have Internet access.

Others don’t know if they should complain, because they’re perplexed by mixed messages: The city says rent hikes are banned, but landlords are telling them to pay more or move out.

'There’s no way they don’t know what the law is'

Katherine Schomas said after her landlord gave permission for a new roommate to move into her rent-controlled Silver Lake apartment, the property manager suddenly told all the tenants that they’d have to sign a new lease with a $740 monthly rent increase.

“This management company is so large, and they own so many apartment buildings in L.A., there's no way they don't know what the law is,” Schomas said.

Katherine Schomas, photographed in the doorway of her apartment, said she and her roommates were told earlier this year that they’d have to pay $740 more in monthly rent for their Silver Lake apartment.
Katherine Schomas and her roommates were told earlier this year that they’d have to pay $740 more in monthly rent for their Silver Lake apartment.
(David Wagner/LAist)

For now, Schomas is trying to get her landlord to rescind the rent increase before filing a complaint. She thinks L.A.’s housing department should be more proactive.

“I would like to see the city make a bigger show of holding landlords accountable for breaking the rules,” Schomas said.

For Ramon Iglesias, another one of David Kim’s tenants in Mid-City, simply knowing about the rent freeze hasn’t helped. He was grieving the death of his wife back in 2021 when Kim sent him a letter seeking a rent increase of $800 per month.

Iglesias and his wife had been getting a discount on rent, because she helped manage the building. Iglesias said in Spanish, “Kim told me I couldn’t be the manager because, since I didn’t speak English, he couldn’t communicate with me. That’s when he increased the rent.”

Shortly after his wife died during the pandemic, Ramon Iglesias — photographed in a Mid-City L.A. apartment — saw his rent double.
Shortly after his wife died during the pandemic, Ramon Iglesias saw his rent double.
(David Wagner/LAist)

Iglesias, 76 and living on Social Security benefits, is not paying the higher rent Kim originally demanded. But his rent has still doubled. Kim said L.A.’s housing department hasn’t told him the increase was illegal. Iglesias feels like the city hasn’t helped him at all.

During the pandemic, other tenants have also found that L.A.’s rent freeze isn’t frozen solid. There are cracks in the ice, often big enough for large rent hikes to get through.

In early 2023, complaints continued their upward trajectory. This February, the city received its highest number of complaints in any February going back to 2012.

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