By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services
Los Angeles County offers an array of programs to help renters stay in place and help homeowners avoid foreclosure despite the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a news conference on Dec. 7, four county officials described some of these and shared fears for the future if the federal government fails to provide relief soon.
“It’s no secret that we live in one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the nation, with more than half the county’s resident being referred to as ‘rent burdened,’” said Dana Pratt, Deputy Director of Housing & Tenant Protections Division at the Department of Consumer & Business Affairs. She cited a recent UCLA study finding that at least 365,000 renter households don’t have an adult who is either employed or has sufficient replacement income to pay rent.
Since March 4, the county has had a moratorium on evictions, but it is set to expire on January 31. It applies to residential, commercial and mobile properties and if the tenants can’t pay rent due to COVID-19, bars evictions, rent increases, late fees, or charges for interest and “pass-throughs” of owner costs.
Along with the eviction moratorium, Pratt said, the county has newly implemented rent stabilization and eviction defense programs and created a rent stabilization program to limit rent increases and evictions without just cause.
Pratt was careful to point out that although you can’t be evicted for falling behind on your rent, you still owe it. “It’s a rent deferral, not a waiver,” she said.
She also highlighted a new department program, Stay Housed LA County, a collaboration with community-based organizations and the Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition. It provides legal representation, short-term rental assistance, know-your-rights workshops and other wraparound services.
Previously, Pratt said, 90% of people who had to face their landlords and landlords’ lawyers in court did so alone. “This is a first line of defense for the oncoming tsunami of evictions that we expect to see once these protections start to lift.”
She urged people to check with counselors who can be reached at (833) 223-7368 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and other resources available at rent.lacounty.gov and lacountyhelpcenter.org.
“This housing crisis is different from the Great Recession,” said Azusena Favela, Deputy Director of the Economic Development Division at the Department of Consumer & Business Affairs, shifting focus to homeowners facing possible foreclosure.
Favela said she sees a proliferation of “cash for keys” flyers in her South LA neighborhood tempting people who’ve fallen behind on their mortgages to sell their homes for a fast payout. She urged those who might be tempted to tread carefully.
“I understand the desperation,” she said, “but before making a decision, contact us.” Counselors are available in multiple languages at (833) 238-4450 or check the department’s website stayhousedla.org.
While there are foreclosure-prevention measures on the books, they are set to expire at the end of January. Forbearance plans can buy you some time, Favela said, and emphasized that in speaking with lenders, people should be clear whether COVID-19 has affected their ability to pay their bills.
The department, she said, can also offer connections to 14 nonprofit organizations certified by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development for help.
“We hear the desperation, the need, in callers’ voices,” said Maritza Gutierrez, Chief of Mediation & Counseling Division for the Department of Consumer & Business Affairs, who spoke next. But, she said, “they still have options and shouldn’t feel they have nowhere to turn.”
The department’s confidential mediation services, she said, can often help find amicable resolutions to the problems tenants and property owners face.
Although mediators can’t provide financial assistance, investigate, or make rulings, the department has had a high rate of success in helping reach agreements on a wide range of issues, including back rent, repairs, breaking leases, rent hikes, deposits. “Anything to do with a court,” she said.
They can be reached at (800) 593-8222.
Emilio Salas, Acting Executive Director of the LA County Development Authority, described four other programs aimed at housing help.
One has $110 million allocated for emergency rent relief, up from $100 million when it began in September and was quickly oversubscribed. So far, 90,000 renters have applied for help, many times more than the county had expected.
“We are still working through all those applications,” he said, and prioritizing low-income applicants residing in economically disadvantaged communities such as Bell Gardens and South Los Angeles.
For those earning no more than 30% of median income (approximately $34,000 annually for a family of four), the grant program could offer as much as $10,000, and for those earning up to 50% of the median, ($56,300 for a family of four): $7,500.
Later this month, Salas said the Development Authority will open the first of 10 hotels and motels it has bought to provide supportive housing for the homeless. It expects to eventually be able to provide a thousand such units.
The agency is also working to spread awareness that it is now against the law for a property owner to deny anyone housing based on their use of Section 8 housing vouchers. The county is also in some cases providing a first month’s rent to hold properties open while the landlord screens rental applications.
“The need is tremendous,” Salas said. “All of these things work in tandem.”