The Los Angeles City Council declined to pass a variety of measures aimed at expanding protections for renters on Wednesday, including a measure that sought to strengthen the city’s ban on evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The package of tenant protections, which also included proposals to temporarily freeze rent increases on all units and to bar landlords from evicting tenants for unpaid rental debt accumulated during the crisis, spurred a heated debate among councilmembers that lasted for nearly three hours. While some argued that the motions were necessary to assist renters during a time when many are struggling to make ends meet, others questioned the city’s authority to pass them, fearing they would open up the city to costly legal battles.
“We have responsibility for protecting renters, and I want to do everything we humanly can do,” said Councilmember Bob Blumenfield during the deliberation. “But we also have a responsibility to protect this city as a whole and make sure that we don’t put ourselves in legal jeopardy where we’re going to get sued and we’re going to lose and we’re going to lose a lot.”
Moratoriums at both the state and city level have made it illegal to evict renters who have been impacted by COVID-19, but landlords can still serve eviction notices, and tenants who receive them will later be responsible for proving in court that they have been impacted. The broader moratorium proposed by councilmembers Mike Bonin and David Ryu on Wednesday would have placed a blanket moratorium on evictions until 30 days after the city’s state of emergency declaration ended.
Councilmember Bonin argued that this would remove the burden from renters and dissuade landlords from continuing to serve notices.
“Residents are still being told that they are being evicted and they do not know if what they’re being told is legal or not,” Bonin said. “There are some property owners and some big landlords who are gaming the system and are doing it because they can, because the system is confusing enough to do so.”
However, in a confidential memo to councilmembers obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Chief Assistant City Attorney David Michaelson said that such a broad moratorium would open up the city to legal troubles, by interfering with private contractual rights and violating existing state laws. During the meeting, he made similar arguments for the rent freeze and debt proposals, insisting the state would need to suspend laws such as the controversial Costa-Hawkins ban on rent control before the city had the authority to pass such ordinances.
“It’s our job to provide the best legal advice possible to the city policymakers and to call balls and strikes,” said Michaelson during Wednesday’s meeting. “That’s what we do. We do not write opinions.”
Bonin retorted that given the extreme situation, the city was responsible for pushing the envelope legally to protect the city’s majority-renter population.
“We aren’t playing baseball anymore, this is a whole new game and this is a whole new reality,” he said. “We are in a state of emergency. We have a public health order in place for people to stay home, and we are given incredible power to act on it.”
He cited previous instances where the city had been on the “cutting edge” of policymaking, such as when it raised the minimum wage to $15 in 2015. He also referenced a letter from Public Counsel and other legal advocacy groups who have said that the city has legal bases to pass a broader eviction moratorium.
Councilmember David Ryu, who co-authored the motions with Bonin, urged the City Attorney’s office to work with the city to push the envelope.
“We need the City Attorney to be our partner again and be out front, to go against the grain, and to lead not just for L.A. but for California,” he said. “Let’s show the rest of the nation what we can do.”
Michaelson criticized Public Counsel’s advice, claiming it left out key information. Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell said that the authors of the letter should be “ashamed of themselves.”
“They engaged in sins of omission that actually harm the people that they claim to be helping, who are pinning their hopes on a rent freeze or forgiveness that the city does not have the authority to enact,” O’Farrell said.
Ultimately, the council voted to pass just one section of the rent freeze motion, which will prevent rent increases in units that fall under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance for 360 days after the expiration of the city’s emergency order. The expanded eviction moratorium, the unpaid debt measure, and another section of the rent freeze motion that would have applied to non-RSO units all failed to pass, with seven councilmembers voting no and six voting yes.
On Twitter, tenants’ rights advocates criticized the city council’s decision. “When it comes to criminalizing homelessness, @LACity will wage endless lawsuits and waste taxpayer dollars to defend local policies that have been declared UNCONSTITUTIONAL. This handwringing over the legality of eviction moratoriums is bullshit,” tweeted the activist organization NOlympics LA.
In recent weeks, advocates have been staging car protests at councilmembers’ houses, calling to enact a blanket eviction moratorium, to provide rent suspension or rent forgiveness measures, and to immediately use hotel and motel rooms to shelter unhoused residents.
Earlier in the meeting, the council did vote to move forward with a measure that would create a renters’ relief fund of more than $1 million for qualifying tenants. The fund, which will use money from council districts’ discretionary funds, might receive additional money from other council districts or donations. A similar fund launched in Santa Clara County last month, which had more than $11 million available, ran out of money in under a week.
The council also passed a resolution voicing its support for rental and mortgage relief legislation at the federal level, including the the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act that was recently sponsored by Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.
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