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Policies aimed at alleviating housing costs amid COVID-19 require more clarity

Moratoriums have given California renters some time before they lose their housing. But the novel coronavirus shows no signs of stopping, and a full ban on evictions will be the only way to prevent a full-blown crisis.(Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin staff)

By Navdeep Bal

Apr. 10, 2020 6:14 pm

As lawmakers scramble to deal with an unprecedented global crisis, their uncertainty, however warranted, has left citizens struggling to plan for necessities as basic as housing.

The National Multifamily Housing Council reported that in just the first five days of April, 31% of renters in 13.4 million units across the nation were unable to make payments.

In late March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an eviction moratorium, which would delay tenants from being evicted from their residence until May 31. However, renters must qualify for the delay by verifying that they lost income as a result of COVID-19.

And all the while, rent payments and potential evictions are awaiting residents come June.

Individual cities are allowed to take stronger actions to protect renters, but no extra guidelines were given and not every city has adopted stricter eviction bans.

Fortunately, Los Angeles was one of a few cities to provide further relief. Before Newsom’s order, LA City Council officials announced a moratorium on evictions. Furthermore, renters would have a year after the end of the state of the emergency to pay the rent owed, late fees would be waived, and Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that all rent hikes will be frozen in Los Angeles till the end of the pandemic.

The state of California should follow the lead of cities like Los Angeles and extend both mortgage and rent relief in a clear, sweeping fashion. For students and low-income populations especially, a full ban on evictions is the only way to mitigate the massive economic fallout created by COVID-19. This way, renters and landlords alike do not have to worry about how the situation will change week by week and tenants will not be taken advantage of during this unprecedented time.

Unfortunately, the City of Los Angeles has failed to pass an eviction ban that would cover all tenants – those evicted will still have to defend themselves in a court. And regardless of mortgage relief packages, some landlords have taken advantage of the uncertainty to exploit tenants.

The lack of uniform guidelines and information puts tenants in a difficult position in which they might pay rent even if they cannot afford it for fear that landlords could retaliate through legal loopholes or will fight for evictions in court. And amidst a global pandemic, legal issues should be the last thing tenants are worried about.

And with experts unsure of when the crisis will end, legal uncertainties feel indefinite.

Students living off-campus at UCLA will face an additional set of problems considering classes will be conducted remotely through the end of spring quarter, as well as Summer Session A.

This means leaving students with leases that they might not be able to terminate early – forcing them to pay months of rent for an empty apartment.

Andrea González, a third-year cognitive science student from Mexico, said that she would like to eventually go home. However, she cannot terminate her lease early and will have to continue to pay rent until September, regardless of whether she is living there or not.

“I think (COVID-19) counts as some sort of disaster, something that’s out of the ordinary – and I think their response should be out of the ordinary,” González said. “I feel like (landlords) should be more understanding of the situation.”

González is right – a pandemic, a transition to remote instruction and the subsequent financial hardship and mental distress of the situation seem extraordinary, to say the least. Despite this, these factors are not considered sufficient legal grounds to terminate a lease.

Elizabeth Kemper, director of UCLA Student Legal Services, said that her office has tried to work with students to discuss their legal options for early lease termination.

“Unfortunately, for most students, there’s no legal basis for terminating their lease early, but both the city and the state have provided some relief on evictions,” Kemper said. “But thus far, there’s been no relief on rent payment with the one exception of the CARES Act – the issue there, though, is it does not forgive the rent or forgive the mortgage payment, it just delays it.”

For those forced to stay near campus, landlords can similarly take advantage of unknowing college students, many of whom are dealing with housing contracts for the first time. While both parties may have willingly entered into a contract, no one likely foresaw a global pandemic – something that landlords seem to be capitalizing on.

Maria Blandizzi, dean of students and chair of the Economic Crisis Response Team, said the ECR Team and UCLA have worked to provide financial help to students struggling during this crisis, from fulfilling work-study awards to running a meal voucher program.

“We have three levels of government relations colleagues: the local, the state and the federal,” Blandizzi said. “And those three teams work together in concert with each other to do advocacy – we are feeding them data about what our students are experiencing in real-time.”

Of course, landlords have a business to run and their own payments to make, but more financial protections have been extended toward property owners compared to renters. Newsom also announced that Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and 200 state-chartered banks will provide mortgage relief, so that those eligible can defer mortgage payments for 90 days.

Furthermore, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced that owners of multifamily properties can delay mortgage payments as long as they delay evictions.

The lack of clear-cut policy means millions of Californians will fear for their health and homes. And in a time of uncertainty, the best course of action is always clarity.

LA’s smog may be clearing, but the decisions of lawmakers have remained just as foggy.

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