Fearing pandemic-related illness, job losses and other life changes could cause people to lose their homes, state and local officials in early 2020 put the brakes on eviction filings.

Now, Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 emergency is set to expire Friday, March 31. With it goes an array of beefed-up protections for renters countywide, leaving some housing advocates worried they’ll see a wave of new eviction cases that would displace more people, forcing them to move into more crowded situations or live in their cars, or even land them on the streets.

Paula Rand, 49, will go to court next week to fight eviction from her apartment near Downtown Long Beach.

A cascading series of misfortunes kicked off by the pandemic left her struggling to cover her expenses, and in February, she was served with an eviction notice after she refused to pay rent for three months because of maintenance issues, she said.

“It was like everything was piling up,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do next.”

Early on, emergency state and local rules kept people from being evicted if they couldn’t pay rent because of COVID-19; those rules were phased out as things crept toward a pre-pandemic normal, but other tenant protections were kept in place, and rent assistance was available.

As of late March, Long Beach had disbursed nearly $75 million to help more than 12,000 tenants pay their rent, according to city information.

The emergency rules made a difference. In Los Angeles County, about 40,000 eviction cases (known in the courts as unlawful detainers) were filed in 2019. They fell precipitously to about 12,000 in 2020, then crept back up to about 34,000 in 2022, according to the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Tenant advocates worry there are plenty more cases to come, and they’ll hit people who are still trying to recover from the challenges of the past three years.

“We see rents going up, however, we see wages being stagnant,” said Andre Donado, project director at Long Beach Residents Empowered (which styles itself as LiBRE).

“We are extremely worried about when these county protections end at the end of the month—what is going to happen with many people.”

Staying housed

Once COVID-19 began exploding in the U.S. in March 2020, officials took action to make sure people who lost income didn’t lose their housing too.

In late March, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency order that banned evictions of tenants who couldn’t pay rent due to the pandemic. Several months later, state legislators passed the first of a series of bills that initially suspended evictions and gave tenants more time to pay back rent, then required that landlords have “just cause” to evict tenants and put a cap on rent increases.

Los Angeles County supervisors also approved their own set of protections that included a rule barring evictions if tenants took in extra roommates or pets due to the pandemic.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Long Beach, said the board was trying to protect the community’s health as well as people’s livelihoods. Sometimes those goals were in conflict, but she and other board members recognized a pandemic would be the worst time for residents to be kicked out of their homes.

“Clearly the homeless situation being already what it was, a lot of our decision-making about the eviction moratorium was just to keep people housed,” Hahn said.

Further complicating the situation, landlords – especially “mom and pop” owners with a small number of properties or units—pleaded their hardships: They had to cover increasing costs for maintenance and insurance, state legislators put a cap on rent increases, and not every tenant who said they couldn’t pay due to COVID-19 received rent assistance to make their landlord whole.

“We’re not billionaires or even millionaires, and many of us are barely holding onto our properties,” one landlord told supervisors at their March 21 meeting.

When a landlord or property owner files an eviction, the tenant is given five days to answer the complaint; if they never respond, they will lose by default. Within 10 days of receiving an answer, a court date is scheduled for both sides to argue their case, and while landlords often have attorneys, tenants usually don’t.

Several nonprofits and county programs like Stay Housed LA, provide renters with eviction advice and free legal counsel—but they say the demand for lawyers far exceeds their capacity.

LiBRE’s Mayra Garcia-Cortez said as one of several organizers with the nonprofit, she’s personally been getting 15 to 20 requests a week for help from an attorney.

One woman who sought help from LiBRE lost her job in the pandemic and still owed $18,000 in back rent when assistance payments ended, Garcia-Cortez said.

“She basically had to go to court on her own, representing herself without any knowledge of the legal process,” Garcia-Cortez said.

The woman was given a month to move out and put on a payment plan; she couldn’t get an emergency housing voucher, Garcia-Cortez said, so “now she’s couch surfing with her disabled daughter with friends and family.”

Advocates said even with protections for renters in place, some property owners continued to look for ways to oust tenants for a variety of reasons.

Last year, Stay Housed LA recorded “a huge spike in landlord harassment of tenants” to push them to move out, said Barbara Schultz, director of housing justice for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is part of Stay Housed LA.

While more than half of the 1,069 Long Beach residents that asked the coalition for legal help with their eviction case in 2022 said they couldn’t pay their rent, more than 200 others reported being harassed by their landlord, according to data the group provided.

Rand, who lives on Pine Avenue not far from the Museum of Latin American Art, said she was “doing fine” when she moved there in early 2020. But things changed like the flip of a switch: she lost her well-paying job at an oil refinery; she took on the full cost of the apartment after separating from her husband; she struggled to balance part-time jobs with court dates for her incarcerated son.

Meanwhile, an ongoing rat infestation made her apartment hard to live in, forcing her to stay with a friend when she could, so she stopped paying when the landlord failed to address it, she said.

When reached for comment, Rand’s landlord Entourage Property Management said in an email that they disagree with her characterization of the situation, but they are “not in a position to provide detailed information with respect to the circumstances surrounding our residents and/or any of the specifics of their tenancy.”

They also said they would be taking immediate action to address Rand’s complaint.

Rand is scheduled to go to court April 6—but without legal representation, she’s unsure what she will do if she is forced to move out. Already struggling to afford $1,895 for her one-bedroom apartment, she feels certain that having an eviction on her record would make it impossible to sign another lease.

“I can’t get an eviction,” Rand said. “Who gets to this age and feels like they’re not going to have anywhere to live?”

What happens now

As of April 1, some of the extra protections Long Beach tenants had under the county emergency order go away, including protection against harassment, no evictions for unauthorized pets or roommates, and a requirement that tenants be paid relocation assistance if evicted for a “no fault” reason (such as the landlord taking the unit for a family member).

And while the requirement to pay the full rent amount has resumed for many tenants, the clock is ticking for them to repay any back rent owed within the next 12 months.

Even for people who have returned to work, some may be struggling to make up for lost income or to cover thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, Schultz said. (On average, people asking Stay Housed LA for help were seeking about six months’ rent; countywide, the group has provided an average of $8,000 per tenant.)

Long Beach city housing officials are cautiously hopeful that unlawful detainer filings won’t balloon in the next few months, considering they didn’t see a spike last year when the state’s strictest tenant protections expired and they’ve even seen a decrease in calls from people seeking help with active rent assistance applications, said Alem Hagos, the city’s housing operations officer.

Paul Duncan, the city’s director of homeless services, said there is some concern about the number of evictions that will be filed in the coming months, particularly because the city is already struggling to keep up with the demand for housing help, case management and other services.

“Our systems are already impacted and we’re, you know, struggling to serve the number of people that are coming into the” Multi-Service Center, which is the city’s hub for homeless services, said Duncan.  “Our average visits are up to nearly 200 people per day in March.”

In a bit of good news, the city announced Friday that it will extend its contract with the county and Stay Housed LA to offer legal counsel to people fighting evictions caused by pandemic hardships. Help will be available through June 30 or until $200,000 in funding runs out. Information on the city’s housing assistance programs can be found at the city’s website.

Meanwhile, housing advocacy groups in Long Beach and LA County have been trying their best to spread the word on what tenants can do if they are faced with an eviction notice in the coming months. LiBRE is hosting regular workshops teaching and empowering tenants to know their rights, and organizations like Keep L.A. Housed are advocating for stronger protections against evictions and rent stabilization across the county.

At a meeting LiBRE hosted in Long Beach this week, more than 40 residents, including tenants and community leaders, came together to discuss what the end of the protections could mean for them. Some feared that they may be facing evictions themselves, and others gathered information to share with neighbors.

While their legal aid resources are stretched thin, advocates urged tenants to respond if they have an unlawful detainer filed against them. They can find advice on how to file their answer online here or through a self-help legal access center.

Supervisor Hahn said she understands some people are still trying to get back on their feet, but with the county’s COVID-19 emergency declaration ending today, it’s time to end rules enacted under that emergency.

“The economy is bouncing back, businesses are reopening, unemployment is low,” she said. “I believe if cities want to put in their own tenant protections, this is when they should do it.”

Hahn and housing advocates urged tenants and landlords to talk to each other and try to agree on something that will keep tenants in their homes.

In many cases, it may be in everyone’s best interest to work out a deal rather than resorting to eviction proceedings, said LiBRE’s Donado.

“If the tenant is homeless after they get evicted, I don’t think the landlord is going to have much luck getting the rent back.”