Rental Debt Keeps Growing Amid COVID-19

Courtesy Photo

There are more than 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles, and like many other businesses, they have suffered greatly during the coronavirus pandemic.

The restrictions earlier in the year prevented them from heading out to sell on the street. Many of their customers are also out of work. And the vendors say they are constantly wary of authorities giving them tickets or confiscating their products for selling in places where they’re not allowed.

But contrary to other established businesses, these vendors do not have access to loans or government help.

The one thing that keeps coming are bills — especially rent. Although it was placed on a moratorium earlier this year due to COVID-19, it remains a looming issue for many.

California renters will owe their landlords a total of $1.7 billion by the end of the year, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which estimates 240,000 renters have an average rent debt of $6,953.

Martha, who sells tacos and hot dogs with her husband, is one of those renters. They are already two months behind, owing about $4,000.

“Things have been very bad, for all of us, because we eat from this, we pay the rent from here and we haven’t been able to make any money,” said Martha, a Panorama City resident who asked that her last name not be used.

She recently went back to selling on the streets, but said sales are down, partly because people have lost jobs and don’t have any money, or are simply scared to eat on the streets.

If that wasn’t enough, she recently received a $250 ticket for selling on the streets, which increased to $300 for not paying it on time.

Due to her immigration status, the only help Martha has received is a $400 gift card from the nonprofit agency Inclusive Action for the City, which advocates and helps street vendors.  

“We haven’t received any other help,” Martha said.

“We also pay taxes,” she adds. “We go to the store and we pay taxes, we put gasoline (in our cars) and we pay taxes, we’re helping. Why are street vendors discriminated? It’s not fair that banks and businesses get help and immigrants and street vendors don’t get anything.”

The only thing saving her and many other people from becoming homeless is a state eviction moratorium that runs through February 1. That moratorium allows landlords to pursue back rent through small claims court starting in March. But tenants are still required to pay at least a quarter of their rent between September and January.

Tenants’ rights organizations are pushing for a more permanent solution, worried that a wave of foreclosures and evictions would exacerbate California’s already rental crisis once the moratorium expires.   

On Monday, Nov. 16, they scored a legal victory when a federal judge denied a request by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) seeking to void Los Angeles’ eviction ban and rent freeze.

“The governing bodies of Los Angeles have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where having housing is a matter of life or death,” argued tenants’ attorney Faizah Malik.“The city’s eviction protection and rent freeze ordinances have been crucial to keeping tenants stably housed during the pandemic and preventing the spread of the virus.

“We’re pleased with the court’s ruling in favor of the health and safety of all residents in the city.”

While District Judge Dean D. Pregerson recognized that some landlords are also facing financial hardships, he ruled that “the economic damage the pandemic has wrought, if left unmediated by measures such as the City Moratorium, would likely trigger a tidal wave of evictions that would not only inflict misery upon many thousands of displaced residents, but also exacerbate a public health emergency that has already radically altered the daily life of every city resident, and even now threatens to overwhelm community resources.”

Edna Monroy, director of organizing for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy which joined the federal lawsuit on behalf of tenants, said that without those evictions protections, “hundreds of thousands of families are at risk of being displaced.”

“The current protections are the hard-fought results of persistent organizing and have delayed an even worse crisis,” Monroy said. “Evicting families while we are in the midst of another wave of the pandemic and during an ongoing housing and homelessness crisis would be a humanitarian disaster.”

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