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By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

Early on in the pandemic Los Angeles County put safeguards in place for tenants struggling to pay rent.  A year later, those safeguards are still in place, and new measures are being added.

At a press telebriefing on April 12, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl (3rd District) cited a UCLA study conducted in the spring of 2020 that estimated 120,000 Los Angeles County households were at risk of eviction because of income losses due the pandemic.

“We simply could not let that happen,” she said, and the five-member county board of supervisors enacted a moratorium on evictions, which it has extended several times. 
Now the county is also launching a ground-breaking program providing mortgage assistance grants of up to $20,000 to help small-scale property owners staff off foreclosures.

“The Foreclosure Prevention and Mortgage Relief Program (https://tinyurl.com/COVIDforeclosurerelief) is the first program of its kind in the state to provide relief to owners of single-family and two-to-four-unit homes,” said Rafael Carbajal, director of the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, who followed Kuehl at the news conference

The new program, which has begun accepting applications for its $4 million mortgage assistance budget, can be accessed by phone, at (888) 895-2647, or online at nhslacounty.org\mortgagereliefprogram. 

Carbajal added that counseling is available to anyone needing it, whether they qualify for the payment program or not.

“I’m proud to work with this board of supervisors that took the initiative to make this investment in homeowners,” Carbajal said, citing the lack of similar investments so far at the federal level.

“Particularly for our immigrant community and our communities of color,” he said, “this has been a traditional way for our communities to build wealth.

“We work, we toil, we invest, we cobble our money together and we buy a little property…Typically, we live in one, or maybe I move and my mother stays in that one, and it’s how we keep this wealth within our family.” 

“We’re worried about…the inability of our families to maintain this wealth because of this pandemic.
“We’re hoping that by leading by example, a lot of counties in the state and even at the federal level decide to pick up the mantel and provide some additional support to our homeowners.”

Dana Pratt, deputy director of the DCBA’s housing and tenant protections division, described the county’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program which, she said, “can mean the difference between housing and homelessness.”

Funded by $2.6 billion from the federal government, the program is open to both landlords and tenants. Landlords have to agree to forgo 20% of the outstanding rent due, and can receive the remaining 80% from the state.

If a landlord declines to participate, tenants are still eligible for help with up to 25% of what they owe, whether or not their landlords participate. Applications are available here (https://tinyurl.com/COVIDrentrelief) and via phone at (833) 430-2122.
Her department oversees implementation of the eviction moratorium, which protects residential, commercial and mobile home tenants from eviction if they fall behind on their rent for COVID-related reasons. 

Currently, the moratorium is set to expire at the end of June. But Kuehl emphasized that the Board of Supervisors may extend it further, as the Board has done in the past. 

Once the moratorium is lifted, Pratt noted, tenants will have a year to make up arrears.  “If tenants are posing a health or safety risk, they may still be evicted at any time,” Pratt warned.

“We’ve seen an uptick in retaliation because of the COVID-19 protections and illegal lockouts,” she said. “The county’s moratorium also has provisions, fines and penalties to protect tenants against that,” but it’s important that the word gets out.

Inquiries or calls to the department requesting assistance once numbered up to 70 or 80 per day but hit 40,000 over the past year due to the pandemic. Help is still available, she noted, in multiple languages, at no cost, and regardless of immigration status, at (833) 223-7368.

Jenny Punsalan Delwood, of the Liberty Hill Foundation, described the “Stay Housed LA” collaboration which involves 14 community based organizations, nine legal service providers, the county DCBA and city governments. 

She cited studies finding that 90% of tenants who wind up in court over housing disputes do so without a lawyer, whereas landlords are represented 90% of the time.

“It’s not an even playing field,” she said. But, “when a tenant has an attorney and a community based organization on their side, they’re 70% more likely to prevail.”

So far, the collaborative has been able to provide legal assistance to more than 9,000 tenants.

Stay Housed LA  (www.stayhousedla.org) has an English and Spanish-language hotline: (888) 694-0040. For Asian languages, call (833) 225-9415. 

Rounding out the telebriefing, Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez of the County Department of Public Health gave the latest data on vaccination efforts. 

In the past nine days, she said, an average of 78,000 people have been vaccinated daily in the county, for a total of 4,715,894. Of county residents 16 or older, 37.1% have had at least one dose of vaccine, as have 70.2% of seniors.

As of April 15, eligibility for the free vaccines, offered regardless of immigration status, will be extended to everybody in Los Angeles County age 16 or older, although minors will need parental consent.

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