Lilian Pacheco and her family have lived in a two-bedroom home in South L.A. for nine years. Until 2020, her husband worked in construction. She worked as a homemaker, looking after their four children.
The pandemic hit and upended the family’s stability. Pacheco’s husband contracted the virus in December 2020 and was hospitalized — it took months for him to recover. As a result, he lost his job. Now he works as a fruit and vegetable vendor, and Pacheco works part-time cleaning a movie theater. But three years after COVID-19 first struck the region, they’ve yet to return to their pre-pandemic income levels.
To get by, the family has relied on COVID-19 renter protections and rental assistance programs to help keep a roof over their heads. Those protections are set to expire Friday.
“I’m a little nervous,” Pacheco said. “The protections were kind of like a safety net. Without them, there’s no telling how property owners will act toward tenants.”
Pacheco’s family is among about 246,000 households in the L.A. metro area that are behind on rent and will soon face an increased risk of eviction, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau survey data. Since March 2020, tenants in L.A. County who’ve been affected by the pandemic have been able to postpone their monthly payments. April rent will be due in full.
Pacheco says her family owes their property owner $1,300, or one month of back rent, and she worries they may be asked to move out. (Her property manager confirmed the amount to LAist, but did not comment on any possible eviction plans.) Cobbling rent money together each month has been a challenge, but Pacheco says she knows that rent for a two-bedroom single-family home could be much higher.
Beginning Saturday, reduced household income due to pandemic-related job loss, illness or death won’t be grounds for deferring rent.
Tenant advocates signal that, though COVID-19 death and hospitalization rates have dropped, many renters are still grappling with the pandemic’s aftermath. Without renter protections, they fear that L.A. County could see a wave of evictions — this in a region that’s already struggling to address a mounting homelessness crisis.
“Communities are still being impacted by the COVID pandemic,” said Daniel Jiménez, director of community engagement at InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit in Boyle Heights that’s helped renters during the pandemic. “Some [people] have lost their partners, who were the primary income earners. Some of them are sick themselves and can't work.”
The question of unpaid rent also looms large for some of the tenants who’ve relied on the COVID-19 renter protections. While some have been able to make payments, others have accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Landlords and members of the real estate industry have called for an end to the COVID-era protections for months — L.A. officials have repeatedly extended help to renters far longer than in other major cities across the country.
“It needs to end! COVID is over!” said Erica Owens, human resources director at the real estate investment firm Universe Holdings, during a January L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting.
“I just want us to get back to the fact that this is for COVID protection,” she said. “It’s not for us to solve homelessness and the housing issue . . . And it is very difficult for landlords to just bear the [b]runt of this, because the rents pay for the expenses on the properties.”
Some still haven’t recovered from the pandemic
Nina Woolley is a single mother who lives in Marina Del Rey with her three daughters, ages 12, 13 and 15.
During the pandemic, she was laid off from four different jobs and relied on the COVID-19 renter protections to stay afloat. She started off selling office supplies to local businesses.
“It was a good fit, everything was going great — but it's an in-person sales job,” she said. “Within two or three weeks of the pandemic, I was laid off — our whole department was laid off.”
After that, Woolley found work doing sales and marketing for a high-end construction company. “In one week, 40 people in a company with less than 100 employees got COVID,” she said.
Woolley then worked as a fashion and wardrobe stylist, followed by a stint at a company that rented venues for high school proms. These jobs also didn’t pan out. Each time the protections were extended, Woolley sighed in relief.
“It's terrifying,” she said. “I have a college degree, a totally diverse résumé. I've been successful in multiple industries — I can't keep work.”
Currently, Woolley works as a freelance wardrobe stylist for private clients, but she’s in search of steady employment. She said she owes about $26,000 in back rent, and has been repeatedly asked to move out. (Her property manager declined an interview with LAist and said they would not discuss any tenants’ financial history.)
“I mean, I can feel for them, too,” she said, in reference to her building’s management. “They want to get their money.”
“I’ve gotten used to it,” Woolley added, “but when I first started getting the notices, I would cry.”
Starting Saturday, Woolley worries about how she’ll be able to pay that sum back. She said she hopes to work with her landlord on a payment plan.
Martha Aguilar has also relied on the COVID-19 protections to keep a roof over her head. She’s 65 and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights, a space she shares with two parakeets, one green and one blue.
Aguilar has lived in the neighborhood for about 11 years. Before the pandemic, she earned a living as an elote (corn on the cob) vendor. She also worked as a seamstress in factories throughout downtown L.A. At the height of the pandemic, she used those skills to sew up and sell face masks.
Aguilar contracted COVID-19 in mid-2021 — her neighbors helped her get by, they prepared meals for her and dropped them off at her door. Since getting sick, she’s had severe breathing problems, which limits her ability to work her push cart. Her eyesight is also faltering, she said, and her hands are no longer nimble. That makes it hard for her to find other work.
When she fell back on rent, Aguilar turned to two local nonprofits: Eastside LEADSand InnerCity Struggle. The organizations helped her fill out the paperwork for the COVID-19 protections and informed her about her rights as a tenant.
Aguilar is five months behind on rent — money she said she sees no path to pay back. When the protections expire, she’ll move into a motorhome with a friend in El Monte. Aguilar said the building owners have agreed to forgive her rent if she vacates the apartment in April. The family who owns the property did not respond to interview requests.
Aguilar said she feels fortunate to have somewhere to go, but worries about what comes next.
"If my friend leaves the state, like so many others have," she said, "I’ll be one more person on the street."
She can’t take much with her, so she’s been selling all her furniture over the past few weeks. She also can’t take her pets.
Aguilar liked to watch the news in her living room, while her birds flew all around her. Now she’s looking for someone willing to take them in.
A chance to create long-term renter protections
In preparation for the end of COVID-19 renter protections, local nonprofits have been hosting workshops and resource fairs throughout L.A. County, both online and in-person.
The groups want to make sure renters know that L.A.’s city council recently voted to expand tenants’ rights. This expansion includes more “just cause” eviction protections – which will require landlords to state a justified reason for eviction; a new threshold for eviction over late rent; and relocation funding for tenants hit by double-digit rent hikes.
Jiménez of InnerCity Struggle in Boyle Heights said these are important wins, but more help for renters is needed. Local attorneys are swamped with eviction cases.
“They don't have enough hands and bodies,” he said.
Free legal representation in eviction court is key to keeping more Angelenos from falling into homelessness, Jiménez said. He supports a proposal that’s currently making its way through city council.
“What we have seen is that people that don't get representation have less of a chance to be able to stay in their homes.”
Starting Saturday, tenants won’t be able to put off paying rent because of harms brought on by the pandemic. However, tenants who’ve accrued debt won’t have to repay past-due rent right away. L.A. County’s rules give them one year to pay it all back.
Some landlords say they’ll never recoup losses
Gayane Avetisyan, a 74-year-old property owner in North Hollywood, feels robbed.
Avetisyan owns a 10-unit rental property, and said she has sympathy for renters who experienced hardships during the pandemic. Amid the pandemic, two of her tenants fell behind on rent and used COVID-19 renter protections to stay housed. Then, they filed for state rental assistance to clear their debt.
But another tenant left one of Avetisyan’s units in mid-February owing $20,000. On top of this, Avetisyan had to pay an additional $15,000 to fix damage to the unit.
The tenant, Avetisyan said, brought five people to live in the two-bedroom apartment without her approval. During the pandemic, landlords like Avetisyan had to go along with changes like these because of local policies that allowed extra roommates and pets during the pandemic. The city of L.A. has expanded this protection through early 2024.
Avetisyan, a registered nurse who said she worked long hours for decades, now fears she’ll never recover the money. She blames local officials for repeatedly extending protections that allowed months of back rent to stack up.
“What kind of game are you playing?” she said, in frustration.
Austin Rogers manages properties throughout Southern California. He said he knows the last three years have been rough for tenants, but they’ve also “been tough for property owners and managers.”
For him, the sunsetting of the ordinance does not represent an opportunity to issue a wave of eviction notices.
“That's not it at all,” he said. “It's just an opportunity to communicate with the tenants and get to a resolution,” which might involve payment plans.
The looming possibility of homelessness
Mario Hércules lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights, across the street from Hollenbeck Park. It’s a space dotted with palm trees, grassy knolls, playgrounds and a man-made lake with turtles and ducks.
“There’s not a lot of noise [here],” Hércules said. “It’s completely peaceful.”
The apartment houses precious keepsakes: A small U.S. flag decorates the entrance to his home — a memento from when he became a citizen after immigrating from El Salvador. Inside his living room, a large canvas strewn with red paint hangs on a wall — a gift from one of the elderly people he used to care for.
Hércules is now in his late 60s. His coffee table is covered in medicine. Each container helps him cope with his ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and glaucoma.
Because of his age and his ailments, it’s hard for him to find work, he said. The monthly rent for the affordable housing complex apartment he lives in is $980 a month — but he only gets $500 from Social Security. Hércules has also relied on COVID-19 renter protections and rental assistance to stay housed, but he still owes $14,000 in back rent. His friends have offered to help him out to pay his rent in April. After that, he’s not sure what he’ll do. The property manager for the building did not respond to requests for comment.
Over the past few years, people who are experiencing homelessness have been setting up tents along the park outside his home. He’s also noticed people sleeping in their cars. Hércules sometimes talks with them, encouraging them to get in touch with organizations like Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), which helped him find his apartment a few years ago.
For Hércules, the fear of becoming unhoused comes from lived experience. Before he lived in his apartment, he lived in a shelter. And before that, he lived in his van.
He reaches out because he remembers. “No se lo deseo a nadie,” he said, I don’t wish that on anyone.
C.C. Clark and Ryanne Mena contributed to this story.