“The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets.

We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’ Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.”

From Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

In their mid-pandemic search for a three-bedroom home, Denise and Greg Townsend found rental listings for three apartments that appealed to them. Located in their longtime community of Santa Monica, all three apartments featured rents low enough so that the math penciled out with the Townsends’ budget and Section 8 housing voucher.

Hope broke out between the Townsends, hope that one of these housing opportunities would come through as a new home. With their particular situation, however, a bit of desperation tinged that hope.

Greg worked as a case manager for a non-profit agency while Denise took the primary role in the care of their four children. She also volunteered with a food distribution project at their church (as she has for over two decades) and spearheaded an annual toy drive and a back-to-school drive for low-income families. In their determined and steady way, the Townsends, a Black family, had become a wonderful asset to the Santa Monica community.

But they were also a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment. Their small home was affordable with a Section 8 voucher. That housing subsidy program, with which the Santa Monica Housing Authority pays whatever portion is needed so that a family pays no more than 40% of its income toward rent, allowed the Townsends to stay in the Santa Monica community they loved. Pre-pandemic, their small living space could serve its purpose as a home, a refuge from work and school. Since the pandemic’s onset, however, the uses to which they had to put their small living space had multiplied and changed; their apartment now had to serve not only as a refuge from work and school, but as a place for both work and school as well.

As many working families in Santa Monica and elsewhere experienced within the first few tumultuous weeks in March 2020, public health orders affecting school and daily life were issued, and teleworking and home schooling became for many a new reality. For the Townsends, their four children were sent home indefinitely from school and daycare, and Greg began teleworking. Quickly, their home became crowded, hectic, loud, and unmanageable. Life, work, and school transformed into a struggle to stay focused and positive.

Thus, that tinge of desperation as Denise and Greg, in a search for more space that would permit their home to serve its new purposes, immediately reached out to the three landlords who had placed the rental listings.

Understandably, the subsequent wave of rejections nearly crushed them. Two of the landlords said they could not accept the family’s Section 8 voucher, while the third claimed their family was too large for the three-bedroom apartment.

All the responses sounded like discrimination to the Townsends. Since they could not afford to hire a private attorney, the Townsends submitted three fair housing complaints to the Public Rights Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office.

It hardly seems possible that the importance of home and housing rights could be thrown into even sharper relief by any event. As Matthew Desmond put it four years ago in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, home has long been the “center of life” and a “refuge” from work, school, and the streets.

A review of Santa Monica’s pre-pandemic approach to housing rights (the rights to housing free of discrimination, housing free from tenant harassment, and safe housing) would have shown that the City already considered these rights paramount. The City has promulgated numerous ordinances and charter provisions that protect these rights: the Tenant Harassment Ordinance, the Anti-Housing Discrimination Ordinance (which addresses Section 8 and familial status discrimination of the type confronted by the Townsends), the Tenant Relocation Ordinance, the Rent Control Charter Amendment, and a measure adding to the City Charter a just cause requirement for all residential evictions as well as a game-changing requirement for warning notices in certain cases. These housing rights measures come with staff, resources, and grants to local non-profits to help enforce them.

But as illustrated by the Townsends’ plight, the pandemic magnified and transformed housing rights. The excerpt from Evicted about “home” as a “refuge” where we “remove our masks” has a new and twisted irony that stands out to tenants: they have seen that home—their apartment—has been primarily a refuge not from work or school but from a deadly virus. They have remained at home to comply with shelter-at-home orders, quarantines, and curfews. Many have been working from home. Their children no longer physically attend schools and must use the home to learn and study. Their elderly parents or grandparents may need to move in with them to function more safely as a family pod, even though they are not authorized occupants in the lease.

Tenants have also experienced the new pressures these extended homestays put on a home and its amenities and utilities, even as repair efforts involve landlord entries that could spread the virus. They need more time to pay rent to keep their refuge when a COVID-19-related loss of income or expense leaves them short.

More than ever before, tenants need legal help to work out disputes or direct legal representation to defend against eviction attempts and keep their homes.

All the while, Black and Latino tenants along with tenants with disabilities and families with children, many already reeling as inequities in health care and employment have left them hit especially hard by the pandemic and shutdowns, still face the age-old prospect of housing discrimination.

In response to these needs and the heightened state of housing rights, the City has implemented new housing rights measures along with continuing its community education and enforcement efforts:

• Eviction moratorium. On March 14, 2020, Santa Monica passed one of California’s first eviction moratoriums. The City has revised that moratorium several times to address new public health and economic data. The moratorium has protected tenants who could not pay rent for the months before there was a statewide moratorium and it continues to protect tenants in no-fault and nuisance cases. For updated information about the City’s COVID-19 eviction protections go to https://www.santamonica.gov/coronavirus-eviction-moratorium.

• Community education campaign. In a series of webinars and podcasts, the City Attorney’s Office and other City staff have also worked with many organizations to educate Santa Monica residents about their housing rights and responsibilities. Those organizations have included the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), the Housing Rights Center (HRC), Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Disability Community Resource Center (DCRC), and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA).

• Tenant assistance. Working remotely from their homes during the pandemic, the City Attorney’s Office staff members have helped over 1,300 callers during the pandemic to better understand their rights and obligations under the various housing rights laws and eviction moratoriums, and have helped resolve many disputes informally. For such assistance, please call 310-458-8336 or write to consumer.mailbox@smgov.net.

• Eviction reporting requirement for Santa Monica landlords. The City has issued an emergency order that as of December 22, 2020 requires residential landlords to provide to the City copies of any attempted terminations of tenancy, Notices to Pay Rent or Quit, or eviction court filings. The landlords must also report on the outcome of any eviction attempts, whether either side had legal representation, and whether the tenant qualified for any court fee-waiver.

This information will help the City assess the scope of the eviction problem and to determine what measures, such as the Right to Counsel program, should be taken or enhanced.

• Right to Counsel Pilot Program. To further address the expected post-pandemic wave of eviction attempts, the City has implemented a two-year pilot Right to Counsel program. The purpose of this pilot program is to assure that low-income tenants caught in the squeeze created by the economic shutdowns have direct legal representation in eviction proceedings.

A recent study of Los Angeles evictions by the STOUT research firm reveals an eviction court system heavily weighted in favor of landlords who have legal representation. But once a tenant has an attorney, the STOUT report finds, they avoid a disruption in their housing over 90% of the time.

Under the City’s pilot program, beginning in the early spring, many more Santa Monica tenants facing eviction will receive full-scope legal representation from a non-profit legal services provider.

• Enforcement in the courts. The City Attorney’s Office is currently litigating several lawsuits against landlords for violations of the fair housing laws and the Tenant Harassment Ordinance and has already obtained injunctions limiting landlord conduct in two of them.

This month, the office has announced the filing of two new cases to enforce housing rights. In the first one, filed in civil court, the City alleges that landlords mounted a long campaign of fraud and intimidation to force tenants out during the pandemic, in violation of the City’s eviction moratorium and the Tenant Harassment Ordinance. See “City Sues Landlords for Fraudulently Trying to Evict Tenants During COVID-19” (SMPD Feb. 3, 2021). In the second case, filed in criminal court, the City charges that landlords violated the price gouging laws by raising the rent too high during the pandemic emergency. See “Santa Monica Landlords Charged with Price Gouging” (SMDP Feb. 6, 2021)

• Section 8 Discrimination. Using the City’s pioneering law prohibiting Section 8 discrimination, City staff have helped dozens of applicants and tenants turn an owner’s “no” to Section 8 into a “yes.” This work has helped some tenants avoid homelessness, relieved others of a stifling rent burden, and provided others with a much-needed increase of living space.

In the case of the Townsend family, the City Attorney’s Office addressed each of the owners who had rejected their application. One of the three cases included a large property management company with a blanket policy against Section 8 voucher holders. Once the City Attorney’s Office intervened, the company reversed the policy. But more importantly, the three-bedroom apartment was rented to the Townsends, and they have already moved into their new home.

Even as the City and its residents begin to see the light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel, these efforts by the City and local housing advocates will only increase. as there are many more tenants and families just like the Townsends who have been trying to ride out the pandemic and remain safely housed in Santa Monica. These efforts must also adapt because while prognosticators continue to debate whether life will ever be the same again—whether we will ever be able to remove our masks—there can be no doubt that home and housing rights will never be the same again. Home remains the “center” of life and continues to need protection, but the concept of home and the challenges involved in protecting it are ever changing and all we can do is try to keep up.

Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Public Rights Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. If you have questions or a complaint regarding housing discrimination, tenant harassment or the eviction moratorium, please call Public Rights Division at 310-458-8336 or email them to Consumer.mailbox@smgov.net. Note: The names of the tenants featured in this article were changed to protect their privacy.