Qualifying rent-controlled tenants living in Santa Monica who cannot afford to pay rent increases over 3% due to COVID-19 will be protected by a new emergency temporary eviction moratorium beginning Sept. 1.
Earlier this summer, the Santa Monica Rent Control Board reluctantly approved a maximum 6% monthly rent increase for the rent control year beginning Sept. 1. The increase is in accordance with an algorithm tied to inflation and came about despite board members expressing anxiety over tenants’ ability to make their monthly rent, which could increase a maximum of $140 per month under city rules currently in place.
The newly approved eviction moratorium is targeted to rent-burdened tenants who are under financial stress due to COVID-19 and who stop paying rent due to a monthly rent increase above 3%. It protects tenants for the period from Sept. 1, 2022, through Jan. 31, 2023, at which point councilmembers anticipate new rent control caps will likely come into effect (following successful passage of a ballot item up for vote in November).
Though tenants must provide documents proving they cannot pay rent to landlords, order to evict, landlords must take their tenants to court and prove that they do not qualify for the protection.
“I think it’s important to note that this only comes into play if the landlord tries to evict the tenant,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said during the hearing.
The new ordinance, which required five council votes to pass, was narrowly approved in a 5-2 vote near the end of the latest marathon city council meeting on Tuesday evening, Aug. 23, with Councilmembers Phil Brock and Oscar de la Torre dissenting.
Five councilmembers — Mayor Sue Himmelrich, Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan, Lana Negrete, Christine Parra and Davis — approved the measure.
The eviction moratorium defers, but does not forgive, rental payments, meaning tenants who do not pay their rent in full by Sept. 1, 2023, can still legally be evicted.
Brock and de la Torre said they opposed the emergency ordinance because it protected tenants who cease paying any rent. The two said they believed the new emergency ordinance incentivized tenants to stop paying rent altogether, and preferred a different version of the ordinance that proposed protecting tenants who could not pay the difference in the increased rent — in other words, who came up short on payments, but continued paying their previous rent amount each month.
“We’re creating a division between landlords — housing providers — and tenants,” de la Torre said. “I think just think it’s not the right way to go about this, I think we’re going to incentivize people to get out of the housing business in Santa Monica and we’re going to lose affordable housing.”
Negrete, who initially sided with de la Torre and Brock, changed her vote after councilmembers said they believed the broader protections would work as a “carrot” to prompt landlords to cap their rent increases at 3% — coming in under the threshold for eviction protection, should tenants cease paying rent, and retaining their power to evict.
“This now gives an incentive, because then the landlords don’t want to say, ‘Geez, I don’t want to have to deal with someone saying they can’t pay any of their rent now,’” Negrete said.
In response, City Attorney Doug Sloan said the “carrot” was not the intention of the ordinance as written.
“That was not the motivation for designing it this way. That was an indirect effect,” Sloan said.
“However you want to lay it out — motivation, indirect effect,” Negrete responded, “this is the effect.”
Davis reiterated that she believed landlords would be better off capping their rent increases at 3% anyway, because if the November ballot measure passes, rents on units that increased to 6% on Sept. 1, 2022, would drop down to 0.8% beginning Feb. 1, 2023, in order to create an average monthly rent of 3% for the year.
“I’m not sure why we need to do a lot of hand-wringing about landlords, with all due respect to every landlord in the city … It seems to me they’re getting the same amount of money,” Davis said, assuming the charter amendment passes. “It’s just math. However you slice the bread, they’re going to get 3% over the course of the year.”
Landlords who had already announced rent increases of 6% but who, because of the eviction moratorium, choose to drop the increase down to 3% or less starting Sept. 1, will be able to do so with no repercussions, merely by accepting lower rent increases from tenants.
The moratorium passed just hours after the city announced it was launching a program to help rent-controlled tenants in need bridge the gap between their current rents and increases up to 6% anticipated to begin Sept. 1. That program would cover up to the maximum amount landlords are legally permitted to increase rent for the coming year for rent-controlled tenants.
City staff also clarified that the moratorium is separate from Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 tenant eviction protections, which remain in place for qualifying low-income households through Dec. 31, 2022.
*Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify that in order to be covered by the eviction moratorium, the tenant must provide documentation to the landlord, and then the tenant must be able to prove it in court.