Aggressive Landlords Pursue Rent Arrears Despite Moratorium Declaration

The county moratorium is likely entering its final month and is expected to expire on March 31, 2023. Full rent will likely be due on April 1st and repayment of rent arrears is due one year later on March 31, 2024. However tenants who have delayed the payment of some or all of the monthly rent with a moratorium declaration may still find themselves with a 3-day notice to pay-or-quit. And if not resolved the step is a court date. We hear from some tenants who used the moratorium that the landlord is using court as a threat in order to collect rent debt prematurely or coerce the tenant to voluntarily vacate.

The Moratorium Fine Print

The Los Angeles County moratorium resolution is a long a complicated document that has evolved with successive extensions by the Board of Supervisors. Most recently, in January, the board extended the moratorium protections through March 31, 2023. Virtually no tenant reads the actual resolution. We read every extension described the fine points in a series of posts.

Among the more important aspects is what is called an ‘affirmative defense’ against eviction. If a tenant files a timely declaration with the landlord, and a tenant has suffered COVID-related financial impacts as defined in the resolution, then the court must consider the financial impact as a defense against eviction if the reason for eviction is nonpayment of rent.

Again the moratorium protection is dependent on two conditions: the tenant has been finally impacted due to factors related to COVID; and the tenant files a timely declaration with the landlord. However there is a third condition that is not generally known to tenants: the landlord accepts the declaration.

We addressed the third condition aspect in our post that announced the moratorium extension through March:

Filing a timely declaration does not prevent the landlord from posting a 3-day notice to pay-or-quit or even summoning the tenant to court for unlawful detainer for failing to pay the rent. The moratorium only provides the tenant with an affirmative defense against eviction if it goes to court.

In other words, the county moratorium protection is only really effective at the courthouse rather than when the declaration is filed with the landlord. If the landlord accepts the declaration then it’s fine. But if the landlord refuses to honor the declaration then the tenant would have to rely on the affirmative defense in court to avoid eviction.

The county moratorium does include language that bars the landlord from posting a pay-or-quit notice, or summoning the tenant to court, based on alleged facts that the landlord knows, or should know, are not true or correct. But that’s a guardrail that in some cases is not effective.

Landlords Taking Tenants to Court

We are hearing from tenants who had filed a timely Los Angeles County moratorium declaration that their landlord has served them with a 3-day notice to pay-or-quit and then summoned them to court for unlawful detainer despite the declaration if the delayed rent is not fully paid. The landlords dispute the validity of the declaration, or the claimed Covid financial impact, or in one case even the existence of the county moratorium.

The landlord efforts seem calculated to either collect the delayed debt immediately and more than a year before delayed rent must be repaid; or to pressure the tenant to vacate voluntarily without even defending against unlawful detainer in court. And it seems consistent with the guidance that landlord associations offer in webinars hosted by eviction attorneys.

A recent article in the LA Times gives some rare insight into the plight of tenants when the landlord plays hardball in court while tenants go largely unrepresented in unlawful detainer cases based on moratorium rent arrears. The top take-aways:

  • Unlawful detainer cases have returned to pre-pandemic numbers (more than 3,000 per month);
  • Tenants are rarely in court while landlords almost always are represented by an attorney;
  • Tenants often don’t understand the specifics of the moratorium (i.e., the affirmative defense);
  • When the tenant’s defense doesn’t outright fail on the legal merit, a settlement with the landlord will most likely mean vacating the apartment anyway.

Tenants are completely in the dark about the eviction process — and the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome — because there has been no media reporting, think-tank study, or data from any public agency that illustrates what’s happening in Department 91 of the Stanley Mosk courthouse in Santa Monica.