In pandemic, housing authority letters omit key tenant protection info

By Amy Martyn | CalMatters

Public housing authorities in California, especially Los Angeles, have left critical coronavirus relief information out of letters sent to tenants. Advocates say the lack of information could lead to tenants evicting themselves when they don’t have to.

Not long after Gladys Garcia obtained a restraining order against her husband last August, letters arrived in her mailbox saying that her ex owed thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and faced possible eviction.

The letters from the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles, or HACLA, came as a surprise to Garcia. She said she had reported that her ex was gone, but the letters were addressed to him as if he still lived there. None of the letters, which Garcia provided to CalMatters, mentioned that public housing tenants could not be evicted for unpaid rent during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the letters said that no COVID-19 relief would be available and ended on an eviction threat.

“Since your rent is already subsidized as a resident of public housing, you are not covered by any COVID-19 rent moratorium you may have heard about on the news,” one letter read. “This letter doesn’t waive Housing Authority’s rights to pursue any legal action resulting from your default in the obligations under your rental agreement, including but not limited to unlawful detainer (eviction).”

Both California state lawmakers and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have extended last year’s state and federal eviction moratoriums, respectively, until the end of June 2021. Additionally, HACLA — which owns Los Angeles’ 14 public housing projects where 6,500 low-income renters live and administers the city’s Section 8 program, which subsidizes rent paid to private landlords — has a policy not to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent until the pandemic is over. The message that Garcia received flies in the face of that policy.

“Since the pandemic, we have not evicted a tenant based on rent arrears,” LA’s housing authority spokesperson Courtney Gladney told CalMatters. The agency also said that, in a domestic violence case involving unpaid rent, “HACLA will work with the resident to create a payment plan to pay the rent arrears.”

Residents’ belongings behind apartment units at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex in Culver City on April 14, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
The agency declined to comment on Garcia’s case, citing tenant privacy laws. Gladney said it “is committed to keeping all program participants housed to the extent possible” and that its form letters encourage residents to request an “interim review if your household income has been reduced for a possible rental reduction.”

But tenants and their advocates fault the housing authority for what it’s not doing: proactively informing tenants of various policies that could help them.

Housing authorities, which are overseen by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, have broad discretion to offer renters extra help — like adjusting past months’ rent retroactively during the pandemic — according to advocates, but they say that housing authorities do not appear to be taking advantage of that.

In February, the advocacy groups the National Housing Law Project and the National Low Income Housing Coalition sent a letter to HUD warning that “federally-assisted residents have been left especially vulnerable to eviction and homelessness,” and called on the department to take a firmer hand in helping renters.

With the CARES act, Congress gave housing authorities “really flexible rules and policies to support tenants,” but the housing authorities don’t appear to be taking advantage, Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, told CalMatters.
Trouble in LA
For 16 years, Garcia, a 43-year-old mother of four school-aged girls, and her family have lived in Mar Vista Gardens, a sprawling public housing project of 601 units near Culver City-owned and managed by the Los Angeles housing authority. The property is cherished by some long-term residents for its sense of community, desirable location in a school district on the westside of Los Angeles, and amenities like soccer fields and walking paths.

Garcia likes living there and has nowhere else to go, she said. Her husband had taken care of the $1,300 rent until the months leading up to and following his restraining order, she added. With him gone and a divorce pending, Garcia said she requested the housing authority review her case and adjust her rent accordingly.

Under the housing authority’s policy, it’s supposed to charge no more than 40% of a tenant’s monthly income toward rent. Garcia works at a dry cleaner one day a week after losing hours due to the pandemic, and earns about $300 a month. The housing authority stalled on reviewing her case, Garcia said, allowing the $1,300 in rent to accumulate each month while she waited. But the agency was prompt about sending notices that rent was due. The letters are addressed to her husband and do not specify what months it claimed he had stopped paying rent.

According to an invoice Garcia provided to CalMatters, the housing authority also billed her husband for rent after he was forced to leave due to the restraining order — $1,300 for rent in October and $1,300 for rent in November after she said she had told the office that he was long gone.

Additional late fees would be added to the bill after Nov. 10, according to the invoice. The invoice demanded a  total of $6,500. “This statement will not cancel any pending legal action,” it said.

The housing authority’s letters to Garcia’s husband concluded with an eviction threat.
Unhelpful messaging
The letters that housing authorities have sent tenants en masse about COVID-19 policies have been missing key information about rental relief options, according to advocates.

Across Los Angeles last year, its housing authority sent public housing tenants a form letter stating that they didn’t qualify for COVID-19 relief because their rent is already subsidized by the federal government.

In Berkeley, Section 8 residents received notices explaining they should report changes in income, but otherwise, “tenants must continue paying your monthly rent portion to your landlords.”

And in Encinitas, Section 8 tenants received a relatively more helpful notice that provided instructions on reporting changes in income — but nothing about the state and federal eviction moratoriums in place. CalMatters obtained copies of the Berkeley, Encinitas and Los Angeles letters.

Additionally, the Encinitas letter doesn’t explain the housing authority is asking about a change in income because it will lower the renter’s bill, said Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project.

The California laws passed in January, in addition to extending the eviction moratorium through the end of June, allow tenants who have paid 25% of their rent during the pandemic to owe the back rent as civil debt. Turning that back rent into civil debt means tenants can be taken to small claims court by landlords, but not evicted for that debt.

Housing authorities must comply with state laws, meaning tenants should be protected by the laws passed in January, academic housing experts told CalMatters. Although the state attorney general’s office refused to comment on its legal jurisdiction over housing authorities, a March 2020 opinion from the office sees potential conflicts in a similar light.

Thrope’s organization concluded most housing authorities in the state aren’t helping their tenants as much as they could during the pandemic. Under the CARES act, public housing authorities can adopt pandemic-friendly renter policies, and relax some of their normal rules, through an option called waivers. Advocates at the National Housing Law Project did a public records request of 100 housing authorities in California to find out what coronavirus waivers they were adopting. Only 30 public housing authorities responded to the request, and only 15 of those reported that they were adopting waivers.

Public housing authorities face intense budget pressures. Since 2010, Congressional funding for public housing has fallen $1.6 billion — 21% — according to the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities. If a public housing authority isn’t financially solvent, it risks being taken over by its parent agency, HUD. This process, called a receivership, can result in the local housing authority’s directors or employees getting fired.

The federal CARES Act was supposed to provide a reprieve from all the budgetary pressure normally facing public housing authorities. Under the law, HUD waived some of its normal rules over housing authorities and provided an additional $685 million in aid.
So what options are available?
Even if a housing authority doesn’t follow through on evicting a tenant, just receiving a threatening notice may encourage renters to do what Los Angeles organizer Bill Przylucki calls a “self-eviction” —  moving out even when they’re entitled to stay.

“We have a number of folks, where they’re emailing notices saying you owe this much…pointing out which rental assistance programs they’re not eligible for without pointing out what protections they have access to,” adds Przylucki, whose organization POWER works with low-income tenants in Los Angeles.

Among those protections is the option to defer rent. Under the CARES Act, public housing tenants can come up with a payment plan when the federal eviction moratorium is over, so that they don’t owe unpaid rent in one lump sum or owe any late fees. Public housing tenants are also protected by federal eviction moratoriums. In any circumstances where public housing residents lose work, they are supposed to report it to their housing authority to lower their rent bill. Public housing residents can also have prior months’ rent reduced retroactively under the coronavirus waivers passed under the CARES act.

Other than a few lines about reporting changes in income, those relief options weren’t mentioned in a form letter that the Los Angeles housing authority sent its public housing tenants last October.

“None of the rent moratoria you heard about on the news will free you from your obligation to pay your rent,” said the form letter, which was obtained by CalMatters. “Your rent is still due and payable in accordance with your rental agreement.”

“They are just trying to hit the tenant over the head with the truth that under the current protections, you must still pay rent,” said Alexandra Hong, an attorney who handles eviction defense cases in Los Angeles.

Gladney, the LA housing authority spokesperson, said via a statement that “hundreds of tenants have applied for interim reviews, which have resulted in rent relief during the pandemic,” but she refused to provide data on how many of the public housing tenants who requested interim reviews were successful in getting relief. The housing authority also did not answer questions about how many people at the agency are assigned to conduct reviews, how long each review takes or what the wait-list is like.

The letter does not mention that rent reductions can be retroactive.

At the end of the letter, HACLA says more resources can be found on the housing authority’s website.

Daisy Vega, president of the resident advisory council at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex, poses for a portrait in her front yard on April 14, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzeuta for CalMatters
Another Mar Vista Gardens resident, who requested anonymity citing fear of retaliation from managers, said their request for an interim review was denied. The tenant shared with CalMatters a notice they received last year from HACLA almost identical to the one that Garcia received, but this one warned that they were just $300 short on rent.

The resident, who has lived at Mar Vista Gardens for nearly 15 years, claimed to have never missed a payment until COVID-19 when their partner lost their job. “This is the least that you can pay based on what you’re receiving (in income),” the resident recalls being told when they called the manager’s office.

A HUD spokesperson said that the federal agency does not oversee notices that its public housing authorities send tenants. In September, a volunteer organizer and neighbor named Daisy Vega emailed Mar Vista Gardens manager Wendy Ortiz, as well as LA housing authority executives Jonathan Nguyen and Eric Brown, telling them about the debt that Garcia had been saddled with and the eviction threats she was receiving. But the letters didn’t stop.

Reached on the phone, employees at the management office in Mar Vista Gardens declined to comment, referring questions back to HACLA spokesperson Courtney Gladney. Mar Vista Gardens manager Wendy Ortiz did not respond to a follow-up email.
Still seeking relief
At the end of last year, Garcia finally received word from the housing authority that her case would be reviewed, likely because POWER had advocated on her behalf, she and Vega said. Her rent was cut by more than half, to $580. Even making that amount is a struggle, she said. In addition to having her hours at the dry cleaner cut, she also contracted the coronavirus over the summer, she said, putting her out of work temporarily.

The authority hasn’t offered her additional relief over COVID-19, Garcia said. The agency also hasn’t forgiven the previous debt.

She had also fallen behind on her electricity bill, and as a result, her apartment was dark during a reporter’s visit in January. She put some of her savings toward the debt, but the letters continue to arrive. The last one she received was on April 15, now addressed to her rather than her ex-husband, and demanding $2,900 for the remaining amount. At the bottom of the letter, HACLA says it reserves the right to file an eviction.
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