Supervisor Hilda Solis said the county needs to step in to avoid a larger crisis for those tenants as well as small landlords.
"There are many households that have been left in financial despair with high levels of rental debt," Solis said. "According to some estimates, tenants in L.A. County owe nearly $1 billion. Unless we resolve the debt and help tenants get back on their feet, the same communities that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic may be held back by debt for years to come. And we may see more families spiraling into homelessness."
A state rent moratorium will expire at the end of this month.
Solis said the county has handed out nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in rent relief, targeting the hardest-hit communities. But in some cases, landlords refused to accept the conditions tied to rental assistance.
Senate Bill 91, enacted in January, offers landlords 80% of the face value of COVID-19 rental debt accrued between April 1, 2020, and March 31. If landlords refuse, tenants can still receive 25% assistance, but the balance remains subject to collection.
Tenants and tenant advocates say applying for relief can be daunting, involving forms that take hours to complete.
Carmina Calderon, an organizer with Community Power Collective, said that an estimated 218,000 county households are behind on rent, with an average rent debt of $7,000.
"L.A. County cannot afford to wait on the state," Calderon said. "Our communities can no longer wait. We need to take unprecedented action."
Solis cited studies finding that landlords are unlikely to recover 100% of what they are owed from low-income tenants and called for county staffers to estimate the fair market value of unpaid rent bills.
"We urgently need to come up with out-of-the-box strategic solutions to stretch the federal rental assistance funding as far as possible to resolve COVID-19 rental debt and provide forward-looking assistance to advance racial justice and equity while helping those that need it the most," Solis said during a Monday news briefing when she previewed the motion.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell agreed. "This is our time and our opportunity to push the envelope and to use these public resources for true public good," Mitchell said.
The latest federal funding for coronavirus relief earmarks about $211 million for rental assistance to be paid directly to Los Angeles County. California will also receive additional federal rental assistance for distribution to local governments.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she fully supported the motion and learning more, though she's not certain she would ultimately support the county buying up outstanding rent balances as a way to solve the problem.
"Despite the hardships of COVID, most renters have continued to pay some or all of their rent," Kuehl said. "But we know that everybody who owes this back rent is going to have a really hard time catching up."
The motion directs county lawyers to work with the CEO and various departments and report back in 45 days on the total need, the fair value of outstanding rent debt, all legal options available to the county and a broad range of possible funding sources.