What would you think if the government dictated that you won’t be paid for more than a year but you must keep working? As unlikely as you might consider such a scenario, this hypothetical is Howard Iten’s reality.
Iten, a commercial landlord in Los Angeles, is under Los Angeles County’s pandemic-driven mandate to continue running his business while his tenant is allowed to completely beg off his rent.
Most states imposed some kind of eviction ban during the pandemic, typically targeted toward residential landlords and tenants. These eviction moratoria all have the same rationale — to prevent the comingling prompted by eviction when people move in with friends and relatives or end up at a homeless shelter. These residential bans are generally overly broad, encompassing people who are not affected by COVID-19 and are facing constitutional legal challenges, including from my firm, Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Iten.
But LA County went a step further by barring commercial landlords from evicting tenants, even when they refuse to pay rent.
For Iten and his wife, the rent they collect represents a large portion of their retirement income. Their necessary revenue stream dried up when their tenant stopped paying rent — even though the tenant’s auto repair business stayed open throughout the pandemic.
Even as we’ve begun to climb out and life approaches normalcy, 14 states and many large cities still cling to eviction bans. For example, Seattle is the most-vaccinated city in the country, yet the city just extended its eviction ban through September and the city council has issued a plea to the mayor and the Washington governor, urging them to extend their eviction bans — two of the most severe in the nation — through the end of 2021 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, King County, where Seattle sits, just lifted its mask mandate and people are again living their lives. Though Seattleites can mingle, go to work, and move on, the city insists that it must prevent landlords from exercising their rights.
The hesitancy to lift these restrictions is not hard to explain. Progressive governments across the nation long have held an ill-informed hostility toward the rental housing industry. Many leapt at the chance to bar an eviction process that they saw as fundamentally unjust to begin with. It is no surprise that they want to hang on; COVID-19 was the excuse, but it was never the endgame. The Seattle City Council, for example, recently showed its true colors by adopting an ordinance that forbids landlords from ever evicting a tenant for failing to pay rent during the pandemic, even after the risk of disease transmission becomes negligible.
This is no longer just about the pandemic — it’s about redistributing property from landlords to tenants, a long-coveted goal that some governments appear to be pursuing under cover of pandemic relief.
Indeed, there is a looming question about whether the fear of an “eviction tsunami” that leaders latched onto was ever a serious risk. On the surface, it makes some sense that if the government forces people out of work, they won’t be able to pay rent, and landlords will then evict them.
But as with most complicated truths, the reality is not so simple. For example, historical data on late rent suggests that people’s ability to pay did not change much during the throes of the pandemic. Late payments in July 2020 were down only 2.2 percentage points from July 2019, and other months show a similar pattern. Similarly, data indicate there wasn’t even an eviction surge in the few months of the pandemic when landlords had the right to take that action.
Why did the dire predictions not pan out? Perhaps the unprecedented stimulus spending and unemployment benefits accomplished what they were supposed to — carry people through the pandemic’s economic fallout. And it could be that landlords do not want to evict people during a pandemic unless they absolutely must.
After his service in Vietnam, Howard Iten spent decades building his retirement. Yet Los Angeles County apparently has deemed his welfare secondary to the protection of his scofflaw tenant from any repercussions for failing to honor a binding agreement.
There is no question that many of us have suffered extraordinary hardships during the pandemic. But cities and states across the country cannot simply decide that a tenant — but not a landlord — deserves a shield against the hardships brought on by the pandemic.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on July 26, 2021.