“Owners are very scared:” Tensions boil to the surface in California rent strike call

Landlords anxious about May rental income

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl

A national rent strike Zoom call organized Thursday featured the usual suspects – tenants rights advocates and renters sharing their stories of economic hardship.

But the call also featured a few eyebrow-raising cameos, including Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the 35,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles, the leader of last year’s Los Angeles County teacher’s strike.

“We support this rent strike, and the tens of thousands of people in California involved in it,” Caputo-Pearl said on the call.

The prominent union leader’s presence is perhaps the strongest sign yet that rent strikes in L.A. County and all of California have moved from the political fringe to a viable option for a growing number of tenants. That’s a deeply upsetting development for residential landlords who feel they are disproportionately targeted amid the Covid-19 economic calamity.

“Owners are very scared about meeting their financial obligations right now,” said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, a trade group for landlords. “Just because they own their property doesn’t mean that they aren’t living month to month.”

Added Yukelson, “There is a big rift between owners and their residents right now.”

That rift was on display during the rent strike call where California tenants indicated that unprecedented coronavirus-related measures – including a statewide suspension of eviction proceedings, and L.A. County prohibition of evictions – do not go far enough.

“A moratorium is not enough. That’s kicking the can down the road. A freeze on rent is not enough. We need rent forgiven, we need it gone,” said Vanessa Bulnes, an Oakland resident who lost her job as a childhood educator at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bulnes is one of about 12,000 rent strikers working directly with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. According to the organization, only about 20 of the tenants they worked with in April opted to not pay rent.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

By signing up, you agree to TheRealDeal Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

California Residential landlords saw a 10-12 percent decline in April rent. That figure could climb to a 20 percent decline in May compared to pre-pandemic rental income, said Thomas Bannon, president of the California Apartment Association.

Bannon said landlords with less than a dozen rental units are experiencing “high anxiety.”

“What about the landlord with five units, and tenants in two of the units decide to go on a rent strike?” Bannon said.

For landlords facing such a situation, “There’s not a lot you can do right now,” according Karl Lott, an attorney at Holland & Knight.

While the Judicial Council suspended eviction proceedings, there’s nothing preventing a landlord from getting the process started by sending an eviction notice, Lott said.

The attorney advises clients to make sure, “you don’t write an overly harsh notice that can be sent to the press.”

But staying polite amid a historic economic disaster is hard.

Asked whether federal stimulus money could help tenants pay May rent, Yukelson responded, “They are probably spending their stimulus money on legalized marijuana instead of a rent check.”

Georgia Kromrei contributed reporting