Illegal rent increases soar in Los Angeles

Study finds complaints by tenants exceed any year leading up to the pandemic

Apartments; Benjamin Franklin; Graph line
(Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty)

While COVID-era rent hike bans remain in effect for most Los Angeles apartments, landlords continue to demand more money.

The increase ban has been in place for three years in rent controlled housing, but illegal rent hike complaints to the city now exceed any year leading up to the COVID-era rent freeze, LAist reported.

Through public records requests, LAist obtained data on illegal rent hike complaints in the City of Los Angeles going back to 2012. Data from L.A.’s Housing Department shows complaints fell in 2020 and 2021, after the rent freeze.

But over the past year, complaints have risen, according to the news site led by public radio station KPCC-FM. Tenants filed 3,433 complaints about illegal rent increases last year — more than in any year leading up to the city’s COVID rent freeze.

The city’s unique rent hike ban, slated through Jan. 31, 2024, applies only to rent-controlled housing, which makes up three-quarters of all apartments in the city. Other parts of the state have abandoned such tenant protections.

The data studied by LAist shows the city received more illegal rent hike complaints last year than any time before the rent freeze took effect. 

Neighborhoods with high complaint volumes last year include Historic South-Central, Pico Union, Florence and Koreatown.

Housing experts say the trend in Los Angeles reflects a statewide reality: Despite more state and local laws designed to limit rent increases, California rents are rising sharply.

“What we have seen in the last year or so is an acceleration of an extreme amount of rent burden across the state, and particularly in places like Los Angeles,” David Garcia, policy director for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, told LAist.

Terner Center researchers said that after state lawmakers passed a 2019 law to cap rent hikes to no more than 10 percent per year, asking rents in cities like L.A. only began to rise faster, at levels frequently exceeding the law’s limits.

Garcia said none of this proves landlords broke the law. Under the 2019 state law, landlords can set asking rents however high they want after tenants move out. 

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The rent hike complaints in L.A. don’t necessarily mean a violation took place. Some tenants may be filing complaints from newer buildings not covered by L.A. rent control or the city’s rent freeze. But the spike in complaints across the city does raise questions, Garcia said.

“There may be some confusion on the part of either the tenant or the landlord on whether or not they’re protected by local or state law,” he said.

L.A. Housing Department officials, who declined to give an on-the-record statement or interview to LAist, said in an email that all landlords were sent annual notices about the rent freeze. At least one landlord said he never received a letter.

Landlords who have complied with L.A.’s rules say the city’s COVID rent freeze has made it hard to recoup losses from unpaid rent earlier in the pandemic.

Rich Kissel, owner of  two Mid-City L.A. apartment buildings, said expenses have skyrocketed. Insurance, maintenance and trash pickup costs are all up, he said, but rental income is down.

“There’s no excuse for people not paying rent for three years,” Kissel told LAist. “I’ve got two of those situations right now. That’s an extreme burden. And it could force me out of the business.”

Kissel said none of his apartments rent for more than $2,000 per month. He feels like the city’s tenant protections are pushing small landlords like him toward selling their properties, and he thinks larger landlords will be unlikely to keep rents low.

“A lot of these older buildings owned by people just like me, that’s our affordable housing stock,” Kissel said. “You can’t duplicate that.”

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles has filed a legal challenge to some of the renter protections Los Angeles approved early this year, claiming key parts of the legislation conflict with state law and should be repealed.

— Dana Bartholomew

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