UPenn Report: LA Rental Debt Exceeds $1 Billion



By Nicolas Segura, SAJE Intern

During the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Los Angeles enacted rental protections to allow tenants to stay in their homes. One of these protections was a rent freeze, which allowed tenants to defer rent payments until February 1, 2024. After that, tenants would have to pay off their accrued debt or risk being evicted. To better understand the scope of the problem, the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) asked the Housing Initiative at Penn, a project of the University of Pennsylvania, to determine the amount of citywide rental debt. LAHD was especially interested in understanding how the expiration of temporary limitations on eviction for nonpayment of rent might affect eviction rates in Los Angeles. In January 2024, the initiative published Rent Debt and Tenant Vulnerability as Los Angeles COVID-19 Eviction Protections Expire, an important and illuminating look at the economic precarity of renters at the end of the pandemic.

The report’s biggest finding? Between 100,000 and 155,000 households are behind on rent, with debt totaling around $1.4 billion, far above the LAHD’s original estimate of $361 million. The discrepancy may be explained by an undersampling on the city’s part and an oversampling on the initiative’s side. Regardless, rent debt is putting millions more dollars of stress on the city’s housing crisis as tens of thousands of Los Angeles households are at high risk of being evicted, potentially increasing the number of unhoused people in the city. 

The study found that 60% of households behind on rent may not be able to pay off their rent debt, meaning 60,000 to 93,000 are at risk of eviction. And 70% of tenants the study surveyed are not confident they will be able to just stay in their homes; this is true even for the majority of renters with higher incomes. Interestingly, the study also found tenant vulnerability to eviction comes down to the type of landlord they have. 

The study surveyed Los Angeles landlords about whether they intended to evict for outstanding rent debt once protections expire and grouped their responses according to the number of properties they own. The majority of small landlords, defined as those who own one to four units, and medium landlords, those with five to fifty units, answered “No” or “I’m not sure.” However, more than 70% of large landlords, defined as those with more than 50 units, reported they intended to evict.

More than 90% of large landlords reported having tenants with rent debt; this was true for only 59% of medium landlords

Opponents of eviction protections and the temporary rent freeze blame tenants for accruing rent debt and believe that evictions are justified. But the report also found that tenants have rent debt not because they didn’t want to pay but because they couldn’t afford to. Most tenants only owe six months or less of rent accrued before July 2023, with households with children or disabled residents most likely to report having debt and being the most vulnerable to evictions. The graph below demonstrates how most tenants are only a couple of months behind and can repay with more time. 

Tenants gained most of their debt at the end of the pandemic protection period, from October 2021 to January 2023. Because households are much more likely to have recently accrued rent debt, tenants were presumably not taking advantage of or fully utilizing the pandemic protections, even when it would have been well within their rights not to pay anything for more than two years. If they had, the graph would have demonstrated higher distributions in the twelve-to-sixteen-month range. Furthermore, these more recent debts greatly affect people who are employed and who have higher incomes. The study found that 58% of employed tenants and 66% of households with a monthly income of $6,000 or more reported having debt from this late pandemic period. 

Regardless of the public’s perception of rent debt, the city must work with tenants and landlords to prevent a flood of evictions caused by city-wide rent debts. Not doing so could increase the number of unhoused people. As SAJE found in a 2023 study, Los Angeles and other large cities have seen a strong correlation between a rise in evictions and an increase in unhoused residents. In 2017, New York found that eviction was the second-leading cause of homelessness in the city, and in a report surveying the people in Boston shelters, 45% said that eviction was why they were homeless or at risk of being homeless. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people in Los Angeles are at risk of eviction due to their outstanding rent debt, which has the potential to push thousands into becoming unhoused.

According to the Housing Initiative’s report, “it will be easier and less expensive to keep people housed than to find new housing after they are evicted or become homeless.” Luckily, the city has Measure ULA, which voters passed last November. The real estate transfer tax, which applies to properties that sell for $5 million or more, is generating a critical stream of funds into housing and homelessness prevention, including emergency rental assistance. Programs like Stay Housed LA are also helping protect tenants from eviction through legal assistance. The city must keep these programs alive to prevent people from losing their homes, or we will be spending even more later to address the basic needs of tens of thousands more Angelenos living on the streets.