Some landlords and management companies said they suspect some of their nonpaying tenants aren't facing financial difficulties, yet are still taking advantage of pandemic allowances. State law, for example, protects tenants from eviction for nonpayment if they sign a declaration under penalty of perjury that COVID-19 has affected them financially.
Landlords said that bar is very low, though they can request proof if they have evidence someone is high-income.
Dan Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, which represents more than 10,000 landlords across Southern California, said there doesn't appear to be wide-scale misrepresentation by tenants, but the approach still left open the door to abuse. "There should have been some kind of means testing going on," he said. "The majority of owners and tenants are honest, but there are some [tenants] who have taken advantage."
Yukelson said any missed rent is a hit to association members, who have also faced added costs over the last year including rising water bills and requests for repairs as homes became offices, classrooms and all-around sanctuaries during the pandemic.
Larry Gross, executive director of the tenant rights group Coalition for Economic Survival, said he hasn't come across tenants gaming the system. He said the tenants his organization works with are suffering and would pay rent if they could, because they know eviction protections will expire and understand the consequences for them of accumulating rent debt.
Gross said small landlords, in particular, should get more relief. But he said current eviction restrictions should not be rolled back: Tenants already are falling through the cracks and being forced out. And red tape in the form of income verifications would make more people homeless than the small number of individuals who might be taking advantage. At particular risk are undocumented individuals who may be paid in cash at their jobs and could find it difficult to prove income loss.
"Given the housing and homeless crisis, we need it to be as easy as possible for people to be able to stay in their homes," he said.
Though surveys show the vast majority of tenants are paying, a significant number are behind.
Moody's Analytics and the Urban Institute think tank estimate 9.4 million U.S. renter households owed an average of $5,586 in back rent, utilities and related late fees as of January, for a total debt pile of $52.6 billion.