Eviction file photo

(The Center Square) – A Vietnam veteran and owner of a commercial building in Lawndale has sued Los Angeles County over its moratorium on commercial evictions. The first to challenge the commercial eviction moratorium, the lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation in U.S. District Court.

Howard Iten, a retired auto mechanic, has leased his garage to an auto repair franchisee, which he claims owes him more than $30,000 in rent. Because of the county’s moratorium on evictions, Iten can’t evict or collect the rent money he says he is due.

Iten opened his auto repair business in Lawndale after he returned from Vietnam and ran it for nearly 30 years. When he retired in 2006, he kept the building to rent it out and use the rental income as a means to supplement his Social Security income and savings.

Auto repair is considered an essential business operation, and the tenant’s shop appeared to be fully open and operating during the state’s shutdown, according to the lawsuit. However, one month after the shutdown, the tenant stopped paying rent in April 2020, citing COVID-19 as an excuse, the lawsuit claims. In March, the city of Lawndale implemented an eviction moratorium, prohibiting commercial landlords from evicting tenants for COVID-19-related nonpayment. In July, the county extended its existing moratorium to all cities within its jurisdiction.

The Los Angeles County Temporary Eviction Moratorium, effective March 4, 2020, through Feb. 28, 2021, unless repealed or extended by the County Board of Supervisors, places a countywide ban on evictions for residential and commercial tenants. It prohibits tenants from being evicted for COVID-19 related nonpayment of rent, as well as no-fault reasons, nuisance, denying entry to a landlord, or unauthorized occupants or pets – if related to COVID-19.

Commercial tenants with nine or fewer employees are not required to provide proof as to how COVID-19 has impacted their ability to pay rent; simply self-certifying their inability to pay rent to their landlord, either orally or in writing, is sufficient, the county states.

Tenants with between 10 and 100 employees must provide written documentation that demonstrates their inability to pay rent due to financial hardship related to COVID-19. Tenants are also encouraged to pay partial rent during the moratorium, the county states.

Additionally, Iten is prohibited from requiring payment of back-rent until a full year after the moratorium expires and from ever collecting interest or fees.

The county’s eviction ban undermines legal lease agreements, the PLF argues, and also does nothing to combat COVID-19.

Landlords operate like a business, entering contracts, providing services, making improvements and paying taxes. Yet unlike many businesses that are eligible to receive federal assistant, landlords are not, while they are still responsible for paying maintenance costs and taxes associated with the property.

“The county can’t put the burden of the pandemic only on the shoulders of landlords,” Damien Schiff, PLF attorney representing Iten, argues. “L.A. County’s heavy-handed response to COVID-19 has hit businesses hard. It’s unfair and illegal for the County to force commercial landlords to bear the costs of those policies.”

“Government can neither undermine a lease contract nor make burdensome emergency rules that do nothing to curb the emergency,” the complaint states.

Iten says, “I think it’s wrong that the burden is placed on property owners, while tenants can take advantage of the situation.”

Even in an emergency, the government cannot undermine contract agreements through laws that bear little relationship to the emergency, the PLF argues.

Iten v. County of Los Angeles was filed in U.S. District Court Central District California and seeks to end the county’s commercial eviction ban.