By Jeff Collins
Ruth Gutierrez and her family had just escaped homelessness last October when their finances fell apart again amid a pandemic resurgence.
Her husband’s employer, a remodeling contractor, died after catching COVID-19, and his company shut down. Her husband now does odd jobs as a day laborer, earning about $400 a month.
Her own job as a hotel housekeeper ended a year ago as the hospitality industry locked down.
Four months behind on their rent, the Anaheim family is on the verge of homelessness again.
“But by the time they gave me an answer, the Anaheim program was closed, so I couldn’t do much,” said Gutierrez, 34, mother of two teenage daughters.
Gutierrez’s struggles are but one example of the frustrations tenants and landlords have faced while trying to redeem California’s promise of wiping out pandemic-era rent debt.
The state’s rental assistance program — the largest in the nation — was set up in just 2½ months, with $5.2 billion available to help low-income tenants and their landlords.
An additional $2 billion is available to cover unpaid utility bills.
As with the rest of the nation, California’s patchwork of rental assistance programs is plagued by complaints that they’re taking too long to dispense money and are mired in bureaucracy.
One San Bernardino County tenant, for example, had to submit forms attesting to his COVID-19 impact eight times and had to resubmit his proof of income three times. Numerous tenants complained about missing application deadlines or that their incomes qualified in some programs but not the ones in which they were required to apply.
“This is taking way too long for people who actually need assistance,” said Robbie Felix, 26 of Los Angeles, who has been waiting since March to hear back on his application for $22,365 in rent relief. “I think this could have been done a lot more efficiently.”
Landlords complain that while tenants can get rent relief without their cooperation, property owners get nothing if their renters don’t respond. State and local programs can’t award assistance, for example, without proof the tenant qualifies as low income.
“I think the government is going about this completely wrong,” said Huntington Beach apartment building owner Katherine Johansen. “They should have paid landlords or given us some relief for our expenses.”
As of last week, 23,760 California households that applied to the state received a combined $282.4 million in rental assistance — an average of $11,884 per household. But that represents less than a fifth of the 142,372 applications submitted. Nearly 50,000 applications received by the state came from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Those numbers don’t include at least 170,000 applications submitted to 12 locally administered programs in Southern California.
“There’s a lot of challenges around rent relief generally, one of which is this is the first time government has done this,” said Vincent Reina, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been studying California’s rental relief effort.
Too few dollars
For tenants earning 80% or less of their area’s median income, the program can cover 100% of their rent debt accrued from April 2020 through September.
In the city of Los Angeles, there’s not enough money to accommodate all the applications. Even though thousands of Angelenos failed to apply by the city’s April 30 deadline, the 113,000 who did apply are seeking $530 million in relief — or $48.5 million more than the city’s total allocation of $481.5 million.
The city has approved $41 million in relief so far, or less than 9% of its allocation.
At that pace, L.A. City Council member Kevin de Leon complained at a recent news conference, it will take 18 months for Los Angeles to dole out all its money.
“Tens of thousands of people are on the cusp of … homelessness, all because of a bureaucracy that is too slow to process paperwork, too slow to get emergency relief to people facing eviction,” de Leon said.
City officials said they’re following new federal guidelines for eliminating “undue documentation burdens” and streamlining the approval process. For example, the U.S. Treasury Department recommends letting tenants attest without documentation how much they earn, how much rent they owe and the nature of their COVID-related hardships.
“The (city) department … definitely wants to speed things up,” said Ann Sewill, general manager of the Los Angeles Housing Department. “There’s always a bit of a ramp-up.”
Relief requests have yet to exceed allocations in most other cities, and Long Beach, Irvine and Anaheim have reopened their closed programs to some or all of their residents. Other jurisdictions with closed programs are partnering with the state, so their residents still can apply through California’s HousingIsKey.com portal.
California was one of the first states to launch its rent relief program, opening its application portal in mid-March, just 2½ months after Congress’ initial appropriation, Reina’s July report on the California program said. The Wall Street Journal reported New York’s program didn’t start receiving applications until June. Still, Reina said, the program as a whole is starting a full year into the pandemic, with numerous changes and revisions along the way adding to the confusion.
“We’re developing new systems, often engaging with new populations. Clearly, that presents a lot of challenges,” Reina said in a phone interview. “There’s state programs. There’s local programs. … It can create variation in what rent relief is, even across the state of California, which then also can create confusion among consumers.”
Waiting to hear back
Steve Vega of Yucaipa has been waiting four months to hear back on his application to pay off $4,800 in rent debt.
He applied to San Bernardino County’s program in mid-April. Out of work for four years because of an injury, the construction inspector ran out of money in March and fell six months behind on rent for his small, one-bedroom house.
Over the past four months, Vega was asked at least eight times to upload a COVID hardship statement, a COVID impact statement or statements asking what he was applying for and why. Sometimes, he had to do it twice because officials couldn’t open the documents he had uploaded.
He was asked four times to upload either his tax documents or detail his source of income.
“I went through four different project coordinators,” Vega said. “They’d get a hold of me by email, asking for paperwork. I didn’t tell them I already turned it in. I just turned it in all over again.”
Vega keeps calling to find out the status of his case. Each time, he’s told his project coordinator is either on the phone or in a meeting.
“He’s never returned my call,” he said. “It’s an issue. They got the money. What’s going on?”
Language barriers or unfamiliarity with the Internet has stymied others. A University of Pennsylvania survey of 16,100 California applicants found that a fifth lacked internet access or weren’t aware of the state program’s hotline (which is 833-430-2122). One in 20 applicants faced language barriers, the survey found.
Tanya Aldecoa of Whittier thinks officials should make it easier to apply. Out of work for a year, Aldecoa searched for days for the state’s application portal before stumbling across it while checking her electric bill online.
“I looked online, and I couldn’t find anything,” said Aldecoa, 52, a mother of three who stopped paying her rent after her unemployment ran out.
Once she discovered the state application website, she spent the next nine hours filling out forms, uploading copies of unpaid electric and gas bills, her lease, her 2020 income tax returns and a Medi-Cal certification letter from the state.
Five weeks passed before she saw that her application was “approved, pending landlord” information. Her case still needs to be submitted for quality control and undergo another review before being submitted for payment.
“I’m still not trusting 100% in this because it still has to go through quality control and be verified,” Aldecoa said. “It feels surreal, this whole situation that I’m in. I’m just worried about keeping a roof over my head.”
Christian Van Sickle, who lives in Helendale north of Victorville, got turned down by San Bernardino County because he earns $40,000 a year — $500 over the county’s “very low-income” limit of $39,500 for a family of four.
“We made too much,” Van Sickle’s wife said.
State and local officials say low-income San Bernardino County tenants like the Van Sickles who earn more than 50% of the county’s median income still can get rent relief but must reapply through the state’s portal.
Tenants who used their credit cards, borrowed from family or friends or took out high-interest payday loans to keep up with the rent won’t recover anything from the rental assistance program. Such “shadow debt” isn’t reimbursable under the program.
Surveys of 1,000 L.A. County tenants by UCLA and USC in July 2020 and March 2021 found renters’ debt rose sharply as the COVID-19 crisis dragged on.
In March, 44% of tenants said they used credit cards to pay rent, compared with 19% last summer and about 6% before the pandemic.
Almost half of those surveyed in March turned to friends and family to help them pay rent, 58% dipped into their savings and 37% took out an emergency or payday loan.
“That’s a lot of debt that people have accumulated, and they will be left out in the cold if we end up moving forward with a program that just pays your rent,” said Michael Manville, a UCLA associate professor of urban planning who co-wrote the study. “Under the current way we are assisting renters, they do get the short end of the stick.”
Some tenants stopped using their credit cards or cutting back on other expenses after they were told they needed to be in arrears to qualify for rent relief.
Maria Gonzalez, 41, of Beaumont got rejected when she applied to the Riverside County program because she hadn’t actually fallen behind on the rent yet.
Out of work and staying home to supervise her four children after schools closed, she worried about paying the rent as her last day on unemployment approached.
“I paid the big things first, so rent was always number one,” said Gonzalez, who worked for an escrow company. “I was told I had to be in arrears to get help. So, I fell in arrears.”
After skipping three months’ rent, she reapplied for rental assistance last week, and “it went through fine.”
Landlords are wrestling with another gap in the rent relief program. They can’t collect assistance if their tenants refuse to cooperate or moved out and can’t be found.
Johansen, the Huntington Beach apartment owner, filed 11 rental assistance applications on behalf of her tenants. She expects six to get rejected because her tenants vanished, leaving more than $60,000 in unpaid rent and no way to get in touch.
Another tenant who owes $14,650 in back rent refused to help her complete his application, she said.
“He just shrugged,” Johanson said.
Los Angeles landlord Cheryl Baker had a similar story. Two tenants moved out leaving $9,100 in unpaid rent. She tried coaxing a third tenant still in her building to apply, sending a polite note explaining how the program will pay off her $8,589 in back rent.
“They’ll catch you up and pay you forward,” Baker’s note said. “She just ignores it.”
Meanwhile, Anaheim resident Ruth Gutierrez and her husband started packing up their belongings, preparing for the day they’ll get evicted after the moratorium expires on Sept. 30.
A decision to reopen Anaheim’s application process for landlords won’t help her family. Her landlord won’t respond.
While there’s still hope she can apply if the city resumes accepting applications from tenants, as expected, Gutierrez remains uncertain about her future.
“We’re here going back and forth,” she said. “We’re trying to struggle to see what we can do now.”
Where to apply for rental assistance in Southern California:
Residents and landlords of these cities and counties can apply only through the state’s portal: HousingIsKey.com or by calling the state’s toll-free hotline (833-430-2122):
- Los Angeles County (outside the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach)
- Orange County (outside the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim)
Residents and landlords in these cities and counties can apply to both their local programs and the state portal, but must apply to their local programs first:
- Riverside County: Outside the cities of Riverside and Moreno Valley: unitedlift.org
- San Bernardino County: Outside the cities of San Bernardino and Fontana: sbcrentrelief.org
- Santa Clarita: bit.ly/2VY8H4O
- Santa Ana: www.santa-ana.org/cares-for-tenants
- Riverside: bit.ly/3d3KVdn
- San Bernardino: https://www.sbcrentrelief.com
- Moreno Valley: www.moval.org/rentalrescue
Residents and landlords in these cities must apply to their local program:
- City of Los Angeles: The city stopped accepting applications on April 30, but is planning to reopen the application process after Sept. 1. To apply when it reopens: hcidla.lacity.org.
- Long Beach: www.longbeach.gov/rentalassistance.
- Anaheim: Open to landlords only, but the city plans to reopen the application process to tenants in the near future Anaheim.net/rentassistance or call 714-765-4300, ext. 4890.
The original article can be found here.