Some California Cities Can’t Keep Up With Demand For Rental Assistance, Putting Tenants At Risk Of Losing Their Homes

Tenants who didn’t file their applications before the programs closed in the spring face growing rental debts and no clear legal recourse when the eviction bans end.

A man walks in front of a "for rent" sign in a window of a residential property

Tenants who are behind on their rental payments in at least four California cities have been unable to apply for emergency rental assistance as local program administrators closed the application process in order to work through a backlog. The move has left thousands of tenants with growing debts to their landlords and no clear legal recourse to remain in their homes when the state and local eviction moratoria expire.

“We're really being blindsided here by the whole situation,” said Los Angeles resident Mike Lobos-Hayes, who is about $8,000 behind on rent after he and his husband both lost income during the pandemic. “Nobody is communicating with us.”

Los Angeles stopped taking applications at the end of April. Long Beach suspended its program on July 11 but reopened it on Aug. 11, a day after being contacted by BuzzFeed News for this story. “The reopening is because the City has recently received and secured additional state and federal funding,” a Long Beach spokesperson said. Irvine, which closed applications for the local program months ago, is now in the process of joining the state’s program, a time-consuming process that involves transferring data from its local system. In Anaheim, applications for tenants closed in March and are now only open to landlords, who have not always been willing to participate in rental assistance programs. A spokesperson for Anaheim said that the city is still reviewing applications submitted in the winter but would reopen the process to tenants possibly by the end of this month.

Not being able to apply for emergency rental assistance (ERA) harms renters in two ways: Not only are they unable to access relief funds to pay down their housing debt, but these tenants also miss out on extended legal protection. California courts are prohibited from taking up eviction cases against people who have filed for emergency assistance until a determination has been made about their aid application through March 2022; in contrast, people who have not filed for emergency rental assistance are only protected by the state’s eviction ban through Sept. 30 or until the local ban expires, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for California’s Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency. The federal ban on evictions ends on Oct. 3.

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As cities and states across the country scrambled to distribute the millions of dollars in federal funds aimed at helping tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic, many local jurisdictions quickly found that they lacked the staffing and technical infrastructure to immediately process the deluge of requests; at least one city, Los Angeles, saw requests exceed its allocation of money while more applications poured in.

To meet the ongoing demand, some jurisdictions, such as Santa Clarita, Oakland, Santa Barbara County, Solano County, and Placer County, are referring applicants to the emergency rental assistance program run by the state. Aside from the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the rest of LA County can apply to the state program.

Officials expect more local jurisdictions that were overwhelmed by the number of applicants to move into the state’s program, Heimerich said. Yet even those turning to the state program face a backlog, with the state having only paid out about 20% of the $1.4 billion it is administering from the first round of emergency rental assistance funding.

Tenants whose cities or counties are not part of the state program and are no longer accepting applications, however, find themselves helpless.

When residents of the city of Los Angeles enter their address into the state’s emergency rental assistance website, they are directed to the city program. But the site for LA’s program states, “funding closed on April 30th.” Lobos-Hayes said the administrator’s responses to his inquiries seeking help to apply merely provided links back to the city’s ERA program website.

“It is just an endless loop of links that they send you,” said Lobos-Hayes, who is 40 years old and started a small business just before the pandemic began. He and his husband have been paying partial rent, but their unemployment checks have not been enough to cover the full amount. They are considering moving out of state if they cannot access rental assistance.

A representative from the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, which is managing the city’s ERA program, told BuzzFeed News the application period for the first round of funding was open for seven weeks and closed on April 30. More than 110,000 tenants and landlords in the city applied by that deadline, and the $530 million in back rent requested exceeded the $236 million available, reported LAist.

“As more State and Federal resources become available, the City will determine when the application window can be reopened. We expect this to occur on September 15 or sometime soon after,” the city representative told BuzzFeed News.

For now, the only advice from the city is to “subscribe to [its] newsletter for announcements of programs” and to reach out to Stay Housed LA, a program that teaches renters about their rights and connects them to tenant advocates and attorneys. ●

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