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Rent Relief in California: How to Apply, and What You Could Get

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Do I qualify for California rent relief? Are undocumented tenants eligible? How do I apply for rent relief? Are landlords required to apply for rent relief? How much money could I potentially get?

The pandemic has been crushing for low-income tenants in California — and has caused financial strain on property owners who haven’t been able to collect and have their own bills to pay. Local and state eviction protections have helped many people stay housed but, eventually, the rent will be due.

California’s rent relief program, called Housing Is Key, was established by state lawmakers in January when they passed Senate Bill 91, which also extended the statewide eviction moratorium through June 30.

Both tenants and landlords with low-income tenants who have fallen behind on rent because of the pandemic can apply for relief. Landlords can receive up to 80% of all back rent from the period between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. They must also agree to forgive the remaining 20% of the rent, and they cannot try to collect the unpaid rent in small claims court or use it to justify an eviction.

The program to distribute $2.6 billion in federal funds opened for applications on March 15 – but so far only slightly more than 2% of people who have applied so far have received aid. And far fewer people have applied to the program than expected, state officials said Thursday.

The delays in payment are due to problems with the Department of Housing and Community Development’s anti-fraud system and to ensure there were no duplicate payments, said Jessica Hayes, a program specialist with HCD. She said they first prioritized sending assistance to people with the lowest incomes, but have started expanding the program to more people.

“We’ve been able to increase the number of households that we’re processing through the application each week,” she said, “and we expect that to continue to ramp up.”

Applicants have also complained of a clunky and cumbersome system and the lack of translation for non-English speakers as factors inhibiting people from applying. In response, HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez said the state has now streamlined the application, making it more user friendly, and has added more languages, including simplified Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

Here’s what you need to know about applying for rent relief in California, with answers to these frequently asked questions:

‘Do I qualify for rent relief?’

The program is targeted at low-income renters and their landlords.

To be eligible for the aid, tenants must make less than 80% of the local median income. Median income varies widely from county to county, and also depends on how many people live in your household. Don’t know what your local area median income (or AMI) is? Here’s a handy cheat sheet from the state.

The tenants must also have at least one person in the household who has lost a job or income during the pandemic and can show they are at risk of homelessness. A past-due rent or utility bill can be used to show a risk of homelessness.

The state wants to get relief as quickly as it can to the most vulnerable renters first, and is sending the first round of checks to households that are making 50% or below the area’s median income, or someone who has been unemployed for 90 days or more. People in higher-income tiers, but no more than 80% AMI, will receive aid next.

Some cities like Oakland, who opted to run their own programs, are going even further and prioritizing households making less — 30 % AMI or below.

‘Are undocumented tenants eligible?’

Yes. The federal government never made citizenship status a requirement to access rent relief.

That means that the assistance is available to all renters who meet the eligible income levels, regardless of whether they are a legal resident or not.

A ‘Now Renting’ sign on an apartment building on Market Street in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

‘How do I apply?’

Most landlords and tenants who qualify can apply through the state’s website, Housing Is Key. If the application is approved and the tenant meets income requirements, 80% of the owed back rent will be paid directly to the landlord.

Tenants and landlords each have a role to play. There are parts of the application that will need to be filled out by both parties, or the application won’t go forward.

If a tenant applies first, the landlord will be notified and invited to participate. If a landlord applies first, the state will get in touch with the tenant to gather additional information, like their income.

The California Apartment Association is urging property owners to get in touch with eligible tenants early to let them know you plan on applying for aid.

“You and the tenant need to work together,” said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of state government affairs and compliance with the California Apartment Association, the state’s largest landlord group.

San Francisco renter Jonas Di Gregorio says the rent relief can’t come soon enough. He lost his job as a restaurant server at the beginning of the pandemic and owes more than $10,000 to his landlord in back rent. He’s been able to continue paying 25% of his monthly rent on his studio to avoid eviction.

“I think this rental assistance is very important,” Di Gregorio said in March. “I hope my landlord will apply.”

You can also find answers on eligibility or get help applying through the state’s new hotline, (833) 430-2122.

If you need direct one-on-one assistance to fill out the application, the state can arrange an in-person appointment with an outreach worker. The list of local groups who will be providing assistance will be available through the hotline or the state’s website.

‘Is the process the same for everyone in California?’

Not exactly. Like so many things that have to do with addressing the pandemic, it depends on where you live.

Some larger local governments got a slice of the federal stimulus money directly and are creating their own programs, and if you live in those places, your process may be a little different.

Some of the Bay Area’s largest cities and counties are among those with their own programs, including San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.

Landlords and tenants in jurisdictions with a pending local program can start their application through the state portal.

For more information on local rent assistance programs, check out this nifty map from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

‘What documents or information will I need?’

Landlords will need some documentation proving they are the property owner. That could include a deed, a mortgage note, property tax statements or a current lease agreement. If it is an informal living situation and there is no signed lease, bank statements that show rent is being collected are also accepted. Property managers can also apply on behalf of a landlord.

Eligible tenants have to have some financial impact from COVID-19. There is an opportunity to provide documentation, like a recent pay stub or a termination letter, but it is not required — and a written attestation that they have been impacted is sufficient.

Renters must also demonstrate housing instability or risk of homelessness. This could be owed back rent or an overdue utility bill.

‘If I am a landlord, am I required to apply for rent relief?’

No. But you probably should. And that’s the message coming from CAA, too.

“This is the best chance most landlords are going to have to be compensated for the significant portion of past due rent,” said Debra Carlton from CAA.

A landlord could even be penalized for not applying for rent relief if they later try to sue their tenant for rent debt in eviction court. CAA has also advised its members that turning tenants down for rent relief could violate California fair housing discrimination laws.

It’s especially important for smaller property owners who are hurting financially and rely on rent as a source of income.

“All of us have bills to pay and we cannot allow them to pile up,” said Jenny Zhao, a small property owner in San Jose whose tenants owe her thousands of dollars in back rent.

“Especially our mortgage, we have to pay that,” she added.

‘What if my landlord doesn’t want to participate?’

Some nonprofits that advocate for low-income tenants have voiced concerns that landlords may pick and choose which of their tenants get to receive relief, since the program depends heavily on the willingness of landlords to voluntarily opt-in.

If a tenant initiates an application for rent relief, the state says it will make at least three attempts to reach the landlord.

If a landlord refuses, the tenant can still receive enough money to cover 25% of their rent. That’s the minimum amount that renters need to pay each month to avoid eviction under the current state moratorium that expires on July 1.

‘How much money could I get?’

Potentially, as much as you need! There isn’t any cap on how much rent aid an individual can qualify for under the state’s program. And the state says it will keep accepting applications and sending out checks until the pool of money runs out.

In some cases, like if a landlord refuses to accept the funds, the tenant could use the money to cover future rent payments, but only after past due rent has been paid.

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Erin Baldassari.

A version of this story was first published on March 15.

Copyright 2021 KQED