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Regional Interests

Thousands of Renters and Landlords Await State Aid as Eviction Moratorium Set To Expire

California has made improvements to its slow moving rental relief program, as only a fraction of the money available has gotten into the hands of people who need it.

A little more than 2% of people who have applied to California’s rent relief program have received aid. And, far fewer people have applied to the program than expected, state officials said Thursday.

The program, called Housing is Key, rolled out in March to provide financial relief to tenants who have fallen behind on rent due to pandemic related job losses.

As of Monday, the program had assisted 4,074 households out of about 190,000 with nearly $36,737,000 in aid distributed, according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

The state has received applications for $543 million in rent relief, which is a little more than a third of the $1.4 billion that’s available, officials from HCD said. Those figures don’t include $1.2 billion in rent relief that cities and counties are distributing through their own programs.

Jackie Lowery lives in Antioch with her extended family. Her husband, son and daughter-in-law all lost their jobs on the same day last March, right after the pandemic hit. Now, they owe about $11,000 in back rent.

“It’s just really scary right now,” she said. “My grandbabies — they’re six years old — they need a roof over their head. The whole family does. Everyone does.”

Lowery said her husband submitted his application in March but still hasn’t received word about whether or not it’s been approved.

“We have heard absolutely nothing back yet,” she said.

Jessica Hayes, a program specialist at HCD, said the delays are due to problems with the department’s anti-fraud system and to ensure there were no duplicate payments. They first prioritized the people with the lowest incomes but have started expanding the program to more people, she said.

And, Hayes said, they’re adding more staff.

“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.”

But Hayes also said that far fewer people have applied to the system than anticipated. Applicants have complained of a clunky and cumbersome system and the lack of translation for non-English speakers as inhibiting people from applying. In response to those concerns, HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez said the state streamlined the application, making it more user-friendly, and has added more languages, as well.

When the program launched, the application was only available in English and Spanish. It’s now available in simplified Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

“We have a redesigned application,” he said. “We have changed the flow of information required so that it is easier to understand and follow.”

Lowery said that before the redesign, it took her two days just to complete her husband’s rent relief application, which she helped him type out. That’s because she had to search for a number of documents — including proof of income, their lease, and proof that he had a COVID-related hardship — and that all took time.

“If you don’t have your things together and you don’t have all your information, it could literally take almost a week,” just to complete the application, she said.

Now, the state is requiring fewer documents while meeting legal requirements to protect against fraud, Velasquez said. People will have to declare, under penalty of perjury, that they meet the requirements. Now though, people should be able to fill out the application in under an hour, he said.

HCD has also made the website more mobile-friendly so that people can complete the work on their phones, without having to use a laptop, he said. And, they’ve created a paper application for people who are not tech savvy. The application will eventually be available for download on the website. In the meantime, people who want a paper application can call the state’s rent relief line at 1-833-430-2122.

In addition to the $2.6 billion approved in December during the second round of federal stimulus, the American Rescue Plan passed in March allocated another $2.6 billion to California for past and future rent relief.

The governor has also proposed another $2 billion to pay for past-due utility bills, said Jason Elliott, Governor Gavin Newsom’s senior counselor on housing.

“Our most important priority is making sure the significant amount of federal rental assistance we have gets into the pockets of people who are entitled to it, and who need it,” he said. “We need to increase the amount of money we’re making available to individual renters and landlords.”

The state’s eviction moratorium expires on June 30, but advocates for low-income renters are urging legislators to extend it.

Copyright 2021 KQED