By Manuela Tobías. CalMatters
Eviction protections for thousands of California households still waiting in line to receive payments from the state's multibillion-dollar rent relief program expired Thursday.
Since September 2020, the Legislature passed and Governor Gavin Newsom signed four laws protecting tenants who were unable to pay rent due to COVID-19 from eviction.
The most recent extension protected until June 30 tenants who had applied for rent relief from the state's $5 billion program by the March 31 deadline, but had not yet received a response or payments. Those tenants can now be taken to court by their landlords.
"It's highly unlikely that they will complete all of these applications before June 30, when the eviction protections expire," Sarah Treuhaft, vice president of research for PolicyLink, a nonprofit that has been reviewing the state's rent relief program, said during a press conference this week.
"This means they are likely to be evicted and eventually get rental assistance," he stressed.
Debra Carlton, chief lobbyist for the California Apartment Association, said they have asked their members not to take their tenants with pending applications to court.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the program through a contractor, said July 1 that it had approved all complete applications for eligible tenants.
Geoffrey Ross, deputy director in charge of the program, pointed out that they are still processing 13,000 applications that lack documentation or represent an appeal after a denial. They expect to clear all pending applications by early August.
The rent relief program has paid 339,000 households an average of $11,000 for a total of nearly $4 billion, according to the state's public data panel. Checks will soon be on their way to about 16,000 approved households this week.
The gap between completed and approved applications has narrowed significantly over the past week as case management has increased.
On June 30, the program's dashboard showed that some 404,000 people had completed their applications. Late this morning, after the original publication of this story, the dashboard was updated to show only 352,000 completed applications.
In that regard, Ross said that more than 70,000 applicants were removed from the queue and issued rejections due to account inactivity.
These applicants with incomplete applications were contacted at least three times and given at least 20 days to respond, many times longer, he said.
Using June 23 data, PolicyLink, which has been reviewing the state's weekly program data through Public Records Act applications, found more than 28,000 initial applicants and 57,000 reapplicants have yet to receive a response from the program.
Thus, Ross, of the housing department, said that the data, although produced by the state, has "flaws in interpretation," but declined to comment on details.
Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based accounting firm that specializes in disaster relief, will receive a maximum payment of $278 million to distribute federal rental relief funds capped at $4.5 billion, according to a contract renewal dated April 1 that CalMatters obtained through the Public Records Act on June 17.
The housing department could not say how much the company had been paid to date.
State Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland and co-author of the latest extension, acknowledged that the program has been "incredibly frustrating." She said she had been assured by the state housing department that her qualified applications would be paid.
"I think it's no secret that it's had challenges," he referenced. "And while I'm sympathetic to some of the challenges we've had as a state government in terms of dealing with a global pandemic that none of us anticipated, it's also our job as a government to function well, especially when you're talking about critical social safety nets."
But there is a silver lining for tenant advocates. A key part of the now-expired law was the prevention of stricter local anti-eviction measures, many of which will now go into effect, including in Los Angeles County.
The state faces at least two lawsuits over the program from tenant advocates, who argue that it has denied funding to qualifying tenants and is not covering the amount of rental debt originally promised.
As of June 17, more than 135,000 people, or nearly one-third of all households, who applied for rental assistance had their applications rejected, according to data CalMatters obtained from the housing department through the Public Records Act.
That number spiked in recent weeks when the program ended. The lawsuit, which cites the same data set, says tenants receive little or no explanation for their refusals, making it difficult to challenge the final decision.
"Tenants face eviction even when their landlords receive these giant checks and tenants who are eligible for assistance are denied with these cryptic notices that don't tell them why. It just doesn't make sense," said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, one of the groups suing the state over the program.
Ross, of the housing department, could not provide specific numbers on the denials, but said about half of the applicants are denied eligibility: they earn too much money, do not reside in a location covered by the state program, applied for a period of time outside the program guidelines, or could not prove their tenancy or the impact the pandemic has had on their ability to pay rent.
The other half of the denials were due to incomplete or inactive applications.
He said an unspecified number of applications were fraudulent or had been submitted multiple times.
He added that tenants with incomplete applications are told which section they need to provide more evidence, but are not limited to specific documents. He also stressed that they were given instructions on how to contact their case managers for assistance.
For his part, Wicks explained that the latest state budget, approved this week, includes nearly $2 billion to pay the state a line of credit opened earlier this year to pay tenants who filed applications by March 31, although it does not include new funds for rent relief.
The program covered rent for up to 18 months between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022 for low-income tenants who were financially impacted by COVID-19.
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