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With state rental assistance slow to arrive, tenants and service groups look anxiously to the end of eviction protections 

Adam Schooley, of Los Osos, owes more than $4,000 in back rent to his landlord after he lost his job in December for the second time during the pandemic.

So in March, when the state announced a new rent relief program that would assist the estimated 900,000 California households also behind on rent due to COVID-19 hardships, Schooley applied on Day One.

click to enlarge TRYING TO AVOID EVICTIONS A state program aimed at assisting households behind on their rent amid COVID-19 has not kept up with demand. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • TRYING TO AVOID EVICTIONS A state program aimed at assisting households behind on their rent amid COVID-19 has not kept up with demand.

"I've never missed rent payments before, even credit card payments," said Schooley, who worked as a manager in the San Luis Obispo County hospitality industry. "This is something I never expected to come up in my life."

To avoid eviction from his apartment, Schooley paid 25 percent of his rent using unemployment benefits, while anticipating that the state would come through with aid before the statewide "eviction moratorium" lifted on June 30.

But three months later, with that June 30 deadline soon approaching, Schooley hasn't seen a dime from the program yet—neither has he received word from the state that his application was approved, he said.

"Since the end of April, I've been unable to get any information from official sources. ... My case manger stopped replying to my emails and phone calls," Schooley said on June 18. "I'm still $4,000 in the hole since January, and I'm expected to pay that in 13 days. I'm scared. I have no idea what's going to happen."

Schooley isn't alone. California is facing a mountainous backlog of applications for its rent relief program from tenants and landlords. Recent data reported by Cal Matters indicates that only $50 million of the $1.4 billion allocated to the program has been delivered to households thus far.

Delays aren't the only problem with the program. Stakeholders also criticized its cumbersome application (which the state has revised to improve simplicity); its commitment to refund landlords only 80 percent of their owed rent, which leaves tenants in a position to receive only 25 percent if a landlord doesn't participate; and its exclusion of tenants who'd gone into credit card debt to pay their rent.

"The application was very long initially," said Steve Ortiz, CEO of the United Way of Santa Barbara County, which has assisted Santa Maria households with rent relief applications. "The guidelines were restrictive. But I think they'll start moving faster now."

Given the hiccups, most stakeholders anticipate that the Legislature will extend eviction protections past June 30 and tweak the program's parameters to refund tenants and landlords for all owed rent (instead of 80 or 25 percent). But as of press time, those decisions were still up in the air.

"It's all predicated on the Legislature," said Janna Nichols, executive director of the Five Cities Homeless Coalition, a nonprofit based out of Grover Beach. "I think we're going to get there. I think they're going to work it all out."

Two counties, two experiences

While tenants in SLO County, like Schooley, anxiously await word from the state about rent relief, about 1,000 households in Santa Barbara County have already received payments.

That's because Santa Barbara County decided to administer a local rent relief program that ran parallel to the state's—an option given to all counties back in March. Basically, California gave counties the chance to get federal funding to run a localized rental assistance program, or defer that money and responsibility to the state.

Santa Barbara County opted to partner with United Way to run a $12 million local program, which is helping eligible tenants cover 100 percent of their owed rent and utilities. As of June 18, Ortiz said about $8.4 million had gone out to 1,001 households—including $3.6 million to supervisorial Districts 4 and 5, which include the Santa Maria Valley.

"I think that was the best decision by our local supervisors because we are able to move much faster on a local level," Ortiz said. "We've been told we're one of the fastest-moving programs in the state."

But the demand for rent relief is so high, Ortiz said, that United Way had to close its application portal after receiving more than 6,500 applications. Households making less than 80 percent of the median income are eligible, but the program will prioritize those at 50 percent or lower.

"We're churning through the applications that have already been submitted," Ortiz said. "The funding—it's not enough to cover all of the individuals."

California recently allocated another $14 million in rental aid to Santa Barbara County as part of its state-level program, according to Ortiz, and United Way is now helping households navigate that application process. But the concern now is that the money will not get out quickly enough to enough people with June 30 approaching.

"We're starting to hear the desperation of the tenants and landlords, just knowing that that deadline is looming and there is need for funds," Ortiz said. "There is hope and an expectation that additional funds will come down, we're just not sure they'll arrive in time."

These concerns are even more profound in SLO County, a jurisdiction that decided not to set up its own local rent relief program, deferring about $17.5 million in aid to the state's program. In SLO County, nearly all tenants and landlords still await rental assistance.

According to Nichols, of the Five Cities Homeless Coalition, out of the more than 350 applications her organization has assisted with thus far, only 10 had been paid out as of June 14.

"It's been really slow. And everybody acknowledges this," Nichols said.

Up until the state recently simplified and streamlined the application, the process of applying for aid often took three hours, a litany of documents, and multiple meetings, Nichols said. Then households waited months for their applications to move through the state system.

"Our job is to enroll people, and there's another company that has the responsibility of doing case management," Nichols explained. "I think they were just woefully understaffed."

Despite the frustrations, Nichols said the state seems to recognize the problems and is fixing them. She expects the process to start moving much more quickly. She also said she's confident that the Legislature will extend eviction protections past June 30 and will also commit to subsidizing 100 percent of applicants' back rent.

"I do believe the state understands the problem," she said. "I think the Legislature is going to make a change."

Most troubling to Nichols, she said, is the number of households that went into credit card debt to pay their rent over the pandemic. That debt is not currently eligible for relief under the program. But Nichols said those tenants could be eligible for future rental assistance, so she encourages them to apply at housingiskey.com.

"There really should be no reason that a tenant or landlord doesn't apply for this program," she said.

If the state does push out the June 30 deadline, it could keep thousands of Californians housed and give the state's program proper time to dole out resources, advocates say. If it doesn't, starting July 1 full rent is due, and starting Aug. 1 landlords can take tenants to small claims court for past rent owed.

"It is definitely the feeling among our staff and partners," Ortiz said, "that unless there are changes in policy, we'll probably be seeing a good amount of evictions." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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