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Tue, Feb

Tens Of Thousands Still Waiting As California COVID Rent Relief Program Runs Low On Cash

STATE WATCH

CA RENT RELIEF - In March 2021, the Los Angeles film industry was just beginning to roar back to life after a prolonged COVID-induced slump, but Michael Addis, a freelance filmmaker, was still deep in the hole. For more than a year he’d been racking up IOUs to his landlord and the tab stood at $43,792.

So Addis turned to an emergency state program designed to help people like him pay down rental debt accumulated during the pandemic. 

Later, in the summer of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom himself had touted the program, Housing Is Key, as the largest of its kind in the nation. “We’re laser-focused on getting this assistance out the door as quickly as possible,” he said at the time.

Addis heard back 20 months after he applied.  

On June 5, 2023 — his 61st birthday — he received an email, which he shared with CalMatters, notifying him that a payment had been approved in full. 

But by then it was too late. Addis had already downsized, moving out of his apartment a few blocks from the Marina Del Rey harbor to a smaller spot in the San Fernando Valley. He had also borrowed money from members of his family to pay his old landlord back, hoping that he’d be able to write off the new debt with the relief funds from the state. But once the company that owns his apartment complex, Equity Residential, received a check from the state, they sent it back, citing program guidelines that deemed Addis no longer eligible for assistance.

“It’s just painful to think that the money that was allocated to solve my problem was sent back and I’m still in debt and now I have to downsize again,” he said, explaining that he’s about to move to Simi Valley, even further from his teenage son, who lives with Addis’ ex-wife. “I’m not in any way leaning on the state but I had a bad year — a bad couple years — and there was a program to help. And they helped me in the worst possible way.”

Addis’ long wait for California’s emergency rental relief program isn’t unusual. Though the application window closed in March 2022, more than 70,000 households still have applications pending on the eve of 2024.

California lawmakers created Housing Is Key with billions of dollars in federal relief money, initially guaranteeing everyone who applied in time and was approved would get paid. The ultimate goal of the program was to stem a flood of evictions, as state and local emergency eviction bans came to an end. 

For many Californians, it’s been a vital lifeline. The program has sent more than $4.7 billion to nearly 370,000 lower-income households, according to data from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

But a sizable, unlucky minority of applicants — tenants and landlords alike — have had to wait…and wait and wait.

“Tens of thousands of people are at risk of being evicted or made homeless, not because they were ineligible, but because the state ran out of money.”

Anya Svanoe, spokesperson, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowermentnone

In the meantime, many have borrowed money from friends and relatives, pleaded and haggled with impatient creditors, missed monthly payments and turned to online support groups for tips on how to sidestep the program’s red tape. 

Still others have been evicted, though the state doesn’t maintain records on how many.

Tenant rights advocates and anti-poverty groups accuse the state of perpetuating a cruel bait-and-switch on some of the state’s neediest. The state’s housing department blames some of those same advocates for the delay, pointing to a lawsuit that slowed down the application review process.

For those still waiting, the hold-up has taken on a new degree of urgency. Housing Is Key might soon be out of cash. Though California’s Housing and Community Development department, which oversees the program, recently “identified additional funding,” it’s unclear whether that will be enough to pay out every last valid claim. 

How much is left?

The state’s housing department declined to estimate when the program will run out of money or how many people are likely to get help before that happens. That figure depends on two unknowns: How many of the as-yet unprocessed applications will ultimately be approved and, of those, how much rental debt each applicant is owed. 

“Given this inherent uncertainty, we remain focused on assisting as many eligible households as possible with the funding we have available,” said Pablo Espinoza, the department’s deputy communications director.

But the available figures offer a few hints. 

As of early November, there were at least 33,658 initial applications still pending, according to data published by the housing department. Another 39,401 applicants were initially denied, but awaiting an appeal review. That’s a total of 73,059 applications.

Though CalMatters reported in early October that the department projected the program would soon be out of money, program administrators were able to dig up some more. According to Espinoza, because the program is in its “final wind-down” phase, money initially set aside to pay administrative overhead or leftover from locally-run programs is now available to help renters. That’s left a new projected balance of roughly $171 million.

But that’s “not nearly enough,” said Anya Svanoe, a spokesperson for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, one of a handful of organizations that sued the department last year over its administration of the rent relief program. “Tens of thousands of people are at risk of being evicted or made homeless, not because they were ineligible, but because the state ran out of money.”

Svanoe points to the average pay out, published on the program’s online data dashboard: $12,018.

Assuming that same average payment, the program’s current funding would only be able to cover a little more than 14,000 people. That would leave the remaining 58,830 applicants, or 80% of the total pool, out of luck. 

Such a high denial rate wouldn’t be consistent with the history of the program. Housing Is Key administrators only denied 29% of completed applications through mid-2022, according to data provided by the department and shared with a coalition of legal aid groups as part of a court settlement reached earlier this year.

The denial rate seems to be ticking up as the program draws to a close. In early October, a mere 17% of the remaining applicants had been denied. A month later, the figure was up to 38%. 

That high denial rate could reflect the fact that applications that have been pending this long are disproportionately complicated and more likely to be rejected.

Asked in October about the possibility that many qualified applicants would not ultimately receive help due to a lack of funds, Espinoza said the program funding was “not infinite” and was never intended to serve all eligible applicants, though he acknowledged that the department and other Newsom administration officials had falsely said otherwise in the past.

That realization has started to dawn on some long-waiting applicants. Cassandra Smith, a graphic designer and single mother who lives in Westmorland south of the Salton Sea, said she applied in February 2021. 

“I’m trying to find a way to freelance or do whatever I can do to get the money to just pay it myself because I really don’t think they’re going to have enough money to pay people,” she said. “I can’t sit and depend on it and wait because it’s been two years.”

Unintended consequences?

Anti-poverty organizations have been pressuring the state to speed up the approval process. 

“These people have been literally waiting for years for a program that is supposed to be an emergency rental program,” said Madeline Howard, a staff attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

The Western Center and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment were two of the groups that sued the housing department in June 2022 over what they called an “opaque” application review process that harmed lower income renters and people of color. 

A month later, a superior court judge in Alameda County ordered the department to stop denying applications until the court had time to give the program’s review process a once-over. That pause lasted until January 2023, at which point the department was once again allowed to start sending out denials, so long as it explained why each request for assistance was being rejected.

The state ultimately settled the case, agreeing to audit its past denials and to make the application process more user-friendly. 

The housing department now lays some of the blame for the sluggish administration of the program on that court ruling, which prevented it from issuing full or partial denials. 

By early 2023, the program had “approved just about all of the applications we could identify as approvable” and “ had let go most of the program staff,” Espinoza said. Getting the program up and running after the legal hold was lifted added more time. An amended contract from March 2023 between the state and the Mississippi-based accounting firm Horne LLP that administers the program tacked an additional year to the agreement. 

Jackie Zaneri, an attorney with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, dismissed the suggestion that the lawsuit is to blame for the program’s tardiness. Nothing in the legal order halting denials prevented the program from processing applications internally and paying out partial awards. 

“They chose not to do that,” she said. 

The worst kind of help

For renters who do ultimately get help so long after they applied, it may come too late. 

Angela Okimoto, a 66-year-old former caregiver in Covina, has been waiting on her application since August 2021. In the meantime, she said she was evicted from the garage she was renting. Now she said she has no permanent home. 

The rental debt listed in her application, which she shared with CalMatters, adds up to $15,270.  But even if she wins her appeal, that check would go to her former landlord. That might improve her credit history, but it wouldn’t secure her a new place to live. 

“These people have been literally waiting for years for a program that is supposed to be an emergency rental program,”

Madeline Howard, staff attorney, Western Center on Law & Povertynone

Okimoto said she checks the online portal and calls the hotline nearly every day anyway. 

“All they tell me is, ‘Yeah, they’re working on it…just be patient.’” she said. “I say, ‘I’m as patient as can be. It’s been two years. You can’t get any more patient than that.’”

Landlords are also among those waiting. 

Cindy, who lives near Yuba City north of Sacramento and who asked that her surname not be published so as not to jeopardize her pending payment, said she bought her three-bedroom home in early 2020 and took on two tenants to help her with the mortgage. In late 2021, one of her tenants was unable to pay his rent, so she encouraged him to apply to Housing Is Key. 

Without his payments, she said she used credit cards to pay her mortgage. “That money is going to come so I’ll just use this to pay this bill,” she said she told herself. 

Her payment for $13,600 wasn’t approved for nearly two years. She said she’s still waiting on the check in the mail. 

Had she known at the outset how long the approval process would take, “I would have probably made different arrangements — I don’t know, maybe borrowed money from my parents,” she said. “When I moved in, I had great credit,” she said. As in the case with Addis, the Simi Valley renter, Housing Is Key has a policy of not reimbursing so-called shadow debt, loans taken out to pay down rental debt. Cindy now says she has $20,000 in credit card debt.

Last month, she said she unexpectedly lost her job of eight years. 

Turning to strangers for help

Leslie Pollock, a private chef in Santa Monica, wonders how she’ll ever be able to move out of her apartment.

Living in a rent-controlled unit in Santa Monica, Pollock said she initially applied for help while recuperating from cancer treatment after the pandemic shuttered her business. Even so, she considers herself one of the lucky ones. She’s working again, cancer-free and only owes three-and-a-half month’s rent. No one has threatened her with eviction yet. 

But she still feels stuck. Her landlord is reluctant to do upkeep with the debt outstanding, she said, and she worries about being able to rent anywhere else with so much red ink on her record. Most frustrating of all, she said her application was approved a year ago, but the check was sent to the wrong address. She said she regularly calls the hotline to try to explain the situation, but can never get someone with decision-making power on the phone. 

“I say, ‘Can I email?’ and they say ‘No, we don’t have capacity to get email,’” Pollock recalled. “They would just say ‘We can’t tell you anything,’ ‘We can’t tell you when that was approved,’ ‘We can’t tell you when that check was cut,’ ‘We can’t tell you…’”

Many of the applicants fed up with the program’s hotline or web portal have wound up in a Facebook group created by Bella Allen.

The owner of a property management company in Long Beach, Allen set up the private group in 2021 to help a friend who was trying to navigate the new state program.

Two years later the Facebook group’s membership has swelled to more than 3,000. Posts include triumphant screenshots of approval letters and despondent post-denial missives. There are requests for help translating the program’s bureaucratese, as well as rants about the state’s housing department or, more frequently, about Horne, the company hired by the state to administer the program. There’s an occasional meme and no shortage of theories that verge on conspiratorial. 

As the months have dragged on, the tenor of the posts have grown more desperate and irate. Allen said she has reached out to lawmakers, lawyers, journalists and legal aid groups, all to no avail. She said she spends hours after work and late into the night moderating the group and fielding questions as best she can. But she acknowledged that she isn’t an expert and has no inside knowledge of how the program works.  

“I don’t know what to tell these people,” she said. “And I’m gutted.”

(Ben Christopher covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics. This story was first published in CalMatters.org.)