BEN CHRISTOPHER | CALMATTERS
More than 100,000 California tenants whose applications for COVID-era rental assistance were denied or delayed by the state’s housing department will get another shot at relief, thanks to a new legal settlement between the state and a coalition of anti-poverty and tenant rights groups.
More aid isn’t guaranteed. But under the terms of the settlement signed at the end of last month, California’s Housing and Community Development Department agreed to audit its past denials and improve multilingual access for tenants who don’t speak English as a first language.
It also agreed to flesh out the appeal process for applicants and provide more detailed explanations when it denies an application. And it committed to providing more data on the race, ethnicity and location of those who were denied help.
California’s housing department received $5.2 billion in federal relief funds in 2021 to help struggling tenants keep up with rent while the state’s economy ground to a halt during the height of the pandemic. The program ended in March 2022.
But later that summer, the advocacy groups Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, PolicyLink and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy sued the department in Alameda County Superior Court.
Their lawsuit alleged the state rejected many renters without providing an adequate explanation and offered little or no recourse to those who felt their requests were wrongly denied. According to the coalition’s analysis of state data, the department rejected more than 130,000 applications, nearly 30% of the total.
The settlement brings that case to a close. The housing department admitted to no fault, but agreed to pay $1.1 million in attorney fees for the advocacy groups.
“Providing relief to California renters and landlords affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has always been our priority,” the department said in an unattributed written statement “We are committed to working with our partners to bring resolution and support to those remaining in the application pipeline.”
During the first year of the pandemic, the state distributed more than $4.5 billion to pay down the rent of more than 360,000 households, according to a summary provided by the state. The average amount of assistance was $12,246.
In the summer of 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom touted the program as the “largest and most successful eviction protection and rent relief program in the country.”
Waiting for COVID rent relief
Under the settlement, the department also agreed to clear its pending applicant pool within six months.
Faizah Malik, an attorney with Public Council representing the nonprofits, stressed at a Monday press conference that “over 100,000 households are still waiting for a decision.”
“We are pleased now to have reached this landmark settlement that will vastly improve the process for the remaining pending applications and our hope is that it will lead to more relief getting into the hands of Californians who need it.”
Two tenants whose applications were pending also spoke at the Monday press event.
“I don’t want to go back to the street,” said Mario Hercules, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, who explained he still had $14,000 in rental debt. “I don’t want to be in a shelter and I don’t want to be homeless.”
Blake Phillips said he maxed out his credit cards to pay his rent while awaiting support from the state. “Imagine what I need now,” he said. “I got so far behind because of this program that it literally destroyed my life.”
About 150,000 tenants reported facing imminent eviction at the time they filled out the application.
“The whole purpose of this really massive federal investment of funds was to prevent people from being evicted and yet there was no effort made to track evictions and who was actually kept in their house because of this money,” said Madeline Howard with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, another legal organization representing the coalition.
California’s renter assistance
Tenant and anti-poverty advocates have been criticizing the state’srental assistance efforts since the early days of the pandemic. Many tenants said they faced language barriers or lacked the technological know-how and access needed to fill out an application.
Despite the substantial sum of cash, many eligible applicants complained of a lack of public outreach, saying they simply weren’t aware that the program existed.
Once applications began to roll in, the state’s housing department was slow to process them and then get aid out the door,according to a report by the state auditor’s office.
Tenant rights advocates echoed that complaint.
Last year, a study co-produced by some of the parties to this week’s settlement claimed that only 16% of the nearly half a million applicants seeking rent relief from the state had actually received help. Another finding: Those who did get a check reported a median wait time of roughly four months.
A spokesperson for the state’s housing department disputed those figures at the time.
The settlement applies to anyone who sought assistance from the state’s Housing is Key program prior to April 1, 2022 and whose application is pending or was denied after June 6, 2022. Tenants who have questions about the status of their application can call the program’s hotline at (833) 430-2122 or visit the program’s application page.
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