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Housing and Homelessness

California To Simplify Rent Relief Application Many Have Found Confusing

A women in a red t-shirt and black mask holds a sign above her head that read "CANCEL RENT" as other march with her.
A coalition of activist groups and labor unions participated in a May Day march for workers' and human rights in L.A.
AFP via Getty Images)
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A new survey finds tenants are having a hard time accessing the state’s $2.6 billion emergency rent relief fund, which is contributing to the slow rollout of California’s marquee program to thwart a potential statewide eviction tsunami.

With one month left before the state’s eviction moratorium ends, the survey of 177 tenant advocatesreleased Tuesday found that:

  • Tenants had trouble applying in languages other than English and Spanish.
  • A lack of digital proficiency and access to documents showing income losses due to COVID-19 limited tenants’ ability to apply.

Survey respondents also reported that tenants who cannot contact or who face harassment from their landlords were effectively locked out of full rent relief, since the state’s plan requires landlords to forgive 20% of rental debt to receive the remaining 80%. Tenants in that circumstance can still avoid eviction by paying 25% of their rental debt.

All those factors have contributed to California’s slow disbursement of $2.6 billion in rent relief. Californians have applied for $473 million, but only $20 million has been paid out so far, according to the state, which is launching a number of changes to simplify the application process and get more money out the door faster.

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Risk Of Displacement

“This is a once-in-a-generation crisis, and we need to treat it like one,” said Melissa Jones, executive director of the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, one of the report’s sponsors.

The concerns voiced in the survey echo complaints from tenants who were unable to receive rent relief via first-come, first-served or lottery systems.

“The state is telling me they value the roof over my head far more than they value my life,” said Jaylynn Bailey, a Pasadena film and television writer who has fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.

“We are at risk of displacement now, and we have been for every day since April 2020,” she said.

Bailey said that, despite her access to a printer and scanner, and a successful application for unemployment insurance payments, she struggled with the rent relief application in L.A. County and had to ask a local resource center for help. In the meantime, she believes her landlord has hired a private detective to monitor her activity.

“Now we’re just waiting for the [eviction order] coming on July 1,” Bailey said.

More Languages, Less Documentation

The state has pledged to fix some of those issues as early as this week. Application websites in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog will be available as soon as this week, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

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The state also intends to issue a second, simpler rental relief application this week that would cut down the time it takes to fill out the forms from approximately 90 minutes to 45 minutes, he said.

Perhaps most importantly, the new application asks for less documentation to show pandemic-related income losses. Heimerich said the state would rely on attestations of income losses, similar to what the state did for people on unemployment during the pandemic. Tenant advocates say documentation has been a major hurdle for renters.

“We’re still going to check that we don’t have any inmates applying or any dead people applying,” Heimerich said, referring to extensive fraud that has contributed to a backlog of claims at the Employment Development Department.

Proposed Expansion

  • This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

In perhaps the most significant news for tenants behind on their rent, Gov. Gavin Newsom this month proposed increasing the rent reimbursement from 80% to 100%, which "would take the landlords who refused to participate out of the equation,” Heimerich said.

The proposal still needs legislative approval, as will budget trailer bills to extend the eviction moratorium, which ends on June 30.

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