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Housing and Homelessness

Why LA Renters Can't Apply For California's Billions Of Rent Relief Dollars

Two people waring masks hold up signs on a sidewalk, one reading "Food not rent" and the other "No wages, no rent."
Protestors line up in front of the Banc of California Stadium demanding a freeze on rent during the pandemic.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)
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California has $5.2 billion in federal funding to spend on rent relief for tenants who’ve fallen in debt to their landlords — but renters in the city of Los Angeles currently can’t apply for it.

The city stopped accepting rent relief applications in April, and it currently doesn’t have a clear timeline for reopening the program.

Those barriers are raising fears of eviction among tenants and housing advocates, who say renters need to get in the system to claim eviction protections laid out in recent state legislation.

“By not opening it up to all tenants, they're essentially telling the tenants that couldn't apply, ‘Tough luck, you're going to be facing eviction now,’” said Public Counsel Senior Staff Attorney Faizah Malik.

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City Says Tenants Will Be Protected — Advocates Aren’t So Sure

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Why LA Renters Can't Apply For California's Billions Of Rent Relief Dollars

L.A.’s housing department says tenants who are behind on rent will still have protections after the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Sept. 30.

“Tenants in the city of L.A. have 12 months after the expiration of the local emergency or May 2023, whichever comes first, to pay back any rent owed,” said Anna Ortega with L.A.’s Housing and Community Investment Department.

But tenant advocates worry that landlords will be ready to file evictions as soon as Oct. 1. They say at that point, it’s not clear tenants with unpaid rent would prevail in eviction court.

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Local lawmakers are now pushing the city to get money out more quickly and to reopen the program.

By not opening it up to all tenants, they're essentially telling the tenants that couldn't apply, ‘Tough luck, you're going to be facing eviction now.'
— Public Counsel Senior Staff Attorney Faizah Malik

“Tens of thousands of people [are] on the cusp of joining another 41,000 Angelenos experiencing homelessness, all because of a bureaucracy that is too slow to process paperwork,” said Councilman Kevin de León, who introduced a motion last Friday urging the housing department to expedite payments to current applicants and to start accepting new applications.

The housing department’s Ortega said the city “may reopen applications in October.”

Malik argued the city’s delays leave tenants vulnerable. She said under a recent state law, AB 832, qualified tenants can prevent an eviction after Sept. 30 if they have a rent relief application under review. But Malik said tenants can’t invoke that protection if they can’t apply.

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“In order for tenants to be able to fight those [evictions], they need to have pending rental assistance applications,” Malik said. “We need to get tenants in the system now.”

'No One Can Give Me Any Answers'

Marlene Paradee is one of the tenants currently shut out of the city’s rent relief program.

She lost her job at a political consulting firm in November. For a few months, she was still able to pay rent on the apartment she splits with her partner in Downtown L.A.

But come May, Paradee’s savings had run out. By the time she started looking for help, L.A. had already closed its rent relief program. Tenants in the city cannot apply for help from the state or county.

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Paradee said, “I'm going to hope that the city reopens its program, or that we do get additional funding, because there isn't money I can get from anywhere else."

Paradee said she reached out to her city councilman, the mayor’s office and the city’s housing department to ask for advice. But she said their answers were vague and unhelpful.

Governor Gavin Newsom and other elected leaders have been telling low-income tenants to apply for rent relief right away at HousingIsKey.com, saying California is committed to clearing their debts.

Paradee, who now owes nearly $8,000 to her landlord, said it’s frustrating to keep hearing that aid is available.

“Actually, no — the aid that everyone's talking about, Angelenos can't apply for that,” she said. “I feel like I'm crazy, like I'm going in this endless loop. No one can give me any answers.”

Every time we call in we get the same answer: ‘We don't have enough resources. We're doing the best that we can. Be patient.’ This has been going on for months.
— Ari Chazanas, president of Lotus Properties

We reached out to Newsom’s office for comment. Jason Elliot, the governor's senior counselor on housing and homelessness, wrote back: “The Administration is working closely with local Los Angeles leadership to ensure Angelinos get the rent relief they need."

Officials with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development said they’re offering technical support to help L.A. speed up its processing of applications. Recent statistics show that as of early August, the city had only distributed about 15% of its first round of funding.

L.A. County’s Rent Debt Could Top $3 Billion

Even with the narrow application window, L.A. has been flooded with requests.

More than 110,000 tenants and landlords across the city applied before the April 30 cutoff. The total back rent requested so far ($530 million) far exceeds the city’s first round of available funding ($236 million).

L.A. plans to make another $77 million of federal funds available soon, and the city could receive more funding in the future. Under the state’s rent relief guidelines, hard-hit areas like L.A. stand to receive leftover money from areas with less need.

Transfers from smaller cities and counties could help L.A. reopen its program and expand eligibility, but it’s unclear when that might happen.

5eb9d4a57b247700094a1b86-eight.jpg
Protesters line up in front of the Banc of California Stadium demanding a freeze on rent during the pandemic.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

Estimates of L.A.’s total rent debt vary, but they all point to an overwhelming need.

UCLA researchers recently published results from a survey that found 49% of tenants in L.A. County owed some amount of money to their landlord. Many are less than a month behind on rent, while others are much deeper in debt. In total, the researchers estimate that the county’s rent debt exceeds $3 billion.

Many tenants have borrowed money from friends and family, taken out high-interest payday loans or used credit cards to keep up with their rent, said Michael Manville, a UCLA associate professor of urban planning and one of the researchers behind the survey.

I feel like I'm crazy, like I'm going in this endless loop. No one can give me any answers.
— Marlene Paradee, an L.A. tenant shut out of the rent relief program.

Since those tenants currently can’t apply for rent relief, “they are at risk of having a very severe debt burden going forward, with no obvious path out of it,” Manville said. “The existing assistance programs to help people deal with tenant debt really are restricted to paying what is owed to the landlord.”

Many landlords say they haven’t received any money from the city’s program yet.

Ari Chazanas, president of Lotus Properties, said about 35 of his company’s tenants have fallen behind on rent. Most have applied to L.A.’s rent relief program, and his company has submitted all the paperwork requested by the city. But so far, they’ve received no approvals or funding.

“Every time we call in we get the same answer,” Chazanas said. “‘We don't have enough resources. We're doing the best that we can. Be patient.’ This has been going on for months.”

‘They Should Realize That The Need Is Real’

The city’s rent relief program is focused on serving the lowest-income applicants first.

To qualify for the city's program, households must have annual incomes at or below 50% of the area’s median income (that's $56,300 for a family of four). The city is currently prioritizing those with incomes below 30% of the area’s median income (no more than $33,800 for a family of four).

Those limits (which the city says could be revised in the future) are much lower than thresholds in other parts of the state, where tenants with incomes of up to 80% of their area’s median income qualify for aid.

So far, the city has been contacting prioritized applicants for more information. It’s asking tenants to verify their identity, their level of rent debt and to elaborate on their loss of income during the pandemic.

Advocates say that back-and-forth process has been cumbersome and time-consuming, especially for those struggling to access the city’s online portal due to limited computer and Internet access.

Housing department officials said the city has more than 100 agents processing applications, and is looking into adding more.

Meanwhile, applicants like Melissa Reyes say they’re left in the dark.

Reyes lives with her parents and her younger brother in Boyle Heights. She said during the pandemic, her full-time research job at USC had been reduced to part-time status. She got her family’s rent relief application in on time, but said she still hasn’t heard back from the city.

“They should realize that the need is real,” Reyes said. “They should release the funding for everybody that has applied, and they should reopen the application, because there are still tenants in need who weren't able to apply.”

What questions do you have about business and the economy in Southern California?
David Wagner focuses on Southern Californians getting left behind in an economy beset by soaring unemployment, pandemic-related business closures and high housing costs.