Eviction Fears Swell In The Final Push To Get Californians To Apply For Rent Relief
Californians who’ve fallen behind on rent during the COVID-19 pandemic have just a few days left to apply for rent relief.
Tenant organizers are now scrambling to get renters signed up before the application window closes on Thursday. They fear those who don’t apply will soon be vulnerable to eviction.
“We're concerned,” said Edna Monroy, director of organizing for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE). “Imagine how many more people out there are not gonna be able to send their applications.”
About a week from the state’s March 31 application deadline, Monroy was busy weaving through rows of pop-up tents in a South L.A. parking lot. At fold-out tables, Monroy consulted with workers hunched over laptops, helping tenants submit last-minute requests for rent relief.
SAJE has been hosting these in-person application clinics throughout the pandemic. Previous clinics drew 45 applicants at most. For this event, “we're expecting over 100,” Monroy said. ”This is our biggest clinic.”
It’s an especially busy day, because the state’s March 31 deadline also represents the last chance for many tenants to take advantage of important eviction protections.
Under state law, non-paying tenants without local eviction protections could face eviction proceedings as soon as this Friday. State lawmakers are now trying to hammer out an extension that would offer eviction protections through June 30, but only for tenants with pending rent relief applicants.
Monroy was planning to work a 12-hour day, hoping to get as many people into the system as possible before it’s too late.
“Applying to the program provides an affirmative defense against eviction, so we're really urging people [to apply],” Monroy said.
Many Renters Unaware Of Approaching Deadline
At the SAJE application clinic, some tenants said they were only applying now because they just recently started falling behind on rent.
Others needed help because they didn’t have computers at home (applications can only be submitted online at HousingIsKey.com). Some faced language barriers, while others just found out the program exists.
“I hope that SAJE can help me with the problems I’m having,” said Lynwood renter Valerie Flores, speaking in Spanish.
Unable to work while staying home with her young son, who has special needs, Flores said she fell about a month and a half behind on rent. She came to the application clinic after a friend told her about it. The timing was fortunate, because Flores didn’t know March 31 was the last day to apply.
“My landlord told me that if I don't pay, I’ll have to leave,” she said. She worries other landlords in L.A. won’t take her in, because she has two children.
Long Waits, Processing Errors Leave Tenants Facing Eviction
Renters like Flores are just getting in the system. But others have been waiting months to get approved, sometimes up to a year.
“It’s really disheartening,” said Jenise Dixon, a Mid-City renter who first applied to the city of L.A.’s rent relief program in March 2021. Then, when the city turned its troubled program over to the state, she applied again.
By late March, she still hadn’t been approved.
“I just don't know what people are doing with all the money,” Dixon said. “We should not be on hold this long.”
In February, a state rent relief caseworker told Dixon her application couldn’t be processed until she uploaded a copy of her lease.
Dixon submitted utility bills and a rent ledger to prove her residency. But because she moved into her Mid-City apartment 19 years ago, she no longer had a copy of the original lease — and she hadn’t received an updated lease.
Dixon, who lost work as a filmmaker during the pandemic, said, “I'm in limbo, and I have a really relentless landlord who wants me out. I'm in the eviction process right now. So this is one more thing added to all the stress.”
A spokesperson for the state’s housing department said Dixon’s caseworker was wrong — the rent relief program does not require tenants to submit a copy of a formal lease. One day after we reached out to ask the state about Dixon’s case, her application was finally approved.
Most L.A. Rent Relief Applicants Still Waiting For Funding
Whether it’s due to eligibility issues, limited funding or the state’s own processing errors, the fact is that most applicants have not been approved.
Juan Gutierrez is one of them. “I've actually been on the waiting list for about four or five months,” he said.
Gutierrez rents an apartment in South L.A. with his girlfriend and young stepson. After getting sick with COVID-19 and being out of work for four weeks, he lost his job as an insurance agent. Since then, his landlord has served him a notice to pay his overdue rent or face eviction.
“It gets hurtful,”Gutierrez said. “I have a three-year-old. I don't want to see him suffer.”
According to a study from USC and PolicyLink researchers with the National Equity Atlas, more than 150,000 households in LA County have not yet received rent relief. That’s about 60% of L.A. applicants who are still waiting.
Last-Minute Sacramento Vote Could Extend Some Protections, Repeal Others
If California lawmakers get their way on a bill now working its way through the legislature, pending applicants will still have protections from eviction after the state’s rent relief program closes on April 1.
But what happens to tenants who missed the application deadline? Or those who can’t pay their rent for the month of April?
Depending on where those tenants live in L.A., their fate may be determined by a last-minute vote in Sacramento.
California legislators have tweaked and extended eviction protections multiple times throughout the pandemic, resulting in a confusing patchwork of rules governing who can be evicted, when, and for what reasons.
Now, they’re voting on AB 2179, which would protect existing rent relief applicants from eviction through June 30. That decision would give the state more time to fund applicants who’ve been waiting without those applicants having to fear eviction over non-payment of rent.
However, because of a provision in AB 2179 that preempts certain local ordinances, tenants in parts of L.A. County who were set to receive protections over non-payment of rent (whether or not they had applied for rent relief) may no longer get those protections starting April 1.
That has put some tenant groups in the unusual position of opposing a bill presumably written to protect tenants.
“AB 2179 threatens to repeal stronger local protections against eviction for non-payment of rent already passed in San Francisco and across Los Angeles County (outside the city of Los Angeles proper),” María Guadalupe Arreola and Shanti Singh with the statewide organization Tenants Together said in a statement Monday. “We should not be arbitrarily forced to accept limited protections for some tenants while taking away protections from others.”
The city of L.A. has eviction protections that are slated to continue well into 2023. For now, those appear to be safe from change under AB 2179.
Patricia Mendoza, an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said tenants across the state should be able to receive the same stronger protections as tenants in the city of L.A.
While state lawmakers work out the details, Mendoza is focused on getting tenants to submit their applications before the March 31 deadline — which will not change under the proposed extension.
“I can't stress it enough,” Mendoza said. “If you owe rent, if you have that rent debt, then please apply, apply, apply.”