By Paula Nazario
California’s rent relief program was one of the few measures offered to help ensure families did not lose their homes. Yet our heads of state let the program end without offering any other solution to stem the evictions. California needs to invest a portion of its budget surplus into reopening the program and ensuring communities of color have the support they need to apply successfully.
I know what a lifesaver this program can be. My working-class family was among those asking for and receiving help. When the district I worked for announced plans to close schools in May 2020, my family had no idea how we were going to pay the bills and rent.
I quickly found another job. However, as COVID-19 infection rates continued to rise, my sister and I knew our parents could not continue working. They were at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because they worked in confined spaces and had pre-existing health conditions.
Despite our best efforts to find new jobs and meet our bills, it was clear in July 2020 that we needed help. We applied for the City of Los Angeles Emergency Tenant Assistance Program, which was funded with state and federal dollars. After three months of waiting, we were lucky to receive a one-time payment.
The process, however, was incredibly difficult.
It took the willingness of our landlord to participate, and for my sister and I to have a thorough understanding of the eligibility criteria. My family’s story is not uncommon, but our ability to access help is.
A recent report by the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that nearly 53% of California’s struggling tenants have never applied for rent assistance – more than in other States – and only 16% received aid. Then, in March 2022, state lawmakers authorized the program to shut down, leaving many families at risk of eviction.
Acknowledging the problem, the governor in May proposed using $2.7 billion of California’s massive $97.5 billion budget surplus to increase funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. – but only to pay those who had applied before the deadline.
The decision to end the program prompted tenant groups in Los Angeles County to file lawsuits. The lawsuit claims the state unlawfully cut off candidates who were waiting for funds. It calls on the state to make the full 18 months of promised rental assistance available to eligible people.
My family and other tenants faced many hurdles, but understanding the eligibility criteria was our biggest challenge. We weren’t sure if we qualified as LA residents. We struggled to determine whether the funds were only for people behind on rent or for low-income people struggling but still up to date with their rent.
We did not know how to provide proof of financial hardship caused by the pandemic. Also, our family members were ashamed to ask for a rent reduction.
Other tenants told researchers they found the online application too difficult to access and navigate. This could explain why only 39% of struggling Latino renters received rental debt relief.
While the legislature has passed and the governor has signed into law Assembly Bill 2179, which extends eviction protections until June 30, that is not enough. Heads of State must reopen the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and ensure outreach to families of color.
Between July 2021 and January 2022, about 14% of California renters fell behind on their rent and 15% feared eviction. Of these, the least likely to receive rent relief were Asians and Latinos, likely due to language barriers and lack of culturally competent support. The Governor’s proposal further exacerbates these fairness issues.
His plan increases the help available to those who managed to figure out the request before the March deadline, but it doesn’t help those who didn’t. Nor does it explain why so few applied.
Too many families have been left out of the process. The state needs to do more to make sure they don’t lose their homes because they couldn’t pay their pandemic rent debt
Paula Nazario is a policy fellow at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and a researcher on the initiative’s report on California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.