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'Through the Cracks' 

California's landmark rent relief program may leave scores of tenants, landlords behind

click to enlarge Blanca Esthela Trejo, 46, is photographed looking outside the windows near her dining room table inside her home in Salinas on April 22. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Blanca Esthela Trejo, 46, is photographed looking outside the windows near her dining room table inside her home in Salinas on April 22. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

When Blanca Esthela Trejo, 46, lies down to sleep, it feels like shards of glass stab her back and cut into her lungs — a lingering effect of COVID-19.

"I'd like to be crouched down, hunched over all the time, because the pain is too much," she said.

But Trejo is foregoing medical treatment because she has put paying the rent on her Salinas apartment above all else — to keep a roof over her three children's heads.

A state law passed in January extended eviction protections for tenants through June 30, as long as tenants show they lost their income due to COVID-19 and pay a quarter of what they owe.

The law also allocates a whopping $2.6 billion in federal money for rent relief.

Trejo, however, is one of many desperate Californians who won't benefit because her debt is not to a landlord.

After losing her packing shed job — where she believes she caught the virus — she also lost her health insurance. Her husband has been out of work for most of the pandemic. Too scared to test the law, she paid rent in full every month with loans from friends. The couple now owes about $3,000, a debt Trejo wouldn't dare deepen, even to cover medical needs.

"Could you imagine?" she asked in Spanish. "We haven't paid them and we're going to ask for more?"

With the eviction moratorium set to expire in two months, the verdict is still out on the biggest rent relief program in the country. But legislators and tenant and landlord groups who complained about the 11th hour compromise worked out by Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders say their biggest fears are coming true.

"I am very concerned about tenants who sacrificed everything to pay the rent but went into extreme debt," said Assemblymember David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who helped craft the original eviction moratorium last year as the economy cratered during the pandemic. "How we assist those individuals is something that (the new law) did not contemplate."

To assess the success and shortcomings of the unprecedented rent relief effort across the state, CalMatters interviewed more than two dozen officials, advocates, landlords, tenants and volunteers, and reviewed several surveys and studies. That analysis found:

Tenants who voluntarily move to less expensive housing or take out loans to pay off rent are not eligible to receive relief.

Some landlords are turning down rent relief and still evicting their tenants.

Many mom-and-pop landlords, either struggling to cover their costs or tired of heavy regulations, are leaving the rental market.

While there are strict regulations to ensure only the neediest tenants get money, there are no restrictions on the landlords who can benefit. That favors larger and corporate landlords.

Strong legal protections for tenants are being undermined by a lack of understanding of the law and lack of access to legal representation.

The total need for rent relief remains largely unknown, but bigger cities say the funds are already insufficient.

Landlords are in charge

The new law allows landlords to collect aid totaling 80 percent of unpaid rent from April of 2020 through March of 2021, as long as they forgive the rest. Tenants can also apply for relief to pay utility bills and 25 percent of future rent, covering April, May and June of 2021, if funding allows.

But the back rent relief doesn't cover people who moved out to stay with family or pay cheaper rent, or those who paid with credit cards or other forms of debt, because the law is only designed to protect people from eviction.

Tenant groups say the law isn't effectively doing that, either. 

Landlords can turn down the 80 percent deal, in which case tenants can collect 25 percent of the rent they owe and have the rest of their debt relegated to small claims court.

"It legally allows them to pick and choose the fate of that person's life and whether or not they're going to be saddled with thousands of dollars of debt," said Anya Svanoe, communications director at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action.

That's exactly what happened to Patricia Mendoza, a single mother of two in San Diego. Her landlord told her he won't apply for the funds because he wants to remodel her unit. She has received three eviction notices to date.

"As a single mom, I'm not working right now," she said, her voice scratching from asthma and stress. "I'm trying my best to get you your rent. And right now you want nothing."

Svanoe said the law still gives landlords access to the "full breadth of tools they use all the time to try to get a tenant out," including owner move-ins, renovations or selling the unit.

It's unclear how many landlords are turning down the aid across the state. But when Los Angeles implemented a similar rental assistance program last year, just 56 percent of landlords opted in, according to data from the mayor's office. As a result, the city made the funding — a one-time $2,000 rental subsidy — available directly to nearly half of tenants.

Advocates want tenants to receive more than just 25 percent of back rent if their landlords reject the state deal because they are already seeing scenarios playing out similar to Mendoza's.

In Los Angeles, tenants say they're facing harassment from their landlords to pay up or leave, said Katie McKeon, staff attorney at the Public Counsel Law Center. The pressure is particularly high for people in rent-controlled units.

"So if you have a tenant who is paying significantly below market rate, you might be comfortable eating that loss if you can get that tenant out and re-rent that unit at market rate," she said.

In a survey of more than 25,000 tenants who applied to the Los Angeles rent relief program last year, researchers at the Housing Initiative at Penn found that nearly half of tenants faced landlord harassment. More than half took on debt or delayed other bills, and like Trejo, more than a quarter went without medical treatment to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Small landlords are also hurting

Bryant Phuong bought his eight-unit apartment building in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco in 1987, a decade after emigrating to the United States from Vietnam.

It was a steady source of income, until the pandemic turned it into a liability.

One tenant went five months without paying rent before disappearing, he said. Another hasn't paid rent in over a year. Owed around $26,000 in arrears rent, Phuong has had to dip into his savings to cover expenses on the property.

He's desperate to get help but says he has been waiting in the dark after submitting his application over a month ago. That wait has him considering selling the building through which he hoped to retire and build generational wealth for his two kids.

"That was my American dream," he said. "Now it looks like we might as well let it go."

In another recent survey of nearly 1,300 landlords in Los Angeles, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that more than a third of landlords with one to five properties couldn't survive for another three months under current conditions.

David Haas, managing broker at Ernst & Haas Management Co. in Long Beach, said nearly a fifth of the company's 1,100 clients have left the rental market over the past year. That's not so much because of people who fell behind on rent, but because of perceived risk.

"Houses, condos, the stuff we manage, that stuff is coming off and being sold," Haas said. "With all the statutes and regulations, they're not seeing the risk as worth the higher rents. So what it's doing is it's driving rents through the roof."

Groups around the state are worried about what it will mean for rent prices, tenant welfare and generational wealth for people of color if mom-and-pop landlords call it quits.

Jimar Wilson, Southern California market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, remembers growing up in the historically Black neighborhoods of South Los Angeles with his two brothers and single mom. The threat of eviction, he said, was always looming.  

"It could've been a lot worse had it not been for the property owners who were indigenous to the community, who were willing to work with the community," he said.

Wilson said low-income neighborhoods of color will need a lot more aid to prevent further gentrification and economic devastation.

His organization has partnered with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and others to put $5 million in the hands of struggling landlords in the 90011 ZIP code of Los Angeles in a program that launched April 15. The program illustrates a key point experts make about the new law.

"We can't view any one thing as a singular solution," said Vincent Reina, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's a need for us to face the housing affordability crisis that predates the pandemic."

Unprecedented scale brings big problems

The state has offered jurisdictions three options to roll out the rent relief program: The state can do it for them, the city or county can do it themselves or the jurisdiction can distribute its share of federal dollars using its own rules, and let the state distribute the rest.

Officials admit it's complicated — and landlords agree.

San Francisco, where Phuong lives, opted for the third option. But officials there have yet to roll out their program. People can submit applications to the state, but the state won't review them until San Francisco sets its eligibility requirements. In some cases, the state money will only go out once the local money is spent, to prevent duplication.

The application is long and requires applicants to upload several documents, including federal tax withholding forms, lease and mortgage information from landlords and proof of loss of income from tenants.

That's necessary, according to state officials, to prevent a repeat of California's unemployment department debacle, where fraud may have totaled more than $31 billion. But it's also making it more difficult to get the help to those who need it most.

Zaid Tahan, a landlord in Riverside, said his tenants are struggling to prove they lost income because of COVID-19. The rules in the city of Riverside and Riverside County allow landlords to get 100 percent of the back rent owed. Tahan only hopes to get half of the $40,000 total his tenants owe, at most.

Nanette Fowler, executive director of Shores of Hope, a small nonprofit helping people in West Sacramento sign up for the program, says one tenant had to meet with her staff three times to complete his application. Most people haven't heard of the program, or don't know they're eligible.

"I can't imagine doing this in a rural community," she said. "I mean, we're across the bridge from the Capitol."

Some landlords keep their lease on a napkin, and many rural tenants don't have access to reliable broadband or a scanner, so that requires far more time and handholding, according to Katie Wilbur, executive director of RH Community Builders in Fresno. 

"That was one of the conversations we had with Fresno County early on," Wilbur said. "The allocated money (under the new law) was not going to be enough to make the program successful."

Community-based organizations across the state helping to roll out the program repeated the same message: There's simply not enough funding to help them reach those most in need.

"It doesn't bring us confidence to know we're underfunded yet expected to serve," said Deutron Kebebew, a program director at Community Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Kebebew said his organization didn't get enough money to fund two full-time positions. Yet medium to large property management companies often have more staff members to help tenants submit applications.

That could create an uneven playing field for the mom-and-pop landlords who most need aid, according to Connie Chan, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Chan introduced a resolution, passed unanimously by the board, to track which landlords benefit from their local program — which the state isn't set up to do. She's also urging corporate landlords to negotiate their own rent relief with tenants, to prioritize funds for small property owners.

"Let's make sure that, before you award these funds, there is a level of cultural competence and language access so that everyone can benefit, not just those who pay lobbyists in Sacramento or San Francisco," she said.

Moving forward

No one knows exactly how much tenants across California owe their landlords. But if applications so far are any indication, the need for rent relief is enormous.

In just a few weeks, the city of Los Angeles received more than 124,000 applications, requesting about $330.5 million, compared to the $235.5 million available for this round of assistance, according to the mayor's office.

As of April 23, state-administered rent relief programs had received more than 51,000 applications requesting nearly $355 million in assistance. The bulk of those applications were submitted by tenants, according to Russ Heimerich, deputy secretary of communications at the state Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, which is rolling out the "Housing is Key" program.

Another nearly 100,000 applications are in progress, with more than $907 million available in total. Some of those funds, however, won't be available until local programs' funds dry up.

More money is on the way. California expects to receive about $2 billion more for rental assistance from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, Heimerich said.

The guidelines for those funds have not been laid out yet. That matters, Heimerich explained, because many of the requirements of money allocated through the new state law were set by the federal government. That includes, for example, that the money goes to landlords first, and that the bulk be used for back rent, instead of other forms of debt.

With statewide eviction protections set to expire June 30, advocates worry that landlords will file evictions in droves starting in July. While the law will continue to protect those who paid at least 25 percent of their back rent, tenants still have to defend themselves in court. Lawyers are hard to come by in most parts of the state, and winning a case in court without representation is very unlikely, advocates say.

"If we had a really well-oiled legal tenant support system, it could be better," said Svanoe, from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action. "But that's not where we are right now. So people are going to fall through the cracks."

If the courts are unfriendly to tenants, the state Capitol isn't an easy place to move legislation protecting renters, either. 

Assemblymember Chiu said he and other supporters have to wait and see how well the new law is working before negotiating another deal to prevent evictions. That's difficult to measure when the majority of checks haven't been cut and evictions the law has prevented aren't being tracked.

"All that being said, my colleagues understand how catastrophic it would be if we were to end eviction protections and see a tsunami of evictions occur," Chiu said. "I'm hopeful that if we need to extend eviction protections past June, we'll be able to do that."

In the meantime, tenants left out by California's rent relief rules are still waiting.

Ryan Furtkamp, who works at University of California at Berkeley in communications, and his wife moved out of their pricey Oakland apartment in February to save on rent. The couple lost more than half their income at the start of the pandemic when most of her dog-walking business dried up.

His landlord, San Francisco-based Mosser Companies, told him over email that his debt totals more than $25,000. But because he moved voluntarily, he isn't eligible for state rent relief.

"It feels like we're being punished for making that decision," Furtkamp said.

When he first heard the state of California was taking action to protect tenants, "it was a huge relief," Furtkamp added. "Now, it feels that people are powerless in terms of what's going to happen to them."

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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