Officials urge area renters to apply for COVID relief

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

HUNTINGTON PARK — Residential tenants unable to cover past due rent from March 2020 to June 2021 because of economic injury sustained by business closures and job losses through the COVID-19 pandemic would qualify for a low-income relief program sponsored by California in coordination with area cities and nonprofit groups.

The program prompted a group of Huntington Park leaders and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago to offer a conference to invite poor tenants and small landlords to file rent relief applications under the state’s COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, and access funds while they last.

Santiago, followed by Huntington Park City Council members Marilyn Sanabria, Karina Macias and Vice Mayor Eddie Martinez, touted the potential benefits of Senate Bill  91, and asked area residents to work with their landlords if they have failed to pay rent one or more months through the pandemic, and apply for a slice of the $2.6 billion available.

The money was funneled by the federal government as part of the CARES Act.

“We want to make sure our residents go out and qualify for the dollars,” Santiago said.

Although SB 91 states that the potential period of coverage starts March 2020, the city of Los Angeles published on its website that the applications would only cover missing rent starting from April 2020 through June 31, 2021.

SB 91 would provide resources to cover up to 80% of all the pending rent of qualifying tenants, with the condition that landlords must waive the remaining 20%.

The law also extends housing eviction moratoriums until June 30 and enacts new safeguards such as requiring landlords to issue 15-day eviction notices in place of the traditional three-day period, and requires them to attach a written statement referring to the causes that led them to seek the end of tenancy.

To be approved for the state’s rent relief program, affected tenants must meet three criteria:

• At least one household member should qualify for unemployment benefits, already exhausted them, or experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19.

• A household member must be at risk of becoming homeless or lives with housing instability, including past-due utility bills, due rent or eviction notices. Also, household members should live in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or experience other evidence of homelessness proclivity determined by program administrators of California Housing is Key.

• Applicants’ income is at or below 80% of the area median, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Los Angeles County, the area median income for a family of four in 2020 was $77,300, and to qualify they should report earnings of $61,840 or less.

The rent relief program would prioritize funds to eligible households earning 50% or less than the area median income, or $38,650, and then to communities disproportionately impacted by coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act does not require proof of citizenship or legal status in the country to be approved for emergency funds.

“Priority would be given to those who are the poorest,” Santiago said. “And that is absolutely important for the district I represent, and the city we are sitting in, the city of Huntington Park.”

The city’s vice mayor called on religious organizations, LGTBQ groups and community members to share the news about the funds that can free families from long-term debt and potential financial misery.

“We need your help,” Martinez said. “We need you to talk to your cousins, family members and neighbors to get the word out.  This is very important and we only can do so much by being here speaking of it. We all need you to be active and spread this word.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 91 on Jan. 29, a day after the Legislature approved its final version.

It requires landlords who have tenants with past due rent from March 2020 until January 2021 to send them a notice with form CA-405, telling them about the act’s June extension and the relief program by Feb. 28. Otherwise they would face barriers serving the new 15-day notices, said Whitney Prout, policy and compliance attorney with the California Apartment Association in a video.

If the landlords refuse to apply, and tenants move along with their application, the state agency in charge of disbursements would issue payment for 25% of the total rent owed, and grant eviction moratoriums until June 30, 2021.

“The state’s rental assistance program was tailored to allow low-income residents,” Prout said. “Suits against tenants with higher incomes could be allowed to continue either in small claims or Superior Court with documents that prove landlords made good faith efforts to investigate whether public assistance was available to relieve the tenant, sought governmental assistance for that resident and cooperated with the resident to get any rental assistance from a public or private party.

Bell Gardens Community Service Supervisor Diana Ortiz said her city will provide assistance to area landlords and tenants filing the financial relief applications by scheduling appointment at (562) 806-7654.

Ortiz told residents that despite the eviction moratorium, renters must give a financial distress statement once a month to the landlord, even if they did not receive a document by Feb. 28.

Another tenant protection bans landlords from charging new fees on services provided before March 2020, and for billing late fees and efforts to collect them, Prout said.

If landlords serve a 15-day notice of eviction, they should state the reason for which they are terminating the tenancy, as part of the just clause requirement.

For her part, Huntington Park City Councilwoman Karina Macias said she is glad a slice of the funds would bring relief to undocumented working-class people in communities nested in Southeast Los Angeles County.

“Many communities in the area have suffered a lot, and do not qualify for the federal relief programs,” Macias said. “This money would help them in a big way to pay for rent.”

The law calls for regular civil cases on accrued COVID-19 rental debt  to be filed on or after July 1 in Superior Court, and allows stay to pending cases filed before Oct. 1, 2020, with the caveat that the suits should be versus residents who did not qualify for the state’s rental assistance plan, said attorney Embert Madison with the California Apartments Association.

Parties seeking rent adjudication against tenants affected by the dislocation wrought by COVID-19 cannot file lawsuits in small claims courts until Aug. 1.

In addition, the law bars agencies in the field from screening prospective tenants on behalf of landlords to use any records related to COVID-19 rental debt to deny applications to rent a dwelling, or as basis to reject an application.

Courts can reduce damages awarded to a landlord during the pandemic, if the court determines the landlord refused to receive assistance from the state, and the resident met the criteria to qualify for the funds and the money was available, Madison said.

Santiago said the rent relief program is a win-win for landlords and tenants.

“Likewise, landlords would benefit from this because the state would give you 80% of what is owed, if you forgive 20%,” he said. “This is a rescue not just for tenants, but for small landlords as well. And we hope that they’ll apply.”

Applications will be accepted until April 30.

For further information, visit www.housingiskey.com, or contact Housing Rights Center at (213) 387-8400, ext. 1012, or Los Angeles House of Ruth at (805) 399-1664.

Alfredo Santana is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Southeast Los Angeles County area. He can be reached at alfredo68j@hotmail.com.