By Alfredo Santana
LOS ANGELES — With a monthly rent of $1,300, Claudia Chacon witnessed early into the pandemic the economic blow restaurant closures brought to her husband. The shadow of an eviction from her apartment has lurked around Chacon for a year.
Mother of three adolescents, Chacon suffers from a combination of osteoporosis and arthritis, debilitating conditions that prevent her from working.
Her husband, a restaurant employee, was furloughed and laid off during the first two waves of COVID-19 that hit local eateries hard. His workload was reduced to counter county-mandated shutdowns while restaurants pivoted to outdoor food servings and takeouts amid a summer spread of the coronavirus.
In the first months, the family missed three rent payments, and Chacon, a former Santa Monica College student who earned a degree in business administration, estimated debt the family accrued topped $8,000.
Amid the grim financial reality for blue collar employees, the COVID-19 Emergency Renters Assistance Program aims to bring relief to Chacon’s household and thousands more, if they are able to document economic injury through the pandemic.
Sixteen non-profit organizations in Los Angeles County fuel the drive to get applications ready for low-income tenants, following the loss of income between April 2020 and March of this year due to the pandemic, by compiling income tax reports, letters from employers attesting to cuts in work hours, furloughs and layoffs.
These nonprofits play a critical role in reaching out to families who may not feel comfortable soliciting public funds, are first-generation migrants without legal status, or are hesitant about the scope and impact of the rent relief program.
At an outdoor news conference held at the Bresee Youth Center March 30, Chacon said the municipal program, part of a statewide plan that funnels $2.6 billion to poor tenants unable to make rent due to the health crisis, will wipe out debt that threatened to hold her family hostage for years.
“This is a true blessing for many of our families who have fallen behind with rent,” Chacon said, while fighting tears. “It’s a rollercoaster of emotions for all our families, because we have nowhere to go.”
Chacon’s landlord owns a 20-apartment building in Koreatown, and committed to the plan that would cover 80% of due rent with the condition that the remaining 20% is forgiven, the tenant said. Three to four more renters in the same property may need to apply for the program.
Housing is a Human Right policy Director Susie Shannon said 4 to 5 million tenants in California have experienced income loss since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, and tens of thousands would be eligible for relief money in Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles County and other areas until April 30.
The need for public funds is so prevalent that Shannon called on state and federal authorities to streamline more money to avert a crisis on top of a bloated homelessness in the region. She said the public cost to handle an indigent is between $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
“This program prevents people from becoming homeless,” Shannon said. “It is less expensive to keep people in their homes.”
She vowed to contact more than 700 of her charity’s members to offer them guidance filing rent relief forms.
“Today is an important day for residents and landlords to provide rental assistance here in Los Angeles,” Shannon said, calling the Los Angeles area “the capital city of homelessness in the state.”
Even if landlords refuse to participate in the relief program, tenants can apply and cover 25% of missing rent, and clinch a provision than bans evictions until June 30, said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, co-sponsor of SB 91, the legislation that provides the framework to the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act.
“The funds would be paid and renters won’t be in debt for the rest of their lives,” Santiago said.
SB 91 provides safeguards for landlord of all sizes, but the assemblyman encouraged mom-and-pop and retiree owners to apply and work alongside tenants strapped for cash.
Santiago underscored that residents without legal immigration status can apply if they are able to gather letters from employers stating their loss of income, the salary received and documents that establish the amount of money earned if they had been paid in cash.
In metropolitan Los Angeles, to be eligible the income threshold for a family of four is $56,300, but priority would be given to tenants with past-due rent earning $33,800 or less a year. A lone tenant’s area median income caps at $39,450, with income of $23,700 to get priority.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided the data used to measure area median income. Most of the $2.6 billion came from the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020 to contain the economic fallout brought about by COVID-19.
Breese Foundation Executive Director Seth Eklund said the health and economic crisis upended the livelihood of many families, now juggling less work hours, facing infections caused by new virus variants hospitalizations and even death.
Eklund acknowledged the job to get poor families out from the fiscal abyss will be difficult.
“Our families have experienced extreme, extreme poverty,” Eklund said. “Our families have to choose between putting food on the table or paying rent.”
Central City Neighborhood Partners representative Lizette Arzola told low-income households her organization was the first nonprofit to commit staff and resources for the cause, and carries an expanding portfolio of 50 ailing families earning less than $50,000 a year.
Arzola sought to assuage fears of legal consequences for immigrants if families tap money from the municipal and state-managed plan.
“We will continue to support our communities,” she said. “We want to reach out to families to get tenants resources through our center. I assure you that this is a safe program.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price commended the nonprofits for the outreach to aid afflicted tenants and asked the media to spread the message about the relief plan, so essential workers in auto repairs, grocery stores and even street vending can benefit before the funds are depleted.
“In my district, more than 75% of residents have made that decision [to postpone due rent]. They are workers who can’t afford to stay home. Then up to 60% of workers in my district have gotten sick. When the relief opportunity came, it was a big win,” Price said.
On opening day, the program’s popularity became so evident that the internet page set by Los Angeles with the Housing and Community Investment Department stalled, prompting a message from website managers requesting applicants to be patient, and try filing the applications later.
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo said in an email that 240,000 households in California accrued an average of $7,000 in past-due rent since the pandemic began, and Tenant Relief Act approved last year had legal holes that left renters vulnerable for missed payments.
“When we help tenants repay their landlords, we help keep families in their homes,” Carrillo said.
Residents in Los Angeles County outside of the city of Los Angeles can visit the state of California’s website at www.housing.ca.gov and start an application, and obtain information on protections from evictions and available legal resources.
Los Angeles residents can call (833) 373-0587, contact the Bresee Foundation at www.bresee.org, or call Central City Neighborhood Partners at (213) 482-8618. Interested Southeast area tenants can send a message to www.housinghumanright.org, or call (562) 806-7654.
Alfredo Santana is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Southeast Los Angeles County area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.