Low-income tenants urged to file for renter’s relief

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Advocates for low-income tenants affected by COVID-19 are praising the state’s government decision to increase funds from $2.6 billion to $5.2 billion to cover 100% of missed rent from April 2020 until September 2021, but warned that landlords will move fast to evict renters out if they do not apply for the relief.

AB 832 bans evictions to renters unable to make rent due to pandemic issues, such as furloughs, layoffs, being in transition from one job to another, and for having caught COVID-19, along with family members as long as they had applied for rent relief under the California Housing is Key program.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 832 June 28. The program will continue processing applications submitted under the previous relief plan, known as the Tenants Relief Act, which covered up to 80% of back rent if the landlord agreed to give up 20% of the total owed from April 2020 to June 2021.

The current plan gives the opportunity to landlords to recover the 20% lost under the Tenants Relief Act, or SB-91.

Susan Shannon, executive director of Housing is a Human Right, said tenants should get legal advice fast to understand the protections provided within the new law, and be able to keep their apartments in line with the new moratoriums.

She lobbied Newsom and the state Legislature to approve the additional $2.6 billion in relief money.

“I think this is going to help a lot of people stay in their homes and stop evictions, as long as people understand it is imperative to file for this assistance as soon as possible,” Shannon said.  “This program would help small landlords and their tenants.”

Shannon, who linked the program success with the number of applicants, said that in the city of Los Angeles 10,000 tenants had been awarded benefits, and their landlords already received at least 80% of back rent.

The new measure would allow tenants to stay in their units two months longer than the nationwide residential ban directed by the Center for Disease Controls until July 31, and prohibits eviction attempts until after March 2022, if both parties have sought the public resources to meet the debt.

Approved in January, SB 91 prohibited evictions caused by the pandemic’s economic and sanitary impacts through June 30, and created a rental relief fund with $1.4 billion in state contributions and $1.2 billion from the federal CARES Act.

Lizette Arzola, associate director at Central City Neighborhood Partners, a nonprofit that provides legal and financial resources to low-income residents, was pleased with the news but warned that some tenants continue to struggle as regulations trickle down from the state to county and local levels.

“In the Pico-Union area [of Los Angeles], we have seen an increase in eviction notices, and we have increased our legal services as the [previous] moratoriums come to an end. [The money] does not meet the needs of the communities we serve,” Arzola said.

Currently, Central City Neighborhood Partners offers assistance and legal mediation to more than 300 families impacted by job losses or transmissions caused by COVID-19, aiming to negotiate affordable payment plans with landlords and avoid homelessness.

Arzola said it is too early to tell the impact of the new tenant relief plan and the legal protections for renters who apply for aid.

“As community liaison, we will be working hard to spread the information to the community and make sure the new regulations benefit those who need them most,” Arzola said.

To qualify for rent relief, both landlords and tenants have to furnish documentation showing the tenants’ income levels, tax records and earned wages to be uploaded with the Housing is Key program at www.housing.ca.gov.

If the landlord refuses to budge, the other way for tenants to qualify for the funds  is to submit individual applications. The latter would ensure 25% of rental relief funds and stop motions to evict them through September.

Applicants have to meet income requirements at or below 80% of the area median, which in Los Angeles County for a family of four in 2020 was $77,300, with earnings of less than $61,840.

Following criteria used in the Tenant Relief Act, funds would be prioritized to households with documented income of $38,650 or less, and able to proof economic and health injury caused by COVID-19.

Shannon prompted qualifying residents to apply for the relief program within the next two weeks to halt legal attempts from landlords to throw them out.

Representatives for landlords and apartment associations decried the eviction extension, and blamed state and local governments for their failure to issue due rent in time.

“We are disappointed that the Center for Disease Controls extended a nationwide eviction moratorium through July, and the state of California has extended an eviction moratorium through September,” said Tom Brannon, chief executive officer of the California Apartment Association in a statement. “Both the federal and state eviction moratoriums would not be necessary if state and local governments were disbursing rental assistance funds to tenants and housing providers in an expedited manner.”

Brannon said California and many local governments have not “quickly disbursed funds to those in need,” frustrating mom-and-pop landlords who still have to pay mortgage, insurance, taxes, maintenance and other expenses without the cash flow brought in by rent.

Until last week, payments worth $61.6 million set to relief outstanding rent had been forwarded to landlords, covering only 5,442 renters, the Los Angeles Times reported. About half of the available money had been applied for before Newsom’s latest announcement.

AB 832 also bars counties and municipalities from approving new eviction extensions through next March and leaves intact current ordinances, with the objective to “ensure consistency in eviction policies across the state.”

In addition, the law prevents cities from approving stricter laws to undo previous moratorium measures, according to Mike Nemeth, communications directors with the California Apartments Association on its website.

Before the initial rent relief program kicked off in January, between 36,000 and 120,000 households were at risk of losing their units, with an average owed of $7,000 in missed payments in California, concluded a report conducted by USC Dornsife Equity Research Institute, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Committee for Greater LA.

Although the city of Los Angeles’ portal handling applications for rent relief due to the impact of COVID-19 closed on April 30, the website posted that it would reopen to accept new applications pending approval of new funds. The city had extended its own eviction moratorium related to the crisis through Aug. 1, 2022.   

Diana Ortiz, Bell Gardens community services supervisor and the person in charge of running a regional rent relief office, could not be reached for comment, but an assistant said her staff continues to help needy renters in Southeast Los Angeles communities collecting documents and filing online forms.

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