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Who is waiting for rent relief

More than 250,000 California renters, unable to make their rent during the height of the pandemic, applied to the state for assistance — only to have those applications denied or sit pending for months.

Now, for the first time, we know a little bit more about who those tenants are.

On Friday, the California Housing and Community Development Department published a demographic and geographic breakdown of the applicants who were denied federal emergency rental assistance distributed by the state, along with a summary of all the renters who are still waiting for help — and the reason why they’re still waiting.

The new data comes courtesy of a legal settlement struck in late May between the agency and a coalition of tenant rights organizations.

  • Madeline Howard, staff attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty: “This is federal money that is being given out by the state, so I think it’s tremendously important that there be transparency about who is getting the funds and that it’s being distributed in a non-discriminatory way.”

Under the terms of the May 30 agreement, the agency agreed to flesh out its appeal process, better explain its denial decisions and start publishing monthly data summaries within 30 days.

Fifty-two days later, the first summary is up:

  • 123,306 applications were denied: No racial or ethnic group appears to have been disproportionately denied compared to the overall applicant pool.
  • 143,391 applications are still pending: For 65%, the state is waiting on more information from the applicant. Another 28% are mid-appeal and only 1% of applicants have had their applications approved but haven’t yet received a check.

Jonathan Jager, an attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said he isn’t surprised a majority of pending applicants didn’t complete their applications.

  • Jager: “It was so hard to interpret the denial notices or the various requests from HCD, so of course people would sit on these tasks.”

Last month’s settlement is meant to simplify the process, but for many renters it may be too late, as the last remaining pandemic-era eviction bans are coming to an end across the state

On Saturday, Oakland’s moratorium came to an end. Renters in Los Angeles have been exempt from eviction over any rental debt accrued between March 2020 and Sept. 30, but that moratorium ends on Aug. 1. And Berkeley’s will end on Aug. 31.

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State reaches settlement over pandemic rent relief: What tenants and landlords need to know

Tenants’ rights advocates and the California Department of Housing and Community Development reached a settlement this week to address processing delays and denials in rent relief applications for eligible tenants, meaning more renters could soon get financial aid.

During the pandemic, California tasked the department with administering more than $5 billion in state and federal funds to assist vulnerable tenants with rent relief through California’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The agency closed the application portal at the end of March 2022.

A surge in denials beginning after the closure propelled advocates to sue, alleging that eligible renters were rejected and left without financial aid. By July, around 30% of applicants had been denied assistance from the program, even though 93% were likely eligible for debt relief, according to the National Equity Atlas, an organization that reports on racial and economic equity.

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Pandemic Relief Program Left Many California Renters Struggling

Blake Phillips is pretty sure he did everything right, which makes it all the more baffling to the Los Angeles resident that he slowly went broke, lost his restaurant business and was eventually forced to move out of his home and in with friends.

He did all this while waiting for pandemic rental relief from the state of California, which, though promised and approved, has still not arrived.

“I went from being a small business owner, middle class, paying my bills, to being completely wiped out,” Phillips said. “I lost everything because of the rent program.”

The program in question was operated by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), and it was designed specifically to protect both renters and landlords during the worst of the COVID-19 emergency. As businesses were forced to close, rendering many workers jobless and suddenly behind on their payments, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) was created early in 2021 to fill the financial gaps.

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Tenant Groups Reach Settlement With State Of California Over Applicants Stuck In Rent Relief Limbo

Los Angeles tenant groups announced Monday they have settled their lawsuit against the state of California over how housing department officials handled the state’s rent relief program.

The deal gives tenants another chance to have their rent relief application reviewed or to appeal a denial. An estimated 331,000 L.A. area households remain behind on rent, and many of them are now facing possible eviction.

“Hopefully, people who were quickly denied in the past will actually be approved when the state is forced to look a little bit closer,” said Legal Aid Foundation of L.A. attorney Jonathan Jager. He worked on the legal team that brought the lawsuit forward on behalf of L.A.-based tenant group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, statewide advocacy organization Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and national research institute PolicyLink.

During the pandemic, California’s Housing Is Key program came under fire for being difficult to access, or even understand, especially for low-income tenants who didn’t own computers or speak English. The lawsuit sought to address those disparities, and get eligible tenants connected to the relief they were promised.

California rent relief is still available for thousands of tenants who were denied COVID assistance

More than 100,000 California tenants whose applications for COVID-era rental assistance were denied or delayed by the state’s housing department will get another shot at relief, thanks to a new legal settlement between the state and a coalition of anti-poverty and tenant rights groups.

More aid isn’t guaranteed. But under the terms of the settlement signed at the end of last month, California’s Housing and Community Development Department agreed to audit its past denials and improve multilingual access for tenants who don’t speak English as a first language.

It also agreed to flesh out the appeal process for applicants and provide more detailed explanations when it denies an application. And it committed to providing more data on the race, ethnicity and location of those who were denied help.

California’s housing department received $5.2 billion in federal relief funds in 2021 to help struggling tenants keep up with rent while the state’s economy ground to a halt during the height of the pandemic. The program ended in March 2022.

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Tenants’ Rights Advocates Reach Landmark Settlement on Behalf of Californians Struggling With Pandemic Rent Debt

TENANTS’ RIGHTS ADVOCATES REACH LANDMARK SETTLEMENT ON BEHALF OF CALIFORNIANS STRUGGLING WITH PANDEMIC RENT DEBT

The agreement requires the California Department of Housing & Community Development to give pending and denied applicants a fair chance to receive Covid-19 rental assistance

LOS ANGELES—A landmark settlement has been reached in a case brought by tenants’ rights advocates alleging that the California Department of Housing & Community Development (HCD) unconstitutionally operated the state’s Covid-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP or Housing is Key), which has led to qualified applicants missing out on the assistance they were promised after the pandemic destroyed many Californians’ livelihoods. More than 100,000 households are still waiting for a decision on their applications—and many of them are being served with eviction notices and being harassed by their landlords for rent they still owe. The settlement agreement will offer a renewed chance for applicants who remain in limbo to receive Covid-19 rental assistance, which remains essential to supporting and stabilizing families as the housing and homelessness crisis worsens in California.

California’s Covid-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created to provide direct assistance to low-income families struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), and PolicyLink—represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and Covington & Burling LLP—sued HCD in June 2022 for several systemic failures in the program, including a confusing application process that led eligible tenants to be wrongfully denied assistance.

“The rental assistance program was intended to provide housing stability for low-income tenant families who were impacted by Covid-19, but delays and dysfunction left far too many eligible families facing eviction because they could not access this critical assistance,” said Madeline Howard, Senior Attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “We are hopeful that this settlement will create an opportunity for these tenants to finally receive the help they need.”

“This settlement will mitigate some of the worst long-tail impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on our local communities, and Covington is very proud to have partnered with our co-counsel and clients in this important work,” said Neema Sahni, Partner at Covington & Burling LLP.

California identified more than $6 billion in rental assistance from the state and federal government for the Housing is Key program, which came at a critical time and should have made a profound difference for the hundreds of thousands of families impacted by the economic fallout of the pandemic. More than half a million households applied to the program. Thus far, HCD has denied nearly 30 percent of applicants, according to an analysis of program data conducted by the National Equity Atlas (a research partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Dornsife Equity Research Institute). The vast majority of those denied (93 percent) have incomes below 80 percent of the area median income—the income threshold to be eligible for the program. Tenants did not receive any meaningful explanation of why they were being denied the help they needed to avoid eviction, and many had difficulty accessing the appeal process.

“We filed this case because we started to see a sharp rise in denials for tenants we knew were eligible, including clients of legal aid organizations across the state, who were relying on rental assistance to stay housed and off the streets,” said Faizah Malik, Senior Supervising Attorney at Public Counsel. “With the settlement of the case, many thousands of families will have another chance to receive the aid that they were promised.”

As part of the settlement, HCD has agreed to take several steps to improve its process for the remaining ERAP applications, including:

  • Providing tenants who are going to be denied all or part of the assistance they requested with a detailed explanation of the reason for denial, so they can address issues with the application and have a fair opportunity to appeal;
  • Ensuring that tenants subject to “recapture” of rental assistance funds have a fair opportunity to challenge the state’s decision;
  • Providing better access to the appeal process; 
  • Expanding funding to the Local Partner Network, which will assist tenants with navigating their pending applications and appeals;
  • Conducting an audit of prior denials to correct wrongful denials of assistance;
  • Improving language access and reasonable accommodation procedures; and
  • Providing greater transparency about who is receiving rental assistance and who is not, with data about the race, ethnicity, and zip code of people denied assistance.

Tenants who have been waiting for a decision on their applications will receive an update in the coming months and should regularly check their email, application portal, and postal mail for notifications. Tenants who have been evicted or moved since they applied for rental assistance should contact the Housing is Key program to update their contact information and ensure they receive any important notices. Those who receive a denial will have 30 days to file an appeal.

“SAJE has assisted hundreds of tenants on their rent relief applications, and many of the most vulnerable tenants are still in the waiting pool, confused and scared,” said Cynthia Strathmann, Executive Director of SAJE. “We hope that tenants now will finally get the information they need to get their applications approved so they can pay off their pandemic rent debt, a major source of continued stress and harassment.”

“This case brought us in contact with so many families who were evicted or facing eviction because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Jonathan Jager, LAFLA staff attorney. “We encourage any renters who are still waiting for an ERAP decision to not give up hope. Keep your contact information up to date with Housing is Key and reach out to the Local Partner Network if you have questions about any communications you receive from the program.”

Rent debt across California remains at crisis levels: an estimated 688,000 households across the state remain behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas. Altogether, they owe nearly $2.6 billion in total rent debt, with the average rent debt per household hovering around $3,700. The vast majority of these renters are low-income people of color who have suffered job and income losses due to the pandemic. This persistent and mounting debt further illustrates the importance of this settlement to keeping families in their homes and curbing the surge of evictions that have followed the end of pandemic eviction moratoriums.

“I lost everything I had because of issues with the rent relief program. Right before the pandemic, I put my life’s savings into opening a restaurant. I was then forced to close down, and as a result lost my income, my business, and my entire savings trying to hold on to what I had. I applied for rent relief and at first was denied without explanation. Then I appealed, got approved, but have now been waiting for nearly 2 years for the money to come through. I tried calling the program for help dozens of times but got no help. A year into waiting for the funding, my landlord pressured me to move out, and I became homeless. Thousands of lives have been destroyed because of the failure to get the money out to families that they are due. I am hopeful that this settlement will finally bring us closer to some relief,” said Blake Phillips, former resident of Los Angeles.

“In creating the Covid-19 rent relief program, the state promised to cover 100 percent of pandemic rent debt for tenants in California. We brought this case to ensure that the state lived up to that promise so hundreds of thousands of Californians could survive the pandemic,” said Jefferson McGee, State Board Chair of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “Housing is health and housing is a human right and we will keep fighting to make that a reality for our members.” 

More information on the details of the settlement can be found here. 

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About Western Center on Law & Poverty

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

About Public Counsel

Public Counsel is a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to advancing civil rights and racial and economic justice, as well as to amplifying the power of our clients through comprehensive legal advocacy. Founded on and strengthened by a pro bono legal service model, our staff and volunteers seek justice through direct legal services, promote healthy and resilient communities through education and outreach, and support community-led efforts to transform unjust systems through litigation and policy advocacy in and beyond Los Angeles.

About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

About Covington & Burling LLP

In an increasingly regulated world, Covington & Burling LLP provides corporate, litigation, and regulatory expertise to help clients navigate their most complex business problems, deals, and disputes. Founded in 1919, the firm has more than 1,300 lawyers in offices in Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Washington. Since its founding, Covington has demonstrated a strong commitment to public service. The firm is frequently recognized for pro bono service, including 11 times being ranked the number one pro bono practice in the U.S. by The American Lawyer. 

About the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action (ACCE Action)

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action is a grassroots, member-led, statewide community organization working with more than 16,000 members across California. ACCE is dedicated to raising the voices of everyday Californians, neighborhood by neighborhood, to fight for the policies and programs we need to improve our communities and create a brighter future.

About Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE)

SAJE is a 501c3 nonprofit organization in South Los Angeles that builds community power and leadership for economic justice. Founded in 1996, SAJE focuses on tenant rights, healthy housing, and equitable development. SAJE runs a regular tenant clinic, helps connect local residents to jobs, organizes for tenant rights, and fights for community benefits from future development through private agreements and public policies. We believe that everyone, regardless of income or connections, should have a voice in creating the policies that shape our city, and that the fate of city neighborhoods should be decided by those who live there in a manner that is fair, replicable, and sustainable. 

About PolicyLink

PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works®. With local and national partners, PolicyLink works to ensure all people in America — particularly those who face the burdens of structural racism — can participate in a just society, live in a healthy community of opportunity, and prosper in an equitable economy. PolicyLink is guided by the belief that the solutions to the nation’s challenges lie with those closest to these challenges.

JOINT PRESS RELEASE: California Says Emergency Rental Assistance Program Will Likely Run Out of Funds with Over 140,000 Applicants Still in Limbo

For Immediate Release: January 23, 2023​

Press Contact:

Joshua Busch, 310-991-2503, ​[email protected]
Estevan Montemayor, [email protected]

 

California Says Emergency Rental Assistance Program Will Likely Run Out of Funds with Over 140,000 Applicants Still in Limbo

State lawyer says the program’s remaining $177 million could go to private contractor if the state is forced to comply with a Superior Court order, leaving no money for tenants.​

Oakland, California – January 23, 2023 – More than 140,000 Californian households who have been waiting for over ten months for a response to their rental assistance applications may be denied their opportunity to receive rent relief because the program will run out of money, according to the state’s lawyer. In a court hearing last Thursday afternoon, a lawyer for the State of California told a judge that the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program would need to spend its remaining $177 million on administrative costs if forced to comply with the court’s order to provide basic constitutional due process, leaving no money for tenants. The state claims it will pay its private contractor most – if not all – of its remaining funds just to fix its flawed application process and provide basic information to tenants it believes are ineligible for assistance.

At stake at Thursday’s hearing was how the state would issue denial notices to around 104,000 renters who submitted applications over ten months ago, and another 40,000 who have pending appeals. The state was sued by community groups Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and PolicyLink last June for issuing flawed notices that provided little or no explanation for why an applicant was denied, making it difficult for wrongfully denied tenants to appeal. Last July, a Superior Court judge agreed the state was violating applicants’ due process rights and issued an injunction blocking the state from denying tenants until the problems were addressed. But in the past six months, most tenants have received no information about why their applications have been delayed. Now, after waiting nearly a year, many may receive no assistance, even if the state determines they are eligible. This goes back on a guarantee the state made last year when announced it was abruptly closing the rental assistance program but promised that “every eligible applicant seeking assistance for eligible costs submitted and incurred on or before March 31, 2022, would be assisted.”

On Thursday, Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said the state’s denial notices must “specify the facts supporting the denial” to satisfy due process, meaning the notice must provide enough information for applicants to understand why the state does not believe their application meets program requirements. The Court acknowledged that being told why tenants are being denied is important to allow applicants a meaningful opportunity to appeal and correct their paperwork. The state’s lawyer argued such a requirement would be too burdensome, and the state would have to pay its remaining rent relief funds to the private contractor it hired to administer the program. Judge Roesch rejected the state’s argument and its implications that “a constitutional principle can be ignored because of budgetary reasons.”

“We’re relieved that tenants who applied for desperately needed rent relief will finally get a notice that tells them the reason they are being denied assistance, and a fair chance to appeal – that’s been our goal since this suit was filed,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney with Western Center on Law & Poverty. “But it’s extremely frustrating that the state has been fighting so hard to avoid giving tenants this basic information that should have been provided from the start. We are alarmed by the state’s threat to use the program’s remaining funds to pay an out-of-state contractor $177 million just to tell tenants the reason they are being denied. This threat raises very serious concerns about how the Department of Housing and Community Development has managed this funding.”

“Low-income people were decimated by this pandemic—financially, physically, and emotionally—and it is the responsibility of government to provide support for residents in times of crisis such as these,” said Cynthia Strathmann, executive director of SAJE. “Instead, the state is threatening to use all of its funds to deny people the financial support they so desperately need, after spending hundreds of millions on a private contractor. This terrible irony should not be accepted.”

In court documents, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development revealed that it hired a private, for-profit company to administer the state’s rent relief program. Based in Mississippi, Horne LLP has developed a business running and profiting off of safety-net programs created in the wake of calamitous events like hurricanes, floods, and, more recently, pandemics. California has already agreed to pay Horne over $260 million to administer its program. Recent invoices show California has been charged an average of $7.72 million per month, even with the program closed to new applications and apparently at a standstill.

“The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created to keep struggling Californians housed during an unprecedented pandemic that put millions on the brink of homelessness,” said Faizah Malik, a supervising senior attorney with Public Counsel. “However, the execution of the program has been terribly flawed. While Judge Roesch’s order helps to correct one major problem, it is fundamentally unfair for the state to now deny tenants crucial assistance because of its poor management of the program. If it is true that the state must use the remaining funds to just satisfy its constitutional obligations, it must allocate additional funds to provide the rental relief that tens of thousands of California families were promised.”

“I’m grateful the judge is on our side on this issue, but many eviction protections are expiring imminently, and HCD needs to hurry up to prevent more families from being forced to live under bridges,” said Patricia Mendoza, statewide organizer for ACCE. “The state asked us to stay home during the pandemic, and they promised that if we did so, we would be taken care of. If they want to follow through on that promise, they need to do what it takes to increase their funding to ensure tenants get the rent relief they are due now.”

“Nothing was stopping the state from reaching out to the renters who have been in limbo over the past six months to help them fix potential mistakes on their applications or ask for missing information,” said Jonathan Jager, an attorney at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “Yet, that wasn’t done, and our neighbors and communities will pay the price.”

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Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors. 

Public Counsel is the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services, utilizing an innovative legal model to promote justice, hope, and opportunity in lower-income and communities of color in Los Angeles and across the nation. Through groundbreaking civil rights litigation, community building, advocacy, and policy change, as well as wide-ranging direct legal services that annually help thousands of people experiencing poverty, Public Counsel has fought to secure equal access to justice for more than 50 years.

 

 

Western Center Roundup – July 2022

A Summer of Advocacy: Protecting Tenants & Securing Budget Wins


Judge orders CA HCD to stop denying Emergency Rental Assistance until further review

Last month, we told you about our second lawsuit against California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) on behalf of tenant groups over the lack of transparency and due process for applicants to the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). This month brought good news for California tenants in need of assistance in the form of a court injunction ordering HCD to stop denials for rental assistance applications until the court can determine if HCD’s process meets constitutional due process standards.

In the meantime, HCD can continue to approve applications to get assistance to those who need it, but they cannot deny pending applications. Tenants with pending ERAP applications or applications the court decision might make eligible for appeal should continue to contact HCD and fight eviction attempts. We will keep you posted as the process continues, but for now, we are celebrating with a sigh of relief.


Protecting Californians from housing price-gouging after disaster 

The Sacramento team is gearing up for the end of the legislative session in August, which includes pushing for the passage of this year’s Western Center sponsored bills as well as making sure harmful bills don’t pass. Western Center housing policy advocate Tina Rosales has her eye on a problematic bill, SB 1133, that would undo decades of price-gouging protections during disasters and green light landlords who would capitalize on emergencies by hiking rents.

Tina wrote a blog post outlining the spate of problems with the bill and calls on readers to help stop price gouging after disaster by contacting state legislators to urge their NO vote on SB 1133.


California Assembly Holds Inaugural Select Committee on Poverty & Economic Inclusion Hearing  

Western Center and community groups were honored to join conveners Assemblymember Isaac Bryan and EPIC (Ending Poverty in California) for a powerful event centered on shaping California’s roadmap to ending poverty. Western Center’s Director of Policy, Mike Herald provided committee testimony addressing the high costs of being poor, tackling the State’s burdensome CalWORKs requirements and unjust interception of child support that should be benefitting low-income families on CalWORKs. You can read more from EPIC’s Executive Director, Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs on the organizing and policy work to secure this year’s historic antipoverty investments in the State budget and watch a video of the hearing and rally.


Save the Date: 8/15 at 12PM Meet the Advocates Webinar 

Join us for a free webinar focused on Senate Bill 972 and the advocacy efforts to support California’s street food vendors by removing barriers to accessing food vending permits. Community organizers and policy advocates will lead a discussion on food justice, highlighting street vendors’ role in expanding access to healthy food in California’s food deserts and beyond. REGISTER HERE.


Final 2022-23 California Budget 

Finally, in case you missed it, we published Western Center’s overview of the final 2022-23 California Budget at the tail end of June. You can read it here!


 

Court orders California to pause denying pandemic rent aid

“We have to keep people housed,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney at Western Center on Law and Poverty, in a statement. “That’s why we filed this lawsuit — the program was created to prevent evictions but falls woefully short.”

https://www.pe.com/2022/07/13/court-orders-california-to-pause-denying-pandemic-rent-aid/