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PRESS RELEASE: Tenants-rights Groups Sue CA for Failing to Provide Rental Assistance to Eligible Tenants

  

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

 

 

Lawsuit says Department’s cutoff date for assistance means many tenants who receive rental assistance are still at risk of eviction

 

Los Angeles, CA – The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is being sued by tenants’ rights groups Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action) and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) over its failure to provide the full amount of rental assistance intended by the law establishing the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), putting tenants at increased risk of eviction and homelessness. ACCE and SAJE are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

As people waited for HCD’s often onerous system to process applications, HCD abruptly stopped accepting applications on March 31, 2022, cutting off people in need of assistance after that point even when they qualify for but have not yet received their full 18 months of rental assistance. Specifically, the suit says HCD is not providing assistance for prospective rent or expenses incurred after March 31, 2022, even for eligible households that submitted an ERAP application before applications closed. This means applicants who were unable to pay April rent or beyond could still face eviction even if HCD approves their application, thereby defeating ERAP’s goal of preventing eviction and stabilizing households.

“When I heard about the ERAP program, I got very happy because I was impacted by COVID-19, and I lost my job,” said Dionicia Cipres, tenant and SAJE member. “I sent my ERAP application and I got approved for a few months, but I was put on hold for February and March. I had initially put down the April and May rents on my application, but when the March 31st deadline was announced, those months were not included and had to be removed. I don’t know how I’m going to pay June because I don’t have steady income.”

As California considers new proposals to combat homelessness, the ERAP program is intended to stop people from becoming homeless where it often starts — eviction.

“I was temporarily laid off from my job because of the pandemic and have not been able to get back to work,” said Isabel Tabora, ACCE member and tenant. “I applied for rental assistance but was told by the state program that they will not help me for April and May, even though I can’t pay rent for those months. Now my landlord has given me a 3-day notice for April. I am afraid that I will be homeless without more rental assistance.”

The highly publicized decision by lawmakers for ERAP to cover 100% of an eligible household’s rent debt is essential for preventing evictions tenants will be evicted unless all of their rent debt is resolved.

“An eviction is a scarlet letter for most renters, but especially low-income renters who have fewer options,” said Jonathan Jager, staff attorney at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “If the ERAP program is supposed to prevent homelessness, it doesn’t make sense to provide assistance in a way that still leaves tenants vulnerable to being evicted.”

Under HCD’s current practice, landlords can still receive large ERAP payments while their tenants are evicted for non-payment of April 2022 rent. The Census Household Pulse Survey estimates that 32 percent of California renter households with pending rental assistance applications were “not at all confident” in their ability to pay April rent.

“The pandemic and its economic fallout is not over yet, particularly for low-income Californians — we’ve heard from many tenants that they are unable to pay April rent and beyond,” said Greg Bonett, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “For a tenant to face eviction while the state sends their landlord a check is absolutely confounding. By cutting off rental assistance, HCD’s policy is largely harming renters of color and allowing landlords to get paid and still evict their tenants.”

The lawsuit seeks to compel HCD to immediately reverse policies that stop payments to tenants for debt accrued after the sudden and arbitrary March 31, 2022 cutoff date, and to make available the full 18 months of rental assistance to all eligible applicants.

“California received billions of dollars from the federal government and has a significant state budget surplus — more than enough to keep people housed through ERAP,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “In the midst of a homelessness and housing affordability crisis, the state must use its resources to keep people in the homes they already have so as not to compound the crisis.”

Read the complaint here.

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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 a nonprofit law firm and the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services. It serves communities locally and nationwide by advancing civil rights litigation, advocating for policy change and providing free legal services to thousands of clients annually.

 

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.

The City Center is Organizing

At City Center Motel in Long Beach, the untimely death of a long-term tenant spurs others to action

Last year, one day after Veterans Day, at the City Center Motel in room 205, Timothy Star died. He was a Vietnam Veteran who was proud of his Navajo roots. He was a medicine man who provided healing for close friends in need.

Tragically, police discovered Timothy’s body days after he passed. His neighbor, Joseph, says Timothy died from shock. Timothy was served an eviction notice in September, and the prospect of becoming unhoused loomed over him. Ultimately, it was too much.

Photo of City Center Motel captured by Abraham Zavala

Timothy was one of nine remaining long-term tenants at City Center Motel in Long Beach facing displacement. Joseph is a tenant I met while organizing in the housing justice movement. Community work often creates a lasting connection, where people continue to reach out looking for support well after you may have left the community based organization (CBO). Sometimes folks reach out when they are in a tough situation. When Joseph called, I called right back. We made plans to meet up and talk to tenants at City Center Motel.

The motel once housed dozens of tenants. Now, the remaining handful of tenants are organizing. Joseph and a few other tenants are connecting with local housing justice organizations for support. They intend to band together and ask the owner of the property for relocation fees. They fear they will end up on the streets if they don’t make such demands. 

The motel sits close to Ocean Boulevard surrounded by numerous high-end, high-rise apartments. There is an increase in construction of new housing in the area – most of it out of reach for tenants who have lived there for decades. Joseph says it’s mostly elderly tenants or folks with disabilities at the motel. They cannot afford the current market price of rent in the neighborhood. 

Tenants say the last time they had any contact with management was the day they were issued eviction notices. Multiple residents’ names were misspelled on their notices, and some listed completely different names. Other tenants never received notice at all. 

Every remaining tenant is legally a renter since everyone paid rent for at least a year at the motel. But in the absence of management, communication, and resources, they are forced to live with extreme uncertainty, barely habitable housing, and no clear alternatives. 

The most difficult part was when motel management stopped the amenities. Tenants lost the kitchen, laundry room, control room and the office — it was all locked up soon after the management and staff left. 

In response, tenants assigned each other responsibilities that staff once carried out. Joseph and Freddie, fellow tenants, do security since people frequently break into rooms. There was a break in recently and the tenants closed up that room with wooden planks. On Thanksgiving, three men tried to break in, but a tenant talked them down and they left. Break-ins are the biggest safety concern they share. 

To make safety matters worse, tenants are often unable to open their rooms since the key door devices no longer work. They have to break into their own room to get home. An older woman, Margaret, has to leave the door slightly open when she leaves since she is disabled and can’t go through the window.

Additionally, there is a lot of water damage in the rooms – ceilings discolored at the edges and black mold. One room boasts a large hole in the ceiling. 

All together, tenants are worried about what happens next. However, they will not remain idle.

On November 16, 2021, Joseph and other tenants took their message to council chambers while the city’s Housing Element plan was adopted. They called on the city council to make housing a priority and closed their public comment by asserting that housing is a human right! 

Despite ongoing activism, they are now looking to find ways to fund relocation. They continue to face pressure to leave. The property manager tried to put a fence around the site over the holidays. When tenants informed the landlord that this was a form of illegal eviction, they were given access to the fence’s lock. 

Now, they organize, hope, and wait for justice to come – perhaps in the form of a fair relocation settlement – so they can start again.

 

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