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Lawsuit Says California Discriminated Against Tenants In Emergency Rental Assistance Program

Western Center senior attorney Lorraine Lopez was on KPFA Radio in the Bay Area to discuss the lawsuit Western Center and our partners filed on behalf of tenant groups, accusing California’s Department of Housing and Community Development of discrimination and denying Californians due process in applications for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

Listen Here (Interview starts at one hour 34 minute mark)

 

‘Profoundly unfair.’ California tenants sue state over COVID rental aid program

“The groups claim the program has denied funding to hundreds of thousands of tenants without specific reasons or adequate opportunities to appeal. HCD has also made it more challenging for non-English-speaking tenants to communicate with program officials, the lawsuit said. The groups are represented by the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. They filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Lawsuit Filed Against CA HCD for Violating Due Process Rights in Emergency Rental Assistance Program

For Immediate Release

Department denied 31 percent of rental relief applications without offering meaningful explanation of denial or a transparent appeals process

Oakland, CA – Community-based tenant organizations Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) along with research and action institute PolicyLink have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for administering the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in a way that is opaque and disproportionately harms tenants on the basis of race, color, and national origin. The suit also challenges HCD’s refusal to provide public records that would shed light on its administration of the program. The organizations are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Public Counsel, and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

“Our analysis of the program data shows that denials have spiked since the program closed, and that 92 percent of denied applicants have incomes low enough to qualify them for the program,” said Sarah Treuhaft, vice president of research at PolicyLink. “So many renters have staked their families’ futures on this program, and they deserve every opportunity to access the relief they’ve been promised.”

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was created by the federal government to keep vulnerable tenants housed as a result of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. California received $5.2 billion in federal funds and HCD was charged with creating an application process, screening tenants for eligibility, and distributing the federal funds.

“This lawsuit is necessary to stop the unfair and arbitrary rental assistance denials,” said Jackie Zaneri, senior attorney at Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “Tenants deserve to have their rental assistance applications fairly considered and to know why they were denied.”

The application process requires extensive paperwork, access to email and an ability to regularly check it, and the ability to navigate the system in English even if it isn’t the tenant’s preferred language. Tenants with limited English proficiency, disproportionately Latinx and Asian tenants, receive notices and requests for documents only in English. After going through that complicated process, tenants wait months for a response, and are receiving a variety of vague responses including approval for partial payments or a full denial of payment without adequate explanation. When PolicyLink requested public records about denials of rental assistance, HCD did not respond.

Vilma Vasquez, a tenant who worked with SAJE described navigating the process, “it was stressful, in psychological terms because sometimes I worried about not being sure if I would receive the payment or not, housing is vital for the life of any person.”

HCD does allow for a 30-day appeal window, but since tenants are not informed as to why they were denied, appeal is a struggle. There is also no transparency in the process around who reviews appeals, and tenants can’t make their case directly with a decisionmaker. As of June 1 2022, 138,000, or 31 percent of households whose applications have been reviewed, have been denied, putting thousands of people at risk of eviction. After an application is denied, a landlord can seek to evict a tenant under state law.

“Tenants are being denied rental assistance that they need to stay housed without being told the reason, or getting a fair chance to contest the denial,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The process is profoundly unfair, doesn’t meet constitutional standards, and fails to meet its most basic function – keeping Californians housed.”

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.

CA eviction moratorium and state rent assistance both ending

“Lorraine Lopez, from the Western Center on Law & Poverty, explains the situation. “So folks are now being left, pretty much being in the cold once the application closed,” Lopez said. Her group has filed a lawsuit on behalf of tenant rights advocates, saying the state is violating the law by not providing up to a full 18 months of rental assistance.”

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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.

COVID Rent Relief Taking a Long Time to Process? What You Can Do If You’re Waiting

“We asked Madeline Howard, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, what people should do if they’re nonetheless still waiting for movement on their application. “If you have an application in already and you’re just waiting, I would suggest reaching out to HCD [the Housing and Community Development Department],” she said. She recommends calling the help line at (833) 430-2122.”

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Only 16% of California’s COVID Rent Relief Applicants Have Received Their Checks, New Study Finds

“It really is very problematic to have people still waiting for their money when they’re about to be subject to eviction if they can’t pay,” said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and one of the study’s authors. The state, she said, must speed up the payment process and extend eviction protections.

“It would be so profoundly unfair and wrong for tenants to be evicted because of these bureaucratic delays,” Howard said.”

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