In this op-ed by Mike Herald, Western Center’s Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike explains why the Newsom administration and California Legislature must allocate steady rather than temporary funding for rental assistance and the creation of permanent, supportive housing.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“Madeline Howard, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the dollar amount may be new, but Newsom’s overall plan isn’t — because state lawmakers already committed to paying those applicants. “It really doesn’t change the picture at all,” she said. “People are still going to be waiting many months for their application to be processed. And the state is not indicating that they’re going to change their policy of refusing to pay people any rent that accrued past March.”
California has had it with homelessness. Whether you believe it is far past time to address the housing shortage or just want to see people off the streets, there is a growing consensus that something must change. Governor Newsom and several members of the California Legislature want to address the crisis partially by way of a proposal called CARE Court. But is it the right approach?
The appalling growth of people experiencing homelessness is matched only by the complete inability of government, policymakers, or industry to fix it. As Winston Churchill once observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” When it comes to solutions to the homelessness crisis, California has deployed many failed techniques, including poorly planned shelters and police harassment toward people on the street. One thing we know works — giving people enough money to afford rent, is repeatedly derided as “too expensive” (keep in mind, California is in its second year of much higher than anticipated budget surplus).
Solutions to homelessness are not as complex as we are often led to believe. We need to increase grants to adults who are disabled so they can afford rent, like what’s proposed in AB 1941 (Salas). We need to provide increased tax credits to families experiencing poverty, as proposed by AB 2589 (Santiago). We need to provide housing and support services to people coming out of incarceration, as proposed in AB 1816 (Bryan). And importantly, we need to provide permanent and ongoing rental assistance to low-income families and individuals so they can stay housed, as proposed by AB 2817 (Reyes). Those are the kind of policies that will make a visible difference on our streets and in people’s lives.
Governor Newsom’s new proposal is called “Care Court,” but it’s not about care, it’s about control – or at least the illusion of it. The proposal will make it easier for the state, cities, and counties to force people into treatment, and if they don’t go willingly, subject them to involuntary confinement. Here’s another way to think about it: the proposal presents a shiny new political solution that in practice blames and targets the victims of California’s economic, policy, and social failures without implementing proven solutions state resources should flow to – like permanent housing, support services, and more money for rent via programs like SSI, Guaranteed Income, and General Relief. Sure, those are expensive investments, but nowhere near the cost of the crisis playing out on California streets.
The legislative journey for the CARE Court proposal is about to start and it may very well pass through both houses, but in practice, it is likely to fail. Involuntary treatment does not work, especially without housing and services to follow it up. Western Center, ACLU California Action, Disability Rights California, and over 40 more organizations across California submitted an opposition letter to the legislative CARE Court proposal to highlight its fundamental flaws and to provide proven alternatives.
It’s not too late to do the right thing. California can provide large scale and ongoing rental assistance. Government can build thousands of units of affordable housing where the private market has failed. We can allow real rent control rather than the nod, nod, wink, wink version we have now. The one thing we can’t have is a system where the victims of policy incompetence are punished in such a potentially destructive way.
“Those eviction protections will only be applicable for folks who were able to get their applications in prior to March 31,” said Lorraine Lopez of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. Lopez is urging the state to also extend the renter assistance program beyond March 31. She says many prospective applicants have been unable to access the program.”
“Tina Rosales, housing attorney and lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said people who lost their income as a result of the pandemic should apply now.”
“It feels like a mixed bag,” said Tina Rosales, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “With our budget surplus, we thought that there would be an extension of the deadline to apply for (rent relief), and there wasn’t.”
“We’re deeply concerned and alarmed at the rate of dispersal,” said Cynthia Castillo, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “We’re at the cliff. The deadline for tenants to pay 25% of their back rent is soon approaching.”
After almost two months of negotiation, the Governor signed AB 128, the final 2021-22 budget passed by the Legislature. The Governor has not yet signed SB 129, which amends AB 128, and many trailer bills are not yet finalized. We will update this document as developments unfold.
As it stands, the budget marks progress for many Western Center priorities, including the expansion of health programs for new parents and undocumented Californians 50+, increased grants for CalWORKs and SSI/SSP recipients, increased funding for legal aid services, and increased investments in tenant protection.
The state budget increases CalWORKs grants by 5.3 percent on October 1, 2021. Maximum grants by family size now slightly exceed 50 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). CalWORKs households will also receive a $640 payment in July 2021 from the TANF Pandemic Emergency Fund. This budget increases the eligibility income disregard from $90 to $450 beginning May 2022.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE/ FINES & FEES
The budget increases SSP grants by $36 a month beginning January 2022, and commits to making a second $37 payment starting in January 2024. It also eliminates the removal of people receiving the Transitional Nutrition Benefits for failure to fill out recertification paperwork within 30 days of the deadline.
The budget increases funding for the Equal Access Fund (EAF) by $50 million, for a total funding amount of $70 million. It also provides $40 million in funding for eviction prevention with 75% of those funds for organizations that receive EAF.
The budget provisionally repeals civil assessments for those who fail to appear or pay tickets in traffic courts. It also expands the online traffic adjudication pilot program to all counties. Indigent persons using the online tool get a minimum 50% reduction in the total fine amount and cannot pay more than $25 a month towards the remaining fine.
The Medi-Cal budget has significant investments in eligibility, including elimination of the Medi-Cal asset test to ensure elders and people with disabilities are not impoverished by health care, expansion of Medi-Cal to all income-eligible adults age 50 and older regardless of immigration status, and Medi-Cal eligibility extension from 60 days to 12 months for all post-pregnancy individuals. Unfortunately, the budget excludes Medi-Cal coverage for undocumented adults ages 26-49 and continuous Medi-Cal coverage for children up to age 5.
Medi-Cal service expansions include addition of doula services, community health workers as a class of providers, continuous glucose monitoring systems for beneficiaries with diabetes, a permanent end to the suspension of certain benefits, and funding for field testing of translated Medi-Cal materials to ensure that documents are understood by the intended audience.
Even with the progress made in the budget, SB 65 (Skinner), the California Momnibus bill, still contains additional provisions to reduce maternal health disparities. AB 470 (Carrillo) will be amended to include any clean-up language for Medi-Cal asset test elimination.
In addition, there is funding for community-based organizations and local public health entities to address health disparities (delayed to July 2022), funding to zero out $1 Covered California premiums, and funding for the creation of the Health Care Affordability Reserve Fund to allow for future investment in Covered California subsidies.
The biggest success is AB 832, which will provide 100% payments towards arrears for eligible tenants who were unable to pay rent during the pandemic. The U.S Treasury dedicated a total of $5.2 billion in federal rental relief to support tenants for a total of 18 months. There is an additional $300 million in the national mortgage settlement funds for homeowners and $1 billion to the CA Housing Finance Agency for mortgage assistance and principal reductions, as well as an additional $100 million to expand CalHFA First Time Homebuyer Assistance Program.
There aren’t many changes from the May Revise for housing production. This budget includes:
- $1.75 billion in one-time general funds to support Housing and Community Development affordable housing projects — 6,300 projects are currently shovel ready.
- $81 million in one-time funds to expand CalHFA’s Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) program.
- $300 million in one-time funds to sustain Housing and Community Development legacy project affordability requirements.
- $50 million for the Golden State acquisition fund.
- $45 million in one-time GF to finance low- and moderate-income units.
- Up to $500 million for Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
- $50 million for farmworker housing.
- $500 million in foreclosure intervention and housing preservation.
The budget also includes significant investments in homelessness funding:
- $2 billion over two years for local jurisdictions to address homelessness.
- $150 billion in one-time funds for RoomKey program to acquire and rehabilitate more housing facilities.
- $2.75 billion for Project Homekey using American Rescue Plan Act and GF.
- 50 million in one-time general funds for encampment resolutions services
- $92.5 million in general funds in both 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 to expand program to provide housing support for eligible families experiencing homelessness in the child welfare system.
- $50 million invested in the Homesafe program to support access to health, safety, and housing support for elderly people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
- $150 in general funds annually through 2023-2024 for people with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness under the Housing and Disability Advocacy program.
- $40 million for homeless youth emergency service projects including rapid rehousing, rental assistance, transitional housing up to 36 months, supportive housing, housing navigation, and housing stability.
- $25 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs that provide supportive services to homeless or at risk of homelessness veterans, for emergency or long-term housing support, among other things.
Finally, the budget includes an investment of $536,000 to the Department of Fair Housing and Employment to investigate and enforcement civil rights violations.