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Home | Newsroom | Housing | Tens of thousands still waiting as California COVID rent relief program runs low on cash

Tens of thousands still waiting as California COVID rent relief program runs low on cash

In March 2021, the Los Angeles film industry was just beginning to roar back to life after a prolonged COVID-induced slump, but Michael Addis, a freelance filmmaker, was still deep in the hole. For more than a year he’d been racking up IOUs to his landlord and the tab stood at $43,792.

So Addis turned to an emergency state program designed to help people like him pay down rental debt accumulated during the pandemic.

Later, in the summer of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom himself had touted the program, Housing Is Key, as the largest of its kind in the nation. “We’re laser-focused on getting this assistance out the door as quickly as possible,” he said at the time.

Addis heard back 20 months after he applied.

On June 5, 2023 — his 61st birthday — he received an email, which he shared with CalMatters, notifying him that a payment had been approved in full.

But by then it was too late. Addis had already downsized, moving out of his apartment a few blocks from the Marina Del Rey harbor to a smaller spot in the San Fernando Valley. He had also borrowed money from members of his family to pay his old landlord back, hoping that he’d be able to write off the new debt with the relief funds from the state. But once the company that owns his apartment complex, Equity Residential, received a check from the state, they sent it back, citing program guidelines that deemed Addis no longer eligible for assistance.

“It’s just painful to think that the money that was allocated to solve my problem was sent back and I’m still in debt and now I have to downsize again,” he said, explaining that he’s about to move to Simi Valley, even further from his teenage son, who lives with Addis’ ex-wife. “I’m not in any way leaning on the state but I had a bad year — a bad couple years — and there was a program to help. And they helped me in the worst possible way.”

Addis’ long wait for California’s emergency rental relief program isn’t unusual. Though the application window closed in March 2022, more than 70,000 households still have applications pending on the eve of 2024.

California lawmakers created Housing Is Key with billions of dollars in federal relief money, initially guaranteeing everyone who applied in time and was approved would get paid. The ultimate goal of the program was to stem a flood of evictions, as state and local emergency eviction bans came to an end.

For many Californians, it’s been a vital lifeline. The program has sent more than $4.7 billion to nearly 370,000 lower-income households, according to data from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

But a sizable, unlucky minority of applicants — tenants and landlords alike — have had to wait…and wait and wait.

In the meantime, many have borrowed money from friends and relatives, pleaded and haggled with impatient creditors, missed monthly payments and turned to online support groups for tips on how to sidestep the program’s red tape.

Still others have been evicted, though the state doesn’t maintain records on how many.

Tenant rights advocates and anti-poverty groups accuse the state of perpetuating a cruel bait-and-switch on some of the state’s neediest. The state’s housing department blames some of those same advocates for the delay, pointing to a lawsuit that slowed down the application review process.

For those still waiting, the hold-up has taken on a new degree of urgency. Housing Is Key might soon be out of cash. Though California’s Housing and Community Development department, which oversees the program, recently “identified additional funding,” it’s unclear whether that will be enough to pay out every last valid claim.

How much is left?

The state’s housing department declined to estimate when the program will run out of money or how many people are likely to get help before that happens. That figure depends on two unknowns: How many of the as-yet unprocessed applications will ultimately be approved and, of those, how much rental debt each applicant is owed.

“Given this inherent uncertainty, we remain focused on assisting as many eligible households as possible with the funding we have available,” said Pablo Espinoza, the department’s deputy communications director.

But the available figures offer a few hints.

As of early November, there were at least 33,658 initial applications still pending, according to data published by the housing department. Another 39,401 applicants were initially denied, but awaiting an appeal review. That’s a total of 73,059 applications.

Though CalMatters reported in early October that the department projected the program would soon be out of money, program administrators were able to dig up some more. According to Espinoza, because the program is in its “final wind-down” phase, money initially set aside to pay administrative overhead or leftover from locally-run programs is now available to help renters. That’s left a new projected balance of roughly $171 million.

But that’s “not nearly enough,” said Anya Svanoe, a spokesperson for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, one of a handful of organizations that sued the department last year over its administration of the rent relief program. “Tens of thousands of people are at risk of being evicted or made homeless, not because they were ineligible, but because the state ran out of money.”

Svanoe points to the average pay out, published on the program’s online data dashboard: $12,018.