By David Wagner/LAist
Originally published Aug 25, 2021
Tens of thousands of L.A. tenants who have been shut out of the city’s troubled rent relief program will be able to apply for help from the state starting next week, following a city council vote on Wednesday.
The city had been running the program, and the council voted to turn it over to the state. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announced that L.A. renters will be able to start applying through the state’s HousingIsKey.com portal on Sept. 1.
The move comes after the city — which stopped accepting applications in April — acknowledged it has been slow to pay households in need, and that it won’t be able to help the vast majority of tenants who have applied. Officials also acknowledged the state is getting relief payments out more quickly.
Handing the reins over to the state should speed up payments and allow more renters to apply for a bigger pool of potential funding, L.A. Housing and Community Investment Department general manager Ann Sewill told a council committee on Tuesday.
“I’m confident that this will actually improve access to the funds for residents of the city of Los Angeles,” said Sewill.
The Switch Will Be ‘A Huge Benefit’
Housing advocates agreed that the state is better positioned to help low-income L.A. tenants who fell behind on rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. They said centralizing relief at the state level will make it easier to let renters know where to seek help.
“It’s going to create a uniform system for tenants across L.A. County,” said Faizah Malik, senior staff attorney at Public Counsel. “I think that is going to be a huge benefit.”
In addition, transferring power to the state will expand eligibility to renters who were excluded from the city’s program.
L.A. has prioritized funding for the lowest-income applicants: those making 30% or less of the area’s median income. The city disqualified applicants earning more than 50% of the area’s median income.
The state’s income limits are much higher, allowing any household earning up to 80% of the area’s median income to apply for relief. In L.A., that’s up to $94,600 for a family of four.
Getting more tenants in the system will also enhance eviction protections for vulnerable renters. After the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Sept. 30, qualified tenants can still protect themselves from eviction as long as they have a rent relief application under review.
Ellie Guzman, a community organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, said many renters are facing harassment from landlords as their debts pile up.
“Almost forced evictions are happening because they have this rent debt,” she said. “Whatever gets money into tenants’ and landlords’ hands fastest could hopefully help secure these tenants’ homes.”
Meanwhile, The City Is Trying To Speed Up Payments
The city council also approved up to $5 million in additional funding to speed up processing and payments for existing city applicants. Roughly 4,000 L.A. households have received funding so far. The city’s goal is to pay off the rent debts of another 13,000 households within six weeks.
At that point, L.A. is projected to run out of money, leaving the vast majority of applicants in the hands of the state moving forward. Housing department officials said those applicants will likely have to re-apply through the state’s portal, but they will receive priority in the state’s processing.
City and state officials said they will make multiple attempts to reach applicants and let them know they must re-apply.
Many tenants already in the city’s system say they’ve received confusing updates on the status of their applications.
Ana Rico said her application was approved in June, but the city still hasn’t delivered money to her landlord.
Rico said she had to stop working as a housecleaner at the outset of the pandemic, and her husband lost his job as a restaurant cook. They were ineligible for unemployment benefits due to their immigration status. She said her family has accumulated $33,000 in rent debt since April 2020.
Rico, a mother of three, now worries about what will happen to her family if their rent debt isn’t cleared before the state’s eviction protections expire.
“It is worrisome, because there are children,” she said. “Why not cancel the rent, if there was no money to pay the rent? It’s frustrating.”
$170 Million Vs. $68 Million
California’s rent relief program gave cities and counties the option to administer local rent relief funding themselves or to let the state do it for them. Different parts of Los Angeles chose different paths.
While the city of L.A. initially decided to run its own rent relief program. L.A. County chose to leave the state in charge.
City housing officials said it’s now clear the state is getting money out faster.
The state has paid out nearly $170 million to households in L.A. County, which represents more than one-third of the back rent requested by all county applicants.
Meanwhile, L.A. city has paid — or is in the process of paying — about $68 millionin rent relief. That’s just a small fraction of the $530 million requested by all city applicants.
Another problem the city has faced: The local need for rent relief far outweighs current funding. After two rounds of federal funding, the city has been allotted about $500 million for rent relief. But city officials estimate the true rent debt among city tenants is closer to $950 million.
They said the state can better meet L.A.’s overwhelming needs by taking money from parts of California with less demand and shifting it to hard-hit areas like Los Angeles.
Public Counsel attorney Malik endorsed that approach. The state “will see all the applications that are coming in, and they will be able to quickly reallocate to make sure that all tenants in L.A. get the debt relief they need,” she said.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.