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By David Wagner/LAist

Originally published September 19

The city of Los Angeles launched a new rent relief program Tuesday designed to help low-income tenants pay off debts they accrued early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applications opened Sept. 19 at 8 a.m. and will be accepted until 6 p.m., Oct. 2. Tenants can apply online, by phone at (888) 379-3150 or in person at locations listed on the city housing department’s website. [Editors note: There is one Boyle Heights location, at El Centro de Ayuda, located at the Boyle Heights City Hall.]

The city is putting $18.4 million toward the first batch of funding for the United to House Los Angeles Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The money comes from Measure ULA, the new “mansion tax” on properties selling for $5 million or more that voters approved last November.

Under the city’s COVID-19 tenant protections, the deadline to pay back early pandemic debts lapsed last month and some renters are already facing eviction. Tenant advocates have been calling on city officials to put new tax revenue toward rent relief for months.

“It is a positive step,” said Eastside LEADS coalition director Pamela Agustin-Anguiano. “I hope that we can get more money… They’re going to have to open this program up for a longer period of time.”

So far, Measure ULA revenue has fallen far short of projections. The tax has raised about $55 million since taking effect on April 1, despite estimates that it could bring in as much as $1.1 billion annually. L.A. city councilmembers have approved a spending plan for the first $150 million raised by the measure, which still faces legal challenges in court.

Tenants earning up to 80% of the area’s median income are eligible, but city officials said priority will go to those with extremely low incomes (up to 30% of the area’s median). The cut-off for priority will be $26,500 for a one-person household or $37,850 for a family of four.

The city will also prioritize applicants who have unpaid rent from April 2020 through September 2021. As of Aug. 1, tenants with debts from these months are no longer protected under the city’s COVID-19 regulations and many are already facing eviction. Another deadline to pay back debts from October 2021 through January 2023 is approaching on Feb. 1, 2024.

City housing officials said they expect to assist about 3,000 tenant households, depending on how much rent relief each applicant needs. That makes the city’s program much smaller in scale compared to the state’s rent relief program, which delivered $1.4 billion to more than 100,000 L.A. households in earlier phases of the pandemic.

The city is only taking applications from renters for now, but small landlords with 12 units or less will soon be able to apply for relief through a separate application portal launching Oct. 23.

Landlord advocates said they believe the city’s program is a step in the right direction, but current funding falls short.

“We should put 99% of available resources into programs like this,” said California Apartment Association spokesperson Fred Sutton. “And frankly, this is just a small sliver of the funding that is potentially available, depending on what happens with ULA. It should be much more robust.”

Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, criticized the city for budgeting $23 million in eviction defense aid for tenants, who rarely have attorneys in eviction court.

“This $18.4 million is a mere drop in the bucket of the $150 million in total Measure ULA funds the city plans to spend,” Yukelson said.

Applicants can’t receive more than six months of back rent. Tenants in condos and single-family homes are eligible. And renters can apply regardless of their immigration status — those without legal authorization to live in the U.S. can still qualify for help. The program is also not first-come, first-served — so there’s no advantage to applying early.

Tenants approved for rent relief will not receive the money directly. The city will only send payments to landlords, who must provide documents proving ownership of the building and evidence of past-due rent.

Agustin-Anguiano said Eastside LEADS and other tenant groups will be monitoring how the city responds in cases where landlords refuse to participate.

“Tenants need to get buy-in from the landlord,” she said. “That’s not easy, especially when the tenant owes a lot of debt. The landlord is already aggravated and wants the tenant out. Oftentimes they just want the tenant to be evicted.”

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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