Rafael Aguilar was initially hesitant to apply for rent relief, but when funding came through he said it was “totally worth it. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist

By David Wagner/LAist

Originally published Oct 25, 2021

For months, state and local governments across California have been trying to prevent evictions by delivering billions of dollars of relief to people who’ve fallen behind on rent.

But in Los Angeles, many renters in need aren’t applying for help.

Recent survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 550,000 L.A.-area households are behind on rent — and most (about 295,000) have not applied for assistance.

So what’s stopping tenants from seeking rent relief? Local housing advocates say a number of hurdles stand in the way, including language barriers, the digital divide and reluctance to fill out government forms among some immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

With certain key statewide eviction protections now gone, and others slated to end early next year, the state has launched a multi-million dollar campaign to spread the word about rent relief and overcome those barriers.

‘There Is Some Hesitation, And It’s Merited’

Rent relief programs across the state emphasize that anyone can apply for aid, regardless of immigration status. But in many communities, fears remain.

“There is some hesitation, and it’s merited,” said Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), whose largely working-class district includes neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights.

Santiago said when he knocked on doors to spread the word about rent relief, he found many people in his district were reluctant to apply.

“The former president really spent a lot of time attacking immigrants, making threat of ICE and making threat of the public charge,” Santiago said. “We’re now having to unravel that.”

Protesters line up in front of the Banc of California Stadium demanding a freeze on rent during the pandemic. Photo by Chava Sanchez/LAist

Fear Of Being Asked For A Social Security Number

Rafael Aguilar’s immigration status was a factor in his reluctance to seek help.

After his job as a restaurant cook dropped from five days a week down to two, he couldn’t keep up with his rent. So when Aguilar’s wife heard about the city of L.A.’s rent relief program, he was interested — but skeptical.

“I was very hesitant,” said Aguilar, who has a prosthetic leg and has struggled to find an employer who will keep him on full-time during the pandemic.

The Boyle Heights renter said the online application was long and intimidating. And he figured even if he could get through it, he might not qualify for help.

“There were a lot of requirements that I probably wasn’t going to meet,” he said. “One of them was my legal status. I was very reluctant to apply because, though I’ve been in this country for 35 years, my fear was that they’re going to ask me for a social security number.”

Aguilar doesn’t have a social security number because he’s in the country without authorization. He wasn’t sure applying was the right move, but with his family thousands of dollars in debt, Aguilar decided it was worth a shot.

So he applied. And his immigration status never came up. After a few months, he was approved for funding to clear his overdue rent.

“It was lengthy, but it was worth it,” Aguilar said. “Totally worth it.”

‘They Need To Know How To Apply’

Immigration status is just one reason why many people who need rent relief in L.A. aren’t applying for help. Some simply don’t know assistance is available.

That worries housing advocates because statewide eviction protections expired last month, and one of the best ways for tenants to protect themselves from eviction moving forward is by applying for rent relief.

“They need to know how to apply,” said Larry Gross, executive director for the L.A.-based Coalition for Economic Survival. “We need to do everything possible to make people aware that that money is there, and it can prevent them from being evicted.”

Under state law, tenants will be protected from eviction through next March, as long as they have a rent relief application under review. In certain parts of the state, including the city of L.A., eviction protections go further and will stay in place longer.

There are a lot of tenants who don’t know that help is available in the first place.

— Coalition for Economic Survival tenant outreach organizer Eugene Maysky

State officials contend that progress is being made on getting Angelenos to apply for aid.

More than 162,000 applications have been submitted in L.A. County through the state’s HousingIsKey.com website — and that figure doesn’t include applicants to locally administered programs run by the cities of Santa Clarita and Long Beach.

The state has put $24 million toward contracting with local organizations throughout California to get the word out about rent relief and assist tenants in applying.

“The state has also engaged in a statewide paid media and social media campaign that has coordinated and simplified messaging,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesperson for the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

Language Barriers Take Time To Overcome 

Housing nonprofits say some tenants don’t know they can seek assistance because they haven’t seen outreach in their native language.

Coalition for Economic Survival tenant outreach organizer Eugene Maysky said he has been contacting Russian immigrant communities in West Hollywood and other parts of Southern California.

“I try to do outreach through specifically Russian-speaking Facebook groups and Russian-speaking social media,” Maysky said. “There are a lot of tenants who don’t know that help is available in the first place.”

Maysky has also been sitting on the phone with Russian speakers, helping them get through the online application, a process that can take hours. The state offers its online application in six different languages, but Russian isn’t one of them.

Rafael Aguilar and his wife sit at a table in their Boyle Heights home. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist

Another Obstacle: The Digital Divide

Even when language isn’t a barrier, the digital divide can be. The low-income, unemployed service workers most likely to need help paying rent often lack the means or skills to get online and upload documents.

Joe Delgado, director of L.A.’s Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said, “In some cases we’re even having to help people set up emails, which kind of tells you where some of these folks are at.”

Renters who have received help say the aid lifted a heavy burden.

Rafael Aguilar said it took him a few days to complete the city of L.A.’s online application because he’s not tech savvy. But he said getting the approval email made it all worthwhile.

“When the news came through, I called my wife and I read it out loud to her,” Aguilar said. “And we were both just thrilled, you know, amazed.”

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Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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