Breanna Reeves |
Telesha Whitaker applied for and received rental assistance through Riverside’s Emergency Relief Assistance Program, but the process was not without challenges.
“The process was hard because it changed hands between United Lift to United Way to Lift to Rise. So, it was different entities that were supposedly assisting us for rental assistance, but it changed hands several times and it took even longer,” Whitaker explained. “It was almost a year before I actually received assistance.”
Throughout the pandemic, Whitaker received several notices to vacate that were posted on her door, sometimes three or four notices would appear at the time. Despite the notices, unlike some of her neighbors, Whitaker was not evicted but was embarrassed by the abundance of notices.
COVID Created an Overwhelming Demand for Tenant Assistance
Thousands of tenants like Whitaker applied for and were granted emergency rental assistance that prevented a massive wave of homelessness during the pandemic. But the end of the eviction moratorium on September 30 revealed some cracks in California’s rental assistance protections.
With Governor Newsom’s California Comeback Plan, renters have benefited from the $2.6 billion rent relief program put in place to cover all past-due and future rent payments for those who qualify for the relief. The rental assistance plan has protected tenants from eviction and protected the state from falling into an even larger housing crisis.
The California Department of Housing and Community Development has reported providing $1 billion to assist 91,000 households with rent and utility payments, but more than 700,000 households still report being behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas.
In Riverside County, approximately 31,000 households are behind on rent and have a collective rent debt estimated at $1 million. Across San Bernardino County, over 33,000 renters are behind on rent and owe over $1 million in rent.
Although many tenants were protected, the process of applying for assistance was a long one with limitations such as being an online-only application process and requiring specific documentation that proved COVID-19-related financial hardship. Protections put in place were also complicated for tenants to understand without the assistance of housing advocates and agencies.
Now, tenants are facing other problems with the end of the moratorium, specifically, landlords who are still insisting on evicting tenants who they have deemed unable to afford rent or who have been accused of damaging the property.
In Many Ways, State Protections Fell Short
Glynnis Bridges-Williams, a Housing Investigator at the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, commends Newsom’s rental assistance plan and how it helped tenants throughout the state, but believes it lacked organization and proper enforcement.
“They poured a lot of money into emergency rental assistance, but at the same (time), a lot of things fell through the cracks. Governor Newsom and the legislative team, they put a lot of laws in place, but there wasn’t anyone to enforce them,” explained Bridges-Williams. “So, although tenants had access to apply for rental assistance, a number of landlords were being advised by their lawyers not to accept rental assistance.”
Initially, landlords had the option to accept or deny a percentage of emergency relief funds that were paid by rental assistance programs on behalf of tenants.
As of now, tenants are protected from eviction if they have paid at least 25 percent of their rent between September 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021. Tenants who owed rent from March 2020 to August 2020 cannot be evicted as long as they have proper documentation declaring COVID-19-releated financial distress. But beginning on November 1, renters must pay full rent for the last year and could be ordered to do so in court.
“Now that we’re at the point where the moratorium has been lifted, some landlords received emergency rental assistance, but they still want the tenant out,” said Bridges-Williams. “They still want to evict them. They may have received $17,000 or $10,000 in rental assistance for that tenant, and they still want them to vacate.”
Bridges-Williams worked with a local senior couple with disabilities who were forced out of their home even after the property owner received $17,000 from a rental assistance program on their behalf. Bridges-Williams explained that the property owner wouldn’t negotiate or give her time to rehouse the senior couple.
“So now they are faced with housing insecurity. And so they stayed in a hotel. They got a voucher for a hotel for 14 days. They put all their stuff in storage,” said Bridges-Williams. “And now they are, I think they’re living with his son until something opens up at one of the senior facilities.”
Tenants have rights
Whitaker has lived under the current landlord for three years now and has faced several maintenance issues during her stay. When the pandemic began, her landlord refused to make repairs, but increased the cost of rent during the pandemic.
“And when the pandemic occurred, they were even worse. It’s like they used that as the ultimate reason for not being able to make repairs in a timely manner,” Whitaker said.
Refusing to perform maintenance is one tactic some landlords have employed as a way of forcing tenants to vacate their homes, accusing tenants of damaging property and using that as a means for dismissal.
“The one thing that’s been quite concerning, as we’ve been going through the pandemic, a number of landlords have refused to make repairs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Bridges-Williams. “They didn’t want to make repairs because they weren’t getting rent. But now they want to sue for damages to the property.”
Bridges-Williams explained that tenants have rights when it comes to defending themselves against landlords. Maintaining documentation is one important aspect that tenants need to protect themselves.
If a tenant has applied or is in the process of applying for rental assistance, their application can be used as a defense in court. One of the limitations of rental assistance has been the delay in receiving funds. Although the state says that it takes about 30 days from the time a tenant applies to when the funds are paid, many tenants like Whitaker experience longer wait times.
If a tenant is in the process of applying, or has an application pending, this defense can be used in court if a tenant is summoned. If a tenant has been served with an eviction notice, they are not required to leave their home, according to housing advocates. Only a sheriff can physically remove a tenant from their home.
Housing counseling organizations like the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County can assist renters with disputes and offer advice regarding how to deal with landlords.
Tenants Together, a statewide housing coalition, advocates on behalf of tenants and educates them on their rights. Riverside County residents in need of rental assistance can still apply through United Lift. Residents of San Bernardino County and beyond can apply through the state program.
Header image: (source: istockphoto-by-Bill-Oxford)