Sonoma County distributed less than 10% of $32 million in rental aid as state eviction moratorium nears end
With state eviction protections set to expire at the end of this month, Sonoma County has distributed less than 10% of the $32 million in available rental aid since launching its pandemic assistance program in April.
Though the exact amount that’s reached those in need remains unclear, local tenant advocates say only a small fraction of struggling renters in the county have benefited from the program. It has been hindered by administrative red tape, eligibility restrictions and other barriers to access.
Tenant advocates fear that if a statewide moratorium on most evictions is not extended beyond June 30, many tenants won’t receive aid in time to stay in their homes and avoid crushing debt.
“Even though we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in this health crisis, for the housing crisis, the worst is yet to come if we don’t make these changes in the law,” said Suzanne Dershowitz, housing policy attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County.
Dershowitz noted that a county moratorium will continue to shield renters from immediate eviction, but said tenants could still be on the hook for back rent and possibly at risk of displacement down the line if they don’t get assistance by the June 30 deadline.
Since launching the rental aid program on April 19, the county as of June 14 had distributed about $3.3 million of the $32 million in state and federal funds to 10 local nonprofits tasked with giving out the money to help residents cover rent and utilities.
Officials were unable to say exactly how much cash has actually made it into the hands of renters and landlords. At least 1,690 renters have had applications “processed” to receive assistance, according to county data.
Still, thousands more local tenants may be desperate for support. Some 10,240 households in Sonoma County owe about $51 million in rent debt, according to National Equity Atlas, a research group backed by the University of Southern California.
The slow pace of disbursing aid is mirrored across California. Earlier this month, KQED reported the state had given out just 2% of the $1.4 billion in federal dollars it’s responsible for distributing in many counties, though not in Sonoma County.
For many local tenants, navigating the county program is “complex and time consuming,” Dershowitz said, particularly for those who don’t speak English or lack easy access to the online application portal. Proving a loss of income, finding the proper documentation and coordinating with one of the nonprofits disbursing funds can amount to a bureaucratic process that may be keeping people from applying.
Additionally, many renters — especially in communities of color who experts say are at a higher risk of eviction — may not even be aware the program exists.
“Just knowing that this is available is a barrier for people, as much as the county and all of the different (nonprofits) are doing everything they can to get word out,” Dershowitz said.
Tina Rivera, assistant director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, said the county’s top housing agency has given over $1 million to participating nonprofits to help reach out to local renters and guide them through the application process. It’s also started offering additional technical support to speed up cash payments.
“We’re working with each nonprofit to increase the rate at which they’re processing,” Rivera said.
Smaller pandemic rental assistance programs, such as a $600,000 effort by the city of Santa Rosa last June, have helped many renters stay up to date, she said.
But a primary reason why the county hasn’t been able to help more tenants, Rivera said, is that many took out various loans to avoid falling behind on rent. And under state rules, rental aid can’t be used to pay down that debt.
“What we’re seeing is families who were facing rent insecurity, they went and borrowed dollars from family members or took out high-interest loans and just made it work,” Rivera said.
Jennifer Wertz, fund manager with the Russian River Alliance, said her nonprofit has had to turn away debt-burdened renters for that very reason.
“That’s the kind of person who deserves the help more than anybody,” Wertz said.
And since the program currently covers only missed payments through March, the small west county group hasn’t been able to help some tenants who continued to struggle as the economy slowly reopened. However, county officials have indicated they could open up some available funding for additional months.
Despite those challenges, the group has been able to approve $141,000 of the $250,000 in aid it has received to almost 17 renters, according to Wertz. Nonprofits request lump-sum grants from the county to distribute based on renter demand and their capacity to hand out aid.