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Sonoma County distributed less than 10% of $32 million in rental aid as state eviction moratorium nears end

Rental Aid Questions

When does the state eviction moratorium expire?

The state moratorium expires June 30. By that date, tenants who’ve taken a financial hit due to the pandemic must pay at least 25% of their overdue rent since Sept. 1, 2020, to stay permanently protected from eviction for missing payments during that period.

If tenants were unable to pay rent between March 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2020, they can’t be evicted if they sign a “declaration of COVID-19 related financial distress” after receiving a "pay or quit" notice from landlords.

When does the county eviction moratorium expire?

The county moratorium expires 60 days after local officials declare the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency over. Unlike the state moratorium, the county ordinance doesn’t guarantee eviction protections for back rent once it expires.

How is rental assistance distributed?

Landlords who agree to participate in the program are directly compensated for 80% of rental debt their tenants accumulated between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, and must forgive the remaining 20%. If property owners refuse, tenants can apply to receive 25% of their unpaid rent for the same period.

Do renters still have to pay remaining overdue rent?

As it currently stands, whatever Sonoma County renters still owe from between Sept. 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, may be recouped by landlords in small claims court starting Aug. 1.

How do I apply for aid?

Qualifying Sonoma County residents can apply for rental assistance on SoCoEmergency.org or by calling 211 to reach English- and Spanish-speaking operators. Applicants can also find a community-based organization to assist them by visiting socoemergency.org/emergency/novel-coronavirus/finance-housing/housing-and-renter-support/

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.

Rental Aid Questions

When does the state eviction moratorium expire?

The state moratorium expires June 30. By that date, tenants who’ve taken a financial hit due to the pandemic must pay at least 25% of their overdue rent since Sept. 1, 2020, to stay permanently protected from eviction for missing payments during that period.

If tenants were unable to pay rent between March 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2020, they can’t be evicted if they sign a “declaration of COVID-19 related financial distress” after receiving a "pay or quit" notice from landlords.

When does the county eviction moratorium expire?

The county moratorium expires 60 days after local officials declare the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency over. Unlike the state moratorium, the county ordinance doesn’t guarantee eviction protections for back rent once it expires.

How is rental assistance distributed?

Landlords who agree to participate in the program are directly compensated for 80% of rental debt their tenants accumulated between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, and must forgive the remaining 20%. If property owners refuse, tenants can apply to receive 25% of their unpaid rent for the same period.

Do renters still have to pay remaining overdue rent?

As it currently stands, whatever Sonoma County renters still owe from between Sept. 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, may be recouped by landlords in small claims court starting Aug. 1.

How do I apply for aid?

Qualifying Sonoma County residents can apply for rental assistance on SoCoEmergency.org or by calling 211 to reach English- and Spanish-speaking operators. Applicants can also find a community-based organization to assist them by visiting socoemergency.org/emergency/novel-coronavirus/finance-housing/housing-and-renter-support/

For those whose rent is still overdue, the clock is ticking. When the state eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month, tenants must pay at least 25% of their overdue rent since Sept. 1, 2020, to stay permanently protected from eviction for past missing payments during the pandemic.

A separate local moratorium protects most renters from eviction until 60 days after county officials declare the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency over. But unlike the state moratorium, the county ordinance doesn’t guarantee eviction protections for back rent once it expires.

As it currently stands, whatever local renters still owe from between Sept. 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, could be recouped by landlords in small claims court starting in August. To recover the debt, however, property owners must prove they made “good faith effort” to help renters get available assistance, according to Legal Aid. Still, that means even if impoverished tenants gather enough money to remain in their homes, they may be saddled with a significant debt load.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to prevent that from happening by proposing to double rental aid funding to $5.2 billion to cover 100% of rent debt dating back to April 2020. But the issue remains whether that money reaches tenants by the June deadline.

Legislators are by the end of the month set to approve the increased assistance, which is included in the governor’s recent budget proposal. Tenant advocates and county officials hope they will also extend the state moratorium and consider making the additional money available to renters who don’t currently qualify.

“I really think the next step is a gap analysis, and trying to find more flexible forms of funding for those who can’t be helped by this program,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said discussions about whether to extend renter protections, as well as possibly loosen restrictions and requirements for aid, are “active and ongoing” as part of budget negotiations.

“The state wants to make this program as effective and efficient as possible for the most vulnerable Californians as well as small mom-and-pop landlords,” McGuire said, adding he supports pushing back the moratorium. “And that is why there’s active conversations happening right now. Hopefully we’ll have more to share in the next week or so.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, told The Press Democrat earlier this month he didn’t back extending the moratorium and that the Newsom administration should instead be focused on making it easier for renters to access the aid already available.

“I want to get money out the door,” Dodd said. “We made commitments to landlords and to renters. We have to make good on that commitment.”

Under a deal hashed out by state lawmakers in January, landlords must agree to participate in rental aid programs for tenants to receive full available relief. That’s sparked fears among advocates that some property owners may be declining the money, leaving tenants responsible for months of outstanding rent and vulnerable to future eviction.

Currently, landlords who do take part in rental programs are compensated for 80% of tenants’ overdue rent from between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, and must forgive the remaining 20%. If property owners refuse, tenants can apply to receive 25% of their unpaid rent for that same period.

To qualify for aid, renters need to prove they took a financial hit due to the pandemic and make no more than 80% of an area’s median income. In Sonoma County, that’s defined as around $93,000 for a family of four. Either a tenant or landlord can apply on tenants’ behalf for the program.

Keith Becker, general manager of DeDe’s Rentals in Santa Rosa, said he’s received a check for just three of his 14 tenants for whom he’s requested assistance. He’s frustrated with the slow process of getting aid, as well as the county’s online portal, which he says doesn’t provide clear updates on where renters stand in the application process.

Becker’s tenants currently owe over $100,000 in back rent. If he doesn’t receive the money before this month’s deadline, the property owners his company represents could eventually move to take renters to small claims court, he said.

“It’s just the uncertainty — we hope for the best for our tenants, and we hope for the best for our owners,” Becker said. “But my confidence in the program is lacking.”

Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa has so far paid out $148,648 of its $500,000 grant to 35 different households. It has 99 applications that it’s working to get approved. Jennielynn Holmes, the nonprofit’s program director, said she’s recently assigned more staff members to help tenants through the program.

“We’re racing against a lot of deadlines,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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