Sonoma County pauses new rental aid applications as local tenants continue to struggle through pandemic

The county expects the remaining $15 million in state and federal dollars it has on hand will be enough to cover the 4,000 households still in line for assistance.|

How to apply for rental aid

Sonoma County renters can apply for aid online. If you do not have an email address, you can contact 211 for an agent to assist you with the online application.

Anyone needing help applying for rental aid, in English or Spanish, is encouraged to contact one of the community-based organizations listed on SoCoEmergency.org.

All renters can apply for assistance regardless of immigration status.

In addition to rent, aid can be used for utilities, moving costs, debts left over from previous rentals and security deposits for those affected by the pandemic.

Sonoma County has paused accepting new applications for its emergency rental aid program because of a lack of funds as many local tenants are likely still struggling through the persistent pandemic.

The program, launched in April 2021, has granted nearly $25 million to over 2,100 households, county officials said. The county expects the remaining $15 million in state and federal dollars it has on hand will be enough to cover the roughly 4,000 households still in line for assistance.

County officials hope that halting new applications last Friday will help local nonprofits tasked with guiding renters and landlords through the program ensure everyone who has asked for assistance receives it.

“The pause will allow our community-based partners and staff to navigate through the remaining applications,” said James Gore, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, in a statement.

Should the program need more money to fulfill current application requests, the county may seek additional funds from the state or federal government.

The county could also ask for more money if there remains a need from local low-income renters who’ve taken a financial hit because of COVID-19.

That appears to be a likely scenario, as an estimated 8,000 local households were saddled with $27.6 million in rental debt at the end of last year, according to the National Equity Atlas, a data tool by University of Southern California researchers.

“We all share the hope that we’ll secure additional funds to ensure that all persons in need receive the assistance they need,” Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said in a statement.

For local tenants and landlords who have not applied for assistance, that means there could still be an opportunity for the county to cover 100% of overdue rent dating back to the start of the pandemic.

The rental aid shortfall comes as state eviction protections for back rent are expected to expire with a fast-approaching deadline at the end of next month.

After a statewide moratorium on most evictions ended on Sept. 30, California renters have remained shielded from eviction for missed payments so long as they’ve submitted a rental aid application, according to state and county officials. That protection is set to end on March 31.

With the county’s rental aid program now on hold, however, local renters who have yet to apply may be left vulnerable to eviction.

But tenant advocates, including Legal Aid of Sonoma County, have argued a county eviction moratorium approved by the Board of Supervisors in March 2020 should keep renters protected.

County attorneys, meanwhile, have previously said state law modifies the local moratorium so that it only safeguards tenants for missed payments from before October 1, 2021.

A county website with information about pandemic housing support states the local moratorium “creates a legal defense for tenants” who are behind on rent but stops short of outlining specifics.

On Tuesday, county officials could not immediately clarify exactly what local evictions protections are currently in place.

When the rental aid program launched last year, it was initially slow to get money out the door due to snags with the county’s online application portal and state eligibility restrictions, among other reasons, frustrating both tenants and landlords.

The setbacks also meant the program missed out on millions of dollars in additional state and federal dollars.

County officials were unable to say how much more cash the program could have received had it not failed to meet its distribution deadlines. But in October, the county was in line for rental aid funds totaling as much as $63 million. In all, county officials expect to give out just $40 million before potentially asking the state or federal government for additional money.

To qualify for assistance, renters must show they’ve been hurt financially by the pandemic — a vague requirement nearly anyone can meet — and make below 80% of an area’s median income. In Sonoma County that’s $65,150 for an individual or $90,900 for a family of four.

Over 54% of the funds given to local households went to those making under 30% of the area’s median income, according to the county. About 26% went to those making under 50% of the median income.

In addition to covering back rent, the program can pay for months of future rent. The average amount distributed to each household in February has been over $7,000.

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

How to apply for rental aid

Sonoma County renters can apply for aid online. If you do not have an email address, you can contact 211 for an agent to assist you with the online application.

Anyone needing help applying for rental aid, in English or Spanish, is encouraged to contact one of the community-based organizations listed on SoCoEmergency.org.

All renters can apply for assistance regardless of immigration status.

In addition to rent, aid can be used for utilities, moving costs, debts left over from previous rentals and security deposits for those affected by the pandemic.

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