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Sonoma County to distribute $32 million in renter aid for tenants affected by pandemic

How to apply for rental aid

Beginning April 19, Sonoma County residents can apply for rental assistance on SoCoEmergency.org or by calling 2-1-1 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/

Sonoma County residents who accumulated rent debt due to economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be able to apply for aid, and down the road legal assistance, to stave off evictions.

Sonoma County government officials are set to begin distributing more than $32 million in federal and state dollars within two weeks. The county’s Community Development Commission will open the program April 19 and process applications until the funds are exhausted, Tina Rivera, the commission’s assistant director, told the the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The money “won’t meet all of the need but it will meet quite a bit of the need,” Rivera said.

Some advocates for tenants worried the timeline is too short. The state has in place a June 30 deadline for tenants to pay at least 25% of the rent debt accumulated since September 1, 2020, to remain protected from eviction.

“That’s a pretty short window of time” to distribute the aid, said Suzanne Dershowitz, an attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which represents low-income tenants in legal disputes. County eviction protections extend further, blocking evictions until September 30, 2021 except where necessary for public health and safety or the landlord’s withdrawal rental market, she noted.

The county will have a difficult time reaching low income tenants, undocumented immigrant tenants and those without internet connectivity, Dershowitz said.

“I’m concerned about people not learning about [the aid],“ Dershowitz said.

Unpaid rent debt in Sonoma County is also likely greater than the pool of new funding. Three months ago, unpaid rent in the county was estimated at about $36.5 million, according to a study by the Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW California. Statewide, the figure was about $3.7 billion, the group found.

Supervisors and housing advocates voiced worry the county did not have a good sense of the true extent of the recent burdens for renters, particularly as eviction moratoriums and other measures push the ultimate consequence of pandemic-era rent debt down the road.

Board Chair Lynda Hopkins worried there was a “tremendous unmet need” for assistance in the county, and said the board did not know how far $32 million will go.

“Is this a drop in the bucket?” she asked. “Is this a third?”

The county’s new program is built to capture a more complete picture of that need, incorporating data on race, income levels and location.

“We think we don’t know how big a housing problem we have,” said Ronit Rubinoff, Legal Aid of Sonoma County’s director, said.

The new money comes from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, launched in January. Around $17.5 million was distributed to Sonoma County out of the state’s $2.6 billion allotment, while $14.5 million went straight from the feds the county.

To be eligible for the rental assistance programs, applicant households must earn less than 80% of the area median income — around $82,000 for a family of four. Applicants making less than 50% of the area median income receive preference.

Those thresholds concerned some supervisors, with Hopkins saying she felt the 80% figure was “way out of whack” with rent in Sonoma County’s exorbitantly priced housing market. People could be making higher than median incomes and still falling behind on rent if they’ve lost income during the pandemic, she said.

Dershowitz shared that concern and said people are amassing other debts in order to make rent. “We’re hearing a lot about people who did everything they could to not accumulate rent debt and so they took out all other types of loans,” she said.

The aid money can be used to pay utilities as well as rent and assistance will be awarded for three months before applicants must reapply. The program will prioritize past-due rent and utility bills, including expenses stretching back to April 2020.

Landlords can decline participation in the program, though they risk facing a difficult road to collect a year or more of unpaid rent in some cases. Participating landlords can be compensated for 80% of rental debt stretching back to April 1, 2020. The landlord must forgive the remaining 20%, however, under the terms of a deal brokered by the Legislature earlier this year.

When landlords participate, the aid money goes directly to them. When they decline to participate, the county will distribute just a quarter of the unpaid rent, compensating solely the tenant.

The need for landlord participation troubled some, including those concerned about housing discrimination based on race or other characteristics. “I worry about landlords deciding maybe for this tenant I will participate and for this tenant I won’t,” Dershowitz said.

How to apply for rental aid

Beginning April 19, Sonoma County residents can apply for rental assistance on SoCoEmergency.org or by calling 2-1-1 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/

A smaller share of the relief funds will go to bolster legal resources for tenants faced with eviction and other legal proceedings. Legal Aid, through a new $712,000 annual contract, will use the funds to hire three new attorneys and two bilingual case workers along with other support and contract attorneys to represent tenants faced with eviction, utility shut offs or habitability concerns in their housing, according to Rivera.

It will take Legal Aid a few months to expand the new workforce, Rubinoff said. The organization is racing to prepare for a “tidal wave of need” she anticipates will follow the expiration of state and federal pandemic-era tenant protections.

The moratoriums haven’t stopped landlords from seeking evictions anyways, Rubinoff said. Her program has seen a tripling of such notices in the past year, she said, illustrating the need for more legal help for renters.

“You make rights real when you have legal representation,” she said, citing the federal, state and local safeguards put in place for renters during the pandemic. “We want to make those rights real and we want to make sure that were here to respond to the fallout from the pandemic that we’re going to see,” she said.

The ultimate goal is to keep struggling Sonoma County residents from becoming homeless, Rubinoff said. “Even if people have to leave a property, we can make sure they have time to move to a new property and don’t end up on the street,” she said.

Advocates for landlords expressed discomfort at the new contract. The California Apartment Association was supportive of the rental assistance but opposed to the money going to legal advocacy, Keshav Kumar told the Board of Supervisors.

“For many of our members, this program will be the first time they've been compensated for the housing they've provided for over a year in the pandemic,” he said. “The county should ensure that these funds are appropriated fairly and not use public funds to be party of one side during a private legal dispute.”

Legal Aid represents low income landlords on property issues that may impact their housing, Rubinoff said. Nationally, tenant advocates have found that 90% of landlords in eviction lawsuits have legal representation, compared to only 10% of tenants.

“We do have to recognize that there is an unequal playing field between landlords and tenants and there always has been,” Rubinoff said.

Partnering with nonprofits

The Community Development Commission will partner with local nonprofits to distribute the rental aid. Using organizations already established in the communities will improve the county’s ability to reach often neglected minority and low income communities, Rivera said.

Rivera mentioned several groups her agency has been working with to distribute previous rental aid packages that totaled about $5 million.

Rivera thanked the Community Action Partnership, Catholic Charities, Petaluma People Services, West County Community Services and Friends in Sonoma Helping for their assistance on previous aid efforts. The CDC has also worked with the CURA project, which has provided information about the vaccine, financial aid programs and other pandemic era programming to Latino, Indigenous, and low-income community members.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to specify that county renter protections blocking most evictions extend until at least Sept. 30, 2021.

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