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