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Santa Rosa proposes $600,000 assistance program to help renters during pandemic

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Santa Rosa plans to start an emergency rental assistance program in June expected to help an estimated 50 city households that have lost income during the ongoing pandemic, since county health officials in mid-March ordered all but essential businesses to close.

More than $600,000 in federal funds would help a group of qualified low- and middle-income renters through the end of the year, or until they get another job or resume working regular hours, city officials said.

The money would be distributed based on renters’ needs. Recipients still would pay 30% of their current household income toward monthly rent and funds from the assistance program would cover the remainder.

There is no cap on how much financial aid a renter could receive each month.

Officials anticipate the program would help around 50  households, though that number could change based on how much money is needed to help eligible tenants pay their rent.

During a virtual City Council meeting on Tuesday, Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming supported the program devised by the city housing agency, while acknowledging it comes up short of supporting likely thousands of city workers now struggling to pay rent during the pandemic.

“While (the program) may only assist 50 families, that’s 50 more families than would have been assisted otherwise, and I know that will mean the world to those families,” Fleming said.

Renters will be able to apply for the temporary assistance during a one-week application period starting June 1.

To qualify, renters’ total household income after lost wages must not exceed 60% of the city’s median income. That means to qualify, renters can’t be earning more than $47,760 a year as an individual and $68,160 as a household of four, according to city figures.

Under HUD guidelines, at least one household member must be a U.S. citizen or have eligible immigration status.

Applicants will apply online and be chosen by a random selection process to ensure equal access to the program. Recipients should then receive final approval for aid within a few weeks. The Santa Rosa Housing Authority will be in charge of distributing the rent money directly to landlords through a voucher system.

The City Council approved launching the rental assistance program using federal grant money intended for local affordable housing projects, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said the plan would not siphon funding from any ongoing city housing projects.

“It (doesn’t) take from another existing project. … This is a great use of these dollars,” the mayor said.

During the virtual council meeting, local renters and activists voiced support for the program, but asked council to do more to help vulnerable renters, including additional financial help and forgiving rent payments for March, April and May for those who qualify for assistance with monthly rent.

“This funding will not even scratch the surface for those who need it,” said Rachel Marcus, a member of the Sonoma County Tenants Union.

In addition, City Council approved the use of more than $1.3 million in federal HUD grants — over $850,000 of which was set aside for the city through the emergency legislation passed by Congress in March — to expand homeless support services.

The council also approved spending about $65,000 from a separate HUD grant to help low-income residents with HIV/AIDS find and maintain affordable housing in Sonoma County.

The city must now submit for HUD approval plans detailing how it will spend the so-called CARES Act emergency federal funding.

It also will seek authorization to shift federal housing grants to pay for the temporary rental assistance program. City officials expect the agency to approve both proposals in the next two to three weeks.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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