The state must reopen its Emergency Rental Assistance Program and make it easier for Californians to apply successfully and pay off pandemic rent debt.
By Paula Nazario, Special to CalMatters
Paula Nazario is a policy fellow at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and a researcher on the initiative’s report on California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
California’s rent relief program was one of the few measures offered to help make sure families didn’t lose their housing. Yet our state leaders allowed the program to end without offering any other solution to stem evictions. California must invest some of its budget surplus in reopening the program and ensuring that communities of color have the support needed to apply successfully.
I know what a lifeline this program can be. My working-class family was one of those who applied for and received aid. When the district I worked for announced its plan to close schools in May 2020, my family wasn’t sure how we were going to pay bills and rent.
I scrambled to find other employment. As COVID-19 infection rates continued to rise, however, my sister and I knew our parents could not continue to work. They were at a higher risk of getting COVID-19 because they worked in confined spaces and had pre-existing health conditions.
Despite all our efforts to find new jobs and keep up with our bills, it was clear in July 2020 that we needed help. We applied for the City of Los Angeles Emergency Renters Assistance Program, which was funded with state and federal dollars. After waiting three months, we were lucky enough to receive a one-time payment.
The process, however, was incredibly difficult.
It required our landlord’s willingness to participate, and for my sister and me to have a deep understanding of the criteria for eligibility. My family’s story isn’t uncommon, but our ability to access the relief is.
A recent report from the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that nearly 53% of California’s distressed tenants never applied for rental relief — more than in other states — and only 16% received aid. Then, in March 2022, state lawmakers allowed the program to close, leaving many families at risk of eviction.
In recognition of the problem, the governor in May proposed using $2.7 billion of California’s staggering $97.5 billion budget surplus to increase funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program — but only to pay those who had applied before the deadline.
The decision to end the program has prompted tenant groups in Los Angeles County to sue. The suit claims that the state unlawfully cut off applicants who were awaiting funds. It asks that the state make the full 18 months of rent assistance promised available to those eligible.
My family and other tenants faced many barriers, but understanding the eligibility requirements was our biggest. We were not sure if we qualified as Los Angeles residents. We struggled to figure out if funds were only for individuals behind on rent or for low-income folks struggling but still current on their rent.
We didn’t know how to provide proof of pandemic-caused financial hardship. Further, our family members felt ashamed applying for rent relief.
Other tenants told researchers they found the online application too difficult to access and navigate. That might explain why only 39% of distressed Latino renters received rental debt relief.
While the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law Assembly Bill 2179, which extends eviction protections until June 30, it isn’t enough. State leaders must reopen the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and ensure outreach to families of color.
Between July 2021 and January 2022, about 14% of California renters fell behind on their rent, and 15% feared eviction. Of those, the least likely to receive rent relief were Asians and Latinos, likely as the result of language barriers and lack of culturally competent support. The governor’s proposal further exacerbates those equity challenges.
His plan increases the aid available to those who managed to figure out the application by the March deadline, but it doesn’t help those who didn’t. Nor does it address why so few applied.
Too many families were shut out of the process. The state must do more to make sure they do not lose their housing because they couldn’t pay off their pandemic rent debt.