Barriers to COVID-related rent relief have placed thousands of renters in Santa Clara County and throughout California in desperate circumstances as they struggle to avoid eviction.
A new survey documents common problems facing tenants in Santa Clara County and 26 other counties in California, using data provided by 58 organizations and partners that help tenants seeking rent relief. Tenants Together, a nonprofit Bay Area tenants’ rights group, conducted the survey and released a report on the highlights, which were discussed in a Tuesday news briefing.
According to the survey, the state’s emergency rental assistance program is failing thousands of tenants who desperately need financial assistance to avoid eviction. Three-quarters of respondents said securing rent relief to prevent eviction is their highest priority, but the vast majority also characterized the state program as deeply flawed or marked by serious problems. In some cases, tenants have waited months for financial assistance or have been evicted illegally after seeking help through the state.
“These are the real-world impacts on people,” said Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together. “It’s your life being held in the balance; it’s your housing being held in the balance.”
There appear to be significant delays in obtaining rent relief. Of the 23,299 households that have applied for rent relief in Santa Clara County, just 7,872 or 34% have received assistance, according to state data. California received $5.2 billion in federal funding for rent relief in counties across the state. More than $97 million in funds have been paid to renters seeking relief in the county.
According to respondents, 90% said accessing the online application is a challenge. Respondents also cited excess delays in getting assistance approved, lack of updates about pending applications and language barriers.
Tiffany Plummer, a single mother of four currently living in a mobile home in Hayward, said she was evicted from her house in Tracy just weeks ago. Plummer said the pandemic effectively killed her job as a door-to-door solar salesperson and she had to sell her possessions to make ends meet. The state paid her emergency assistance in the form of $12,000, but she still owed her landlord $17,000. Plummer was forced to move shortly after having a hysterectomy.
“I’m like god, just give me a break—I need a break,” Plummer said.
Similar struggles are playing out in Santa Clara County. According to a recent report from Joint Venture Silicon Valley, more than 45% of children in the county—244,000 kids—live in households that don’t earn enough money to cover basic needs. San Jose, the seat of the county, is the second most expensive place to live in the country, and housing and rental costs are astronomical.
California ended its ban on evictions last October. But tenants who owe back-rent due to COVID-19 hardships can shield themselves from eviction by filing for assistance with the state. Starting in April, landlords will be allowed to file eviction cases against tenants for any rent they owe for future months.
Evictions are being filed at a brisk rate in Santa Clara County since the end of the ban. According to Santa Clara County Superior Court, there were 126 residential eviction cases filed in February.
Karen Kontz, supervising attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight it can take months for applications to get approved. She said the status of applications is sometimes unclear or incorrect.
“That really matters because for some of the protections that are in place, you need to have an approved application,” she said. “Those (statuses) can be wrong, and they can also take a really long time to get corrected.”
Emily Hislop, a housing policy and planning administrator who manages the city’s eviction prevention help centers, said there is no danger of the program running out of money because California recently approved legislation to authorize cash flow loans from the state general fund in case federal relief dollars for any reason fall short.
“But we do acknowledge there is a backlog, and it is troubling given the limited protections that still remain will be gone March 31,” Hislop told San José Spotlight.
She credited the state with streamlining the process to make applications easier for tenants, and noted there are more case managers available to go over applications. She emphasized tenants who want relief for previous months need to get their applications in before March 31, which is when the program will cease to take applications.
“Anybody applying for back rent since 2020 needs to do that now,” she said, adding that after April 1, people must be prepared to pay rent or seek help through homelessness prevention programs. “What limited protections there still were will not be there anymore.”