Federal funds are pouring into relief programs for COVID-stricken renters and landlords—but whether those funds will be enough, or reach the people they’re meant to help, is the billion-dollar question.
California lawmakers approved a $5.2 billion rent relief program alongside an extension to the state’s eviction moratorium until Sept. 30. But only a fraction of that money has reached peoples’ bank accounts, and local policymakers and advocates are sounding the alarm that tenants who owe back rent must apply now.
“It has been worrying me significantly that many members of the public, in San Francisco and around California, do not know how much money is available, and where they’re available,” said Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who represents the eastern half of the city, at an event hosted by the San Francisco Renters Alliance on Wednesday. “Apply now—there are funds available right now.”
San Francisco renters have two options for relief, and can make use of both depending on their needs: For back rent accumulated between March 2020 and April 2021, California’s program will reimburse those costs in full for renters who earn 80% or less of the city’s median income, or roughly $102,000 for a single person.
For rent accumulated since April 2021, San Francisco has a local relief program with similar eligibility guidelines. Both programs require applicants to show they have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic, and the state’s program also allows landlords to seek relief.
To date, the state’s program has paid out $19 million to 1,766 households in San Francisco, according to California’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency (BCSA). The agency has received 5,158 applications requesting a total of $79.7 million.
It takes a number of weeks for applications to be processed and payments made. The state’s program was also criticized early on for overly burdensome application requirements and a lack of robust language access, among other issues. The state made changes to the application process in the hopes of speeding up payments.
“The process should take about half the time it used to,” added Chiu.
San Francisco’s rent relief program, which was announced in May and allocated $90 million to COVID-related rental assistance, has paid out $6.1 million so far, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD). A total of 5,310 San Francisco households have requested $41 million, and MOHCD says it has committed to fund 5,132 households, or about 97% of applicant households.
It remains to be seen whether the available funds will be enough to meet the total need and stop a wave of evictions this year.
“That’s kind of the $5.2 billion dollar question,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesperson for California’s BCSA. “No one has been able to come up with an accurate idea of what the need is.”
The National Equity Atlas, an economic research portal, estimates that San Francisco renters owe $131 million in back rent. In late June, however, the city’s own Budget & Legislative analyst estimated that total unpaid rent in the city could run as high as $355.1 million.
That leaves a dwindling window of time for tenants facing eviction to seek out assistance before a Sept. 30 deadline.
Under AB-832, a bill that extended the state’s eviction moratorium through Sept. 30, renters are still protected from eviction if they have paid at least 25% of their rent debt at that time and qualify for state relief. However, renters are still on the hook for that money and can be sued for unpaid rent starting on Nov. 1.
It is possible that governments could extend some eviction protections, though it’s viewed as unlikely at the state level. Landlord groups have grown increasingly frustrated with the longstanding moratorium; one group, the California Rental Housing Association, filed a new lawsuit against the state this week demanding that moratoriums be lifted. Among other provisions, AB-832 also restricts the ability of local governments to extend emergency eviction protections.
“The main takeaway is that there is relief,” said Josephine Alioto, a tenants’ attorney in San Francisco, who also cautioned that landlords may not retaliate against tenants who owe rent. “Even if you are not paying rent, you have rights as a tenant.”