Elizabeth, who requested GT withhold her last name, was on her way to FedEx when we spoke.
“I don’t have internet in my home, so I’m going to FedEx for wifi,” she says, her three children chattering in the background. “I haven’t been able to pay my bills and Comcast hasn’t been really nice about my service. Yeah, so it’s kind of hard for me also to just find the time to go and redo my whole application.”
She is referring to her Covid-19 rent relief application. The state-funded rent relief program aims to provide financial aid to tenants like Elizabeth, renters who were financially hit the hardest by the pandemic. Elizabeth and her husband have been unable to pay rent in its entirety for the past few months, due to both of them losing their jobs at the start of the pandemic.
Since she applied in May, Elizabeth has been trying to move her application along. When GT spoke to her in July, the program had just revised its application with the goal of making it more accessible to renters and speeding up the processing time. But Elizabeth’s application has not budged.
Representatives at the state program and Community Bridges, a local nonprofit helping renters with their applications, continue to cite missing information as the reason her application is stagnant.
But Elizabeth is often given mixed feedback about what information is missing. And without anyone following up on her case, she is left to speculate about the status of her application, or spend hours tracking down someone to give her an update on if she included the right information this time. As a mother of three, prioritizing her rent relief application competes with the everyday concerns of motherhood.
“It’s been close to three months and I haven’t been able to get what I owe. I’m getting more in debt with my family and friends. It’s been so hard, and especially right now that the moratorium is going to expire I’m starting to stress. My kids are back to school, and I don’t have any internet resources,” Elizabeth says.
Last month, in order to cover rent, Elizabeth forfeited paying her Comcast bill, and is now without internet. Not only do her children not have access to the web for school purposes, but no internet means another hurdle, since the rent relief application is completely digital.
Recently, a representative from the state told her she would need to redo her application completely.
Elizabeth laughed when asked how much time she had spent on her application.
“I would say at least four weeks worth,” she says.
New, (Sort Of) Improved
Greg Chanski is a landlord who also submitted an application with his tenant in May. He owns four houses in Santa Cruz County, and his tenant owed him around $16,000 in back rent.
In late July, Chanksi was notified via email that their application was approved, and on Aug. 20 he was paid the back rent in full. The payment came as a relief to Chanksi, and eased tensions with his tenant, but had he not been so proactive he questions if the payment would have come through at all.
“Every step of the way I had to call and remind the agent, and he had to push it along because you’d get to a certain point and nothing would happen. And then you’d call again and then the next step would happen,” Chanski tells me during his routine morning hike through the redwoods.
When GT reported on this issue in July, representatives at Community Bridges and Watsonville Housing Manager Carlos Landaverry did not know of any tenants who had received payments. According to the state rent relief dashboard, the state has received 1,328 applications from Santa Cruz County. 1,274 of those applications are complete, and the state has issued 331 payments.
One reason for the high number of complete applications in comparison with the number of payments issued is that the state attempts to contact landlords three times to give them the money directly. This hold-up accounts for 262 applications in the que, which are approved but pending a landlord response.
Both Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), a faith-based nonprofit addressing issues like affordable housing, and Community Bridges are working to create solutions to this problem, and speed up the process in general.
But as tenants continue to wait out these bureaucratic hurdles, they lose faith that the money is coming at all, Landaverry says.
“There’s a bag of mixed feelings. There’s mistrust. People don’t believe us that help is on the way,” Landaverry says.
A Tale of Two Systems
When the Covid-19 rent relief program began, local governments were given three options for how they would distribute the money and process the applications.
First, they could let the state process applications and distribute funds. Or they could distribute funds and process applications themselves, while using the same application guidelines that the state put forth. Or, alternately, they could use different application guidelines and distribute the funds locally.
Santa Cruz County chose the first option. “The county staff are overwhelmed in Santa Cruz County, so they just didn’t have the capacity to manage a program like [the second option],” CEO of Community Bridges Ray Cancino says.
Monterey County chose the second option.
When the CARES Act was passed in March, United Way Monterey County, an organization fighting for the financial stability of Monterey County families, created a system that distributed the funds provided by the CARE Act to local families via local organizations. So Monterey County had a model in place that would, theoretically, distribute money from Covid-19 rent relief with similar efficiency.
In some ways, having control over how the applications are processed allows United Way Monterey County more freedom to eliminate some of the logistical barriers inherent in the state model, says United Way CEO Katy Castagna.
The 14 organizations spread across Monterey County who help people fill out applications are also the ones who process the applications, making information more centralized—applicants only have to call one place to receive an update.
Also, the application is not solely digital. Applicants can dial 211, and a representative will submit an application on their behalf over the phone, eliminating one of the biggest hurdles for people without digital literacy or the internet, like Elizabeth.
Although the percentage of funds distributed compared to requested is similar (Monterey County has paid 26% of its total funds requested, compared to Santa Cruz County’s 25%), the number of households who have received payment points to a larger discrepancy: Monterey County has served 932 households while Santa Cruz County has served 331.
Project Manager at Hartnell College Ana G. Ibarra-CastroI speculates there are multiple reasons as to why Monterey County’s system has served more households. Hartnell College is one of the partners that helps process applications.
“I think it is extremely helpful to localize applications,” Ibarra-Castrol says. “Especially if there’s a need to meet in person to deliver documents, or there’s that technology gap, localizing the interface with the community is definitely helpful.”
Additionally, partners frequently provide feedback on what is working best, and it’s easy for the organizations to implement these recommendations. The partners also quickly realized that having landlord cooperation is key to processing applications efficiently, and moved to prioritize establishing these relationships.
“There are a lot of repetitive tasks that go away after establishing that relationship,” Ibarra-Castrol says. Such as the three contact policy, which Ibarra-Castrol says she does not think is a hindrance to processing applications the way it is for the state.
While Monterey’s system has served more households than the state’s, Cancino points out a problem with having different systems in neighboring counties. Residents in North Monterey County, which includes parts of Pajaro Valley, will seek help from Community Bridges, which usually provides services to Pajaro Valley residents.
“If you live in Pajaro Valley, or on one side of Watsonville, you have two different systems,” Cancino says. “We don’t have access to Monterey County’s Housing Assistance Program, so we’re telling a Pajaro resident who lives less than a mile from a Watsonville resident, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’”
With California’s eviction moratorium ending Sept. 30, and the Supreme Court rejecting the federal eviction moratorium in a 6-to-3 vote, processing applications is more important now than ever.
One of the largest issues with the eviction moratorium’s pending expiration, according to Landaverry and Attorney John Subranni, is the informal evictions that are currently happening. Both are seeing tenants who are unable to pay rent preparing to move out, if they haven’t already.
Elizabeth is one of those renters. Her landlords are frustrated that her application is still in progress, and she worries what will happen after Sept. 30.
But Subranni stresses that tenants are protected from eviction if they fulfill the qualifications listed on the Covid-19 related financial distress form, and pay 25% of their back rent starting Oct. 1 (this can be monthly or a lump sum) or have an application for Covid-19 rent relief processing.
Still, Subranni expects to see an uptick in nonpayment eviction cases come fall.
“A lot of folks are only partially reemployed. We see a lot of people who lost a lot of work and income, and then sort of got their work back, but it’s not quite the same. So, I expect a lot of people will not be able to pay their rent.”
Chanksi’s tenant falls into this category, unable to fully resume the same hours of work due to the pandemic. And Chanski says that even though his tenant is now caught up, they have no way to pay for rent going forward, and the relief program will not cover him in the future.
“I’m going to start having to put pressure on him,” Chanski says.
Even though tenants are protected from eviction for nonpayment of rent if they meet the requirements listed in the distress form, beginning Nov. 1, landlords can take tenants to small claims court for outstanding rent payments.
But for now, the tenants who have pandemic-related financial reasons for nonpayment should stay put, says Landaverry.
“If you’re behind in rent or utilities, talk to one of the nonprofits before you move out. Before you do anything, talk to an attorney right away,” Landaverry says.
Even though she qualifies for protection from eviction, Elizabeth is unsure what she will do. She has more than $7,000 of debt owed to family and friends, and her recent exchanges with her landlords have been tense. She plans on making one last attempt at getting her rent relief application processed.
“I honestly don’t know if I’m going to be able to get it, I have been waiting since May. So I’m kind of hopeless right now,” Elizabeth says, trailing off for a moment. “Yeah, it’s just, it’s really sad. And all the time that I have put into getting this to work for me,” Elizabeth says, releasing a short humorless laugh. “It’s hard, not being sure where I am stepping next.”