Less than 1% of San Mateo County’s available funding from a state emergency rental assistance program has been given out since the program started two months ago. Of the $47 million in rent relief funding available, $19.9 million has been requested and only $314,000 has been distributed, according to an update from County Manager Mike Callagy in mid-May.

The county is also expecting another $26.7 million for rent relief through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the economic stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March.

Callagy encouraged both tenants and landlords to apply.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for them to get out of that crushing debt of rent that they haven’t been able to pay in order to keep their housing,” Callagy said. In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 91, which extended eviction protections through June 30 and established a rental assistance program for tenants and landlords.

Under SB 91, participating landlords can receive rental assistance to cover 80% of unpaid rent from April 2020 to March 2021, once they forgive the remaining 20%.

If landlords do not participate, tenants may also apply for help covering at least 25% of rent debt for the same period, the amount they need to pay by June 30 to avoid eviction under state law.

Callagy said that the fund may be underused because people may not be aware of the program or landlords may not want to forgive 20% of their rent, opting to wait for full payment in the future.

“That may be changing. We’re anxiously awaiting news from the governor’s office to see if that does in fact change to make it more inviting for landlords,” Callagy said. “To me it’s a no-brainer.”

Barriers to getting relief

But the application process has not been as accessible and fast as advocates had hoped.

Emily Hislop, special programs manager at Project Sentinel, one of the partner organizations helping people apply for rent relief, said the rollout of the program has been clunky.

“That has nothing to do with the county. It has to do with the state trying to get a system up and running really quickly,” Hislop said.

The rent relief program is run by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit that the state enlisted to manage the program.

And while San Mateo County has distributed its own rent relief and COVID-19 financial assistance in the past, the sheer scale of this program prompted county officials to opt for the state to manage it, just as other counties have done. The county remains responsible for doing outreach and helping people apply for the money.

At several of the nonprofits and organizations helping with outreach and applications, staff said that applicants face language and technology barriers. Some parts of the application are multilingual while other parts are in English only. Some people need help setting up an email address to apply or feel daunted by the amount of paperwork required.

“At the end of the day, even if you are tech-savvy or if you speak English, the process is complicated,” Miriam Yupanqui, executive director of Nuestra Casa, an East Palo Alto-based nonprofit, said. “It can take our staff members anywhere between three to four hours to help one family at a time.”

Fear of evictions remains

Despite the millions in funding, advocates and renters are worried about what could happen when the state’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of June. “Many of them (renters) are very worried about being evicted and at the end of the day it comes to knowledge and information. Many of them are not aware that there is legislation in place to protect them from evictions,” Yupanqui said. “We are working with a very tight deadline and I am concerned that we will not be able to support our families in need by June 30.”

If renters cannot pay at least 25% of the rent owed by June 30, eviction could be a possibility. According to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a regional data hub, 14% of California renters were behind on rent at the beginning of the year.

And for those who successfully apply for the rent relief, it may take several weeks for approvals to come in.

Even if the rent moratorium is extended, the struggle will be far from over for those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s impact.

Organizers with Faith in Action Bay Area — a network of faith-based organizations that supports vulnerable communities — have been on the ground since last year educating tenants about their rights and connecting them to resources. Adriana Guzman, a lead community organizer with Faith in Action Bay Area, said that despite the state’s plan to reopen in June, things will not go back to normal for low-income renters who have struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic. Many still have trouble finding jobs, have reduced hours or are asking family members for help paying rent.

“They (renters) cannot handle it anymore. They need to pay their rent but also they need to pay back their family or their friends,” Guzman said.

Faith in Action advocates have been pressuring local leaders to extend the eviction moratorium and protect renters. Dozens of advocates and renters from their organization spoke at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on May 4 to urge county leaders to create local protections in case the state did not extend the moratorium.

“People cannot wait until last minute for the state to act,” Guzman said. “We really need to see an extension because until people get full jobs again, (they) won’t be able to sustain the payments.”

California’s rent relief application for tenants and landlords is available at https://housing.ca.gov/covid_rr/.

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