By Esmeralda López, California State Director, UnidosUS
On March 31, eviction protections for Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) applicants across the state of California came dangerously close to expiring. But thanks to the work of advocates pushing legislators to take action, AB 2179 was passed, extending special eviction protections through June. UnidosUS signed onto a coalition letter requesting extension of ERAP in February. While the passage of AB 2179 is a step in the right direction, the bill did not fix the challenges of the program like delays in processing applications and lack of adequate funding to meet the needs renters who have faced financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ERAP has disbursed $2.5 billion to 223,103 California households since March 2021, but more than 283,000 households are still waiting. Then, in a move that will likely exacerbate the situation, on March 15, the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) announced that they would stop accepting applications for ERAP on March 31. While cases of COVID-19 infections may be low now, in January and February of 2022, California had the highest number of infections ever recorded due to the Omicron variant. The economic impacts of the pandemic are far from over for Latinos in the state. It is estimated that 740,000 renter households in California owed their landlords about $3.3 billion in back rent. Given the fact that the eviction protections were only extended for three months, without further action from the governor and legislature, there could be many imminent evictions.
The current status of the ERAP program is especially concerning for UnidosUS because many Latinos in California could be evicted. According to the state’s dashboard, Latinos make up 35% of all applications. A recent report, State of Waiting: California’s Rental Assistance Program One Month Before Expiration, highlights the deficiencies in the program. The report indicates that Latino renters represent nearly 50% of severely cost-burdened renter households, but only 35% of applicants. It also reports that 58% of approved applicants are waiting to be paid with a typical wait time to receive assistance of 104 days. It is unclear how many of the total applications submitted have been approved, because in February 2022, HCD stopped reporting that data on their dashboard, and now only includes the total number of “complete applications.” The last number of total applications submitted that UnidosUS recorded, before HCD stopped reporting the data, was on February 22, and it was 639,000, well above the 518,805 “completed applications” HCD is currently reporting.
UnidosUS has written to Governor Newsom offering recommendations on how to improve the program, and most recently wrote urging the governor to disburse the aid urgently and to ensure it goes to people most in need. Even though the need exceeds the funding for rent assistance, the which was released in January, did not include additional funding for the rent assistance program.
UnidosUS is concerned about reports that HCD continues to require submission of paperwork that is not required for applications. This practice is in contradiction to the U.S. Treasury Department guidance to accelerate the disbursement of funds, encouraging state and local governments to create a more flexible and expedited program. UnidosUS shared its recommendations on what additional steps the Treasury could take to further accessibility for Latinos, and on March 30, met with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen to discuss equitable access in ERAP among other things. In a survey of 58 service providers regarding the rent assistance program, some of the challenges identified were: accessing online applications, getting status of pending applications, accessing the state helpline, and excessive delays in approvals. The state of California should do more to ensure that the program is flexible and getting aid to renters in need quickly.
Millions of Californians are still struggling to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the removal of social safety nets make it more important than ever to ensure that Californians do not lose their homes, especially those who are most vulnerable. With 283,000 applications pending, and millions behind on rent, the legislature must act to extend the eviction protections beyond June, until all applications have been processed. The governor must work with the legislature to extend the program and allocate additional state funds for the program. Without additional resources for applicants and for HCD to process the applications, the three-month extension of protections seems likely to fail.
Early in the pandemic, the state took promising steps to provide relief, support, and aid to vulnerable families. It is also imperative that the state continue studying barriers to access and reporting their findings publicly.
Applicants should not be hurt by the state’s inability to disburse funds in a timely manner. The governor and legislature must act to keep Californians in their homes.