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For the third time in the pandemic, California lawmakers pushed aside at the last minute a huge impending question: Will the state protect tenants from eviction?

The answer, most likely, is yes, but for how long and under what conditions is still pending. Several lawmakers have told CalMatters a decision could come late this week – just days before current protections expire, after June 30.

Rent assistance is key here: The state has handed out $ 2.6 billion that it sits on at a snail’s pace, while figuring out what to do with an additional $ 2.6 billion from the federal government.

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature passed the latest round of eviction protections in late January, the state has distributed only about $ 50 million of its $ 1.4 billion fundraiser and n ‘received requests for only about half of that money. While centralized data is not available for the $ 1.2 billion share of cities and counties, similar reports point to slow deployment. Leading lawmakers are concerned that eviction protections will end before the bulk of those dollars have entered the pockets of Californians who need it most, so they are mainly developing new rules on eligibility and applications. to ensure that more rent relief comes out faster.

“It does not make sense to allow evictions when there are still billions of dollars available that could prevent these same evictions,” said Assembly Member David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who heads the Assembly Housing Committee and helped craft the initial eviction moratorium last year.

But reaching a deal to extend the moratorium on evictions has been slow and secretive. Tenant and homeowner groups have told CalMatters they have been excluded from negotiations, which take place between Assembly and Senate leaders and the governor’s office – as in the last two rounds of negotiations.

“Policymakers have been pulled in many directions, but I hope the right conversations unfold and we will move forward before June 30,” Chiu said.

Lawmakers will have to wait 72 hours from the time they receive a bill on paper before voting and passing something to the governor. Here are some key decision points that will determine the fate of thousands and thousands of California tenants.

This question is at the heart of the debate. Tenant advocates want to extend protections as long as possible, while homeowner groups want the opposite.

Brian Augusta, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the tenant side has asked the state to tie the end date to the distribution of all available rental aid funds – which at the current rate , would take at least several months.

“In my mind, it would be a travesty to end these eviction protections before you get every dollar out the door,” Augusta said.

Homeowner advocates are concerned about the same issue, but want protections to end by September.

“We would rather not have an extension at all, but we have to take the money out,” said Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association. “That’s our number one goal. If that means a short term extension, so be it. But the focus needs to be on getting the money out.”

Another point of contention: the association wants the law to protect from eviction only those who have applied and are eligible for funds, while tenant advocates want general protections that also cover those who have had hard to find out and apply for the program.

Augusta, on the tenant side, fears that removing protections while the legislature is out of session – between September 10 and January 3 – means that no one will be there to reassess and fix the rent relief program.

Another timeline advocated by tenant advocates is to tie protections to an improved economy with lower unemployment.

“The concept is, have people got their jobs back? Because if people don’t get their jobs back, they won’t be able to pay rent,” said Shanti Singh, director of communications and legislation for Tenants. Together, an advocacy coalition. “It’s not rocket science.”

While the state has now reopened and life in California is returning to normal for many, many workers in low-wage industries are still out of work. Last month, CalMatters reported that California still has the second highest unemployment rate in the country and has only regained 48% of the jobs lost amid the pandemic.

“As the economy returns, there are still millions of struggling families, and we need to make sure they won’t be evicted while there is still money to help them,” Chiu said. .

The latest wave of rent relief allowed landlords to collect aid totaling 80% of unpaid rents through March 2021, provided they forgive the rest. If a landlord refused this deal, the tenant could collect 25% of the rent owed and have the rest of the debt relegated to small claims court.

Tenants argued that the formula gave them the shortest term, if landlords chose to turn down the money. The 25% payment only ensured that a tenant would not get evicted, but could still get them into debt.

In its May budget proposal, which lawmakers are preparing, Newsom called for state dollars to cover the full amount of missed rent – a proposal that tenant and landlord groups have welcomed.

Newsom also suggested that the money could go straight to tenants, instead of waiting for landlords to agree to help. This is something homeowner groups are less than happy about.

“We think there will be huge abuse,” said Carlton of the Apartments Association.

Chiu said the money could only be used to pay off the rental debt: “The two implications are: the landlord would not have to write off this debt and the tenant would receive coverage for whatever they owe. “

Under current protections, tenants who had moved to save on rent were not eligible for relief because it was designed only to keep current tenants housed. Advocates hope that will change in the new bill.

Another gaping loophole: Will people who have taken out loans from friends, banks or payday lenders qualify for this money because it is not a direct debt to the homeowner? It remains to be seen.

The existing moratorium provided for several ways in which the $ 2.6 billion would reach residents: the state would distribute it; cities or counties could do this themselves using state rules; or the jurisdiction could distribute its share of federal dollars under its own rules, and let the state distribute the rest.

In total, the state was responsible for $ 1.4 billion. It distributed just over $ 50 million to about 4,400 families and received claims of about $ 616 million, according to data provided to CalMatters by the Agency for Business, Consumer Services and Housing. the state.

In contrast, an analysis by PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research group, suggests that about 758,000 California households are in arrears with rent and owe a total of $ 3.5 billion. A recently released survey by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center – of 8,605 families renting from one of the state’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developers – found that the number of tenants who could not not paying rent has more than doubled during the pandemic, with black and single-parent households hit the hardest.

So why the disconnect between the need and the answer? A recent survey of 177 tenant advocates found several culprits: difficulty applying in languages ​​other than English and Spanish, lack of digital literacy, and difficulty gathering documents to prove eligibility for the relief.

The state committed this month to addressing those issues, with lightened documentation requirements and extended language availability for the app.

Russ Heimerich, spokesperson for the Agency for Business, Consumer Services and Housing, said the daily average of people asking for rent relief climbed 70% the week of June 11, when his agency simplified the request.

“So it works,” he said.

But Singh identified another reason for the slow rollout: “A lot of the outreach burden is mostly on structurally underfunded and understaffed community organizations, and so many people just don’t know” that rent relief is available.

In cities that run their own rent relief funds, including San Francisco, programs started less than a month ago as they sought to determine who would be eligible for their limited funds.

Riverside County also set its own rules, but earlier in the process, and decided that tenants and landlords would get 100% of the rent owed – as some lawmakers hope to replicate at the state level.

Of the $ 50 million in aid to 4,400 households in the state’s program, the county has sent more than $ 21 million to about 2,600 households, according to Mike Walsh, deputy director of the Riverside County Housing Authority. , where requests exceed available dollars. He has a different request for the legislature: “Can you just simplify things?” “

Walsh said he had heard lawyers for the homeowners weren’t thrilled with the state’s 80% deal, so it took some effort to make it known that Riverside County’s agenda was different. But as soon as the county runs out of funds, the state is supposed to step in with its own program. Walsh is hoping for some streamlining to avoid confusion between separate rent relief efforts and changing rules.

Tenant advocates say the current eviction protections aren’t really a moratorium as evictions are ongoing. Singh, of Tenants Together, said his organization has been inundated with more appeals this year than in the organization’s 13-year history. This brought in two more staff just to handle the calls.

Group staff, volunteers and lawyers say they have seen an increase in informal evictions caused by harassment of landlords and lawsuits for nuisance and renovations. This is because the law only prevented landlords from evicting tenants for missed rent.

“There should be extra protections to protect tenants from eviction, period, because we know there are many other ways people can be forced to leave,” Singh said.

For weeks her organization heard about threats of preemptive eviction: “Come on July 1, you are gone,” she said. Tenants reported that their landlords told them. She hopes the legislature will change that.

This article first appeared on CalMatters Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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