Rental Relief Aims To Prevent Tsunami Of Evictions, But Will It Be Enough?

Katie R. Ochoa

Ramon Toscano and his family have been hanging by a thread since the start of the pandemic.

Toscano is undocumented and works as a day laborer. But he stopped working in March 2020 when COVID-19 cases began to rise, fearing he’d catch the virus and pass it on to his kids.

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In November, his family stopped paying the rent on their apartment in Vista.

“We could eat or we could pay rent,” Toscano said. “I mean, that’s a really hard decision, no? Because how with six kids, my wife and I… well it was a hard decision but how could I pay rent?”

The state’s eviction moratorium has so far saved the Toscanos from homelessness, and this March, they qualified for rent relief through San Diego County’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program. But they are far from whole.

RELATED: San Diego Region Slow To Send Rent, Utility Relief To Struggling Tenants Facing Eviction

The rent relief money just came a few weeks ago and it only covers the months leading up to their application date, so the Toscanos got nothing for April, May and June. But the bills have kept coming and with the county’s eviction moratorium set to expire, they’re wondering what comes next.

The Toscanos’ situation illustrates both the benefits and flaws in the myriad programs geared toward alleviating the financial devastation of the pandemic. There’s no doubt the programs prevented what could have been an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

But available data show the flood of state and federal dollars flowing to San Diego County slowing to a trickle as it’s directed to the people who need it the most. The county has doled out only 25% of the money it’s received as of last week. And a KPBS analysis of the funds that have been dispersed so far reveals that wealthier ZIP codes are disproportionately benefiting.

Consider the following:

• Residents of Little Italy/Gaslamp, San Diego’s downtown high-rent district, have received almost $1.4 million, more than residents of any other ZIP code in the county.

• Meanwhile, residents of the county’s three lowest-income ZIP codes — in Logan Heights, San Ysidro and National City — received between $100,000 and $650,000.

• The ZIP codes where residents have had the best chance at receiving rent relief are some of the wealthiest in the county, including Rancho Santa Fe, Poway and Little Italy/Gaslamp.

• Participants in SDG&E’s utility assistance programs are up by between 10% and 30% since before the pandemic, a clue that people are hurting financially and are at risk of future evictions, said Mitch Mitchell, a vice president at San Diego Gas & Electric.

There are numerous issues with how the money is going out: a complicated system that is difficult for tenants to navigate, the fact that money can’t be given to people who’ve taken loans to pay their rent, and the requirement that landlords agree to waive 20% of the rent owed. City and county officials acknowledge the program is slow but say it will look better within months as they process more applications and get more money out the door.

Why the money is hard to give out

Rental assistance is being distributed through a complicated network of agencies, making it difficult for some tenants to know where they should apply. City of San Diego residents apply to the San Diego Housing Commission; Chula Vista residents apply to their city through a nonprofit partnership; all other county residents apply to San Diego County.

Jose Dorado, who’s running the program for the city of Chula Vista, said it wasn’t an option for his city to let the county distribute their rental funds. Because of state rules about population size, they either had to let the state distribute the funds or do it themselves.

“We decided to take it all and administer it under our local control, by our rules, because we know our local residents, we know landlords, we know how to reach residents that need assistance, we’re better equipped to help folks get this funding,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the San Diego Housing Commission, Azucena Valladolid runs rental assistance programs and said they are trying everything possible to get the word out.

“The list is so long,” she said. “We’re contracting with 10 community-based organizations to do outreach, we’ve had the mayor and councilmembers do public service announcements, we’ve done paid advertising on radio, TV, and print ads, we paid for advertising on bus routes from San Ysidro to downtown, we have bus benches with information on the program, we’ve done partnerships with unions, labor organizations, school food distribution sites, and done live application assistance on site.”

TV and radio ads get the word out, but residents of other cities might see them and apply to the wrong place. So far, the San Diego Housing Commission has received 50 applications from Escondido, 17 applications from Del Mar and applications from other zip codes outside city limits in National City, Spring Valley, and Rancho Santa Fe.

“We anticipated something like that,” Valladolid said. She said the housing commission’s website would direct applicants to the county or Chula Vista.

A bigger issue in distributing funds, she said, is that the state has changed the rules after the housing commission’s application portal went live, making them go back to tenants to upload more documentation.

RELATED: Millions Available For Rental Assistance, But Not Everyone Who Needs It Is Trying To Get It

Another facet of the program that agencies and advocates hope will change is the requirement that landlords agree to waive 20% of tenants’ rent. Some landlords don’t give their approval, which means tenants can only get 25% of their rent reimbursed and are left owing the landlord the remaining 75%.

So far, in the city of San Diego, 20% of landlords who declined said they did it because they didn’t want to waive the 20% rent.

Valladolid with the Housing Commission also said the agency had seen many tenants who, despite the eviction moratorium, prioritized paying rent over other bills.

“They charged credit cards, took out loans,” she said.

But that means those people aren’t eligible for rental relief. The housing commission has sent letters to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and California State lawmakers asking for this rule to change.

Will the rental relief stop evictions

Even if rental assistance is fully disbursed, it may not be enough to stop all evictions across the county. As housing prices surge, some landlords are looking for ways to move tenants out so they can raise rents for new renters beyond the 7% to 8% annual increase allowed by rent control laws, said Ginger Hitzke, a local landlord.

“You give someone cash and you ask for their keys,” she said. “You incentivize them to leave, give someone $2,000 or $3,000 to leave. If you can increase rents so, in the next 12 months, you can make an additional $4,000. It’s worth it to you.”

And some tenants were evicted during the pandemic, despite the moratorium. That was true for Gabriel Guzman, who was evicted from his Chula Vista home in December. Though he struggled to make rent payments, he said he didn’t apply for rental relief because his background as a Marine made him want to tough it out.

“I felt that I had let my kids down as a man, being able to support them, keep them, keep a roof over their head,” he said. “When you think you need it or you’re in a bad situation, there’s always someone else that needs it more than you do. So we just thought it was the right thing to do. We said, no, I think we can make it through this without getting assistance, let other people have access to it.”

His lease was up, and his landlord opted not to renew it, giving his family less than a month to find a new place to live. He tried to fight it, even hiring an attorney, but still was forced to move out. Under the eviction moratorium, whether that was allowed falls into a grey area, said Gilberto Vera, a senior attorney for the housing team at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

Even with the moratorium, landlords could still evict if they moved into the property themselves or moved a family member in, sold the property, wanted to make improvements, or chose to withdraw the property from the rental market.

“These were being abused by landlords,” Vera said. “A landlord not renewing a lease was not a reason I believe a tenant could be evicted on, but that’s not something tenants know.”

Vera said tenants have to go to court to fight an eviction, which requires understanding the court process, knowing their rights, and signing on to remote court during the pandemic, which could be a challenge for people without access to technology.

In San Diego, unlike Los Angeles or San Francisco, there isn’t a structure to support tenants’ rights. That means there isn’t a culture where renters know they can fight an eviction, said Grace Martinez, the director of ACCE San Diego, a tenants rights organization.

“We need to create a culture where people understand what their rights are, where they go for help,” she said. “In LA, if a tenant receives an eviction notice, they’ll think, ‘how do I fight this,’ whereas in San Diego, they’ll think, ‘where will I find my next place to live.’”

What happens next

When the eviction moratorium ends, Vera with the Legal Aid Society said he’s concerned there won’t be enough rental assistance to cover the back rent tenants owe.

“That means not only are they being displaced, but they’ll have mountains of debt they’re never able to recover,” he said. “Then when they have an eviction on their record and owe rent, it makes it even more difficult to find housing in the future.”

The California legislature is currently discussing a bill that would use $5.2 billion in federal funds to pay all back rent and some back utilities that lower-income people accumulated during the pandemic. Lawmakers could also vote to extend the eviction moratorium and raise rent relief to 100% of rent instead of 80%.

For Toscano, the Vista resident who finally got his rental relief, he still owes back rent and is worried about becoming one more homeless statistic.

“Because if I don’t have enough money for my rent, what’s going to happen?” he said. “I am going to take my family onto the street or in the car to live. I mean, this is all because of something we didn’t ask for. We didn’t ask for this pandemic. And before, we always got the rent paid one way or the other.”

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While early pandemic predictions of a tsunami of evictions seem unlikely, advocates are worried that there could still be a steady stream.

Aired: June 24, 2021 | Transcript

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of rental assistance distributed to Logan Heights. It has been updated.

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