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Only 16% of California's COVID Rent Relief Applicants Have Received Their Checks, New Study Finds

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A woman walks down the street past a white wall with the words 'Forgive Our Rent' spraypainted on it.
A woman wearing a mask walks past a wall in Los Angeles on May 1, 2020, with a graffiti message demanding rent forgiveness. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

California is far behind in its efforts to help people with COVID-19-related hardships pay their back rent.

That’s according to a report out this week from the National Equity Atlas, which found that a year into the state’s rent relief program, only 16% of applicants have received any money, largely due to bureaucratic delays.

The analysis is based on data from the state's Housing and Community Development Department tracking all rental assistance applications submitted through Feb. 23, 2022. It shows that hundreds of thousands of applicants are still waiting for rent relief.

The findings come less than a month before the state's March 31 deadline, after which lower-income residents financially affected by the pandemic can no longer apply for the relief. That's also the expiration date for the state’s limited protections that currently prevent those residents from being evicted if they can show they have applied for the aid.

The report found that over 488,000 California renter households had applied for COVID-related rent relief as of late February. More than 180,000 of them had been approved, but fewer than 76,000 had actually received payments, either directly or through a landlord.

The report also found it took an average of about three months for tenants to be informed of the status of their applications, and an additional month after being approved to actually receive their checks.

“It really is very problematic to have people still waiting for their money when they're about to be subject to eviction if they can't pay,” said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and one of the study’s authors. The state, she said, must speed up the payment process and extend eviction protections.

“It would be so profoundly unfair and wrong for tenants to be evicted because of these bureaucratic delays,” Howard said.

The state’s housing agency, however, disputes the report’s findings. Its public dashboard shows that 41% of applicants — or 190,900 households — have already been “served.”

That total, though, includes applicants who have been approved but have not yet received payment, and whose claims are designated as “complete: payment pending.”

Geoffrey Ross, the agency’s deputy director, told KQED that the checks for those applications “are either physically in the mail or they have been received and have not been cashed.”

But Howard said that doesn’t square with what she was told by the agency, who confirmed to her in an email that “payment pending” referred to applicants who had been approved for payment but had not yet received funds.

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Howard said it’s misleading for the state to count any unpaid applicants as “served.”

“We felt that it was very important to distinguish between the reality of someone actually being paid versus this pending payment,” she said. “In our view, someone who hasn't actually gotten the money, they're not ‘served,’ they're not protected. So that distinction feels really important.”

She added, in a text message, “I wish that this administration would focus on protecting tenants from needless evictions instead of covering up all the problems with the program.”

The study also finds that, in addition to the small fraction of applicants who have been paid, many more are still waiting for a decision on their application.

The state maintains its goal is to process completed applications within 30 days, and Ross said he expects an additional 30,000 checks to be sent out by the end of this month.

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Ross also noted that the state will continue to process the remaining 230,000 or so pending applications, and that eligible applicants who apply by March 31 are guaranteed to receive aid.

Local eviction protections in many counties — including Alameda, Sonoma and Solano — will cover “more than half” of pending applicants, he added.

But some of those local protections may also be in jeopardy. Just this week, a group of landlords in Alameda County filed a lawsuit in federal court to force the city and county of Oakland to overturn their eviction bans.

Clarification:

Five days after the original publication of this story, Geoffrey Ross, deputy director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said he “misspoke” in defining “payment pending” as checks that are either in the mail or have been received by people and not yet cashed. Instead, he said “payment pending” means that funds are obligated, but applicants have yet to receive them.

The agency also now says the dataset it gave the study’s authors was not its most updated version, and that many more applicants have been paid than what is reflected in those original figures. Thousands of people who were in the "pending payment" section should have been in the "paid" section, it said.

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