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Thousands of California Tenants Still Waiting on Rent Relief Can Be Evicted

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Sulima Navarrete, who is Latina, stands outside her home wearing a white shirt. Her hair is dark brown and pulled back. She is standing in a doorway, by a black metal fence with brickwall behind it. She is unsmiling.
Sulima Navarrete stands in front of the house she has rented with her family in Richmond for the last 12 years, on June 26, 2022. She applied for rent relief in October but is still awaiting a response from the state on whether her application will be approved. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tenants who have applied to California’s emergency COVID rent relief program and are still awaiting a response now can be evicted from their homes, as the last of the state’s pandemic-era eviction protections expired on June 30.

Sulima Navarrete, of Richmond, applied for rent relief in October after her husband lost his job during the pandemic doing construction work.

He also contracted COVID and is still experiencing fatigue and other symptoms, making it hard for him to find new work, she said. The couple has three children, ranging in age from 6 to 20.

"It’s frustrating because it’s not something we asked for," Navarrete said in Spanish. "It’s something the pandemic brought."

Exposed to eviction

Navarrete is one of 34,510 applicants for the state’s rental aid program, called Housing Is Key, whose applications were still under review as of June 29.

"It's highly unlikely that [the state is] going to get through all these applications by June 30th when the eviction protections expire," said Sarah Treuhaft, a researcher at PolicyLink.

"So, that means that people will still be waiting in line, and they will be exposed to eviction. They're likely to be evicted or have eviction proceedings against them," said Treuhaft.

Sulima Navarrete organizes food in her kitchen at the apartment she has rented with her family, on June 26, 2022. She applied for rent relief in October but is still awaiting a response from the state on whether her application will be approved. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This includes Navarrete, who has already received an eviction notice from her landlord.

"They don’t understand," Navarrete said of state officials. "The help is coming too late."

California's statewide moratorium on evictions expired last fall, on Sept. 30, 2021. The state's rent relief program has afforded its own kind of eviction protections since then, since any landlord wanting to evict a tenant for failing to pay rent as a result of COVID hardship needed to first apply for rental relief before the March 31, 2022, deadline before continuing with an eviction lawsuit. Renters affected by COVID hardship could prevent an eviction from moving forward if they showed they had applied for the rent relief program as a defense in court. These protections expired on June 30.

Certain jurisdictions — like Alameda County, San Francisco and Marin County — have their own local protections in place that may still shield some tenants from eviction. Read more about resources for people at risk of eviction.

Joshua Howard, of the California Apartment Association, says his group is advising its members to hold off on evicting tenants who are still awaiting aid.

"It's better to wait and get the money than to go through with the time, cost and stress of an eviction," Howard said, "especially knowing those funds from the government are just around the corner."

Attorney General Rob Bonta also issued legal guidance on July 13 to police and sheriff's departments across the state on how to respond to reports of illegal eviction. That may include landlords changing the locks, shutting off water or electricity, and removing tenants' belongings in order to force a tenant out of their home, among other behaviors.

"California's families are facing a housing affordability crisis at levels never seen before," he said. "We are facing an eviction crisis."

Applicants left in limbo

The state processed 136,386 applications, or about 11,365 a week, since it stopped accepting new applications on April 1, said Alicia Murillo, a spokesperson for the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

"We have met our goals for processing applications and continue to work diligently to ensure we provide assistance to the qualified applicants," Murillo said at the end of June. "We are on track to have all initial applications determined by June 30."

A woman holds up a big sign that says "Cancel Rents or People Die."
Los Angeles renters and housing advocates demonstrate on Aug. 21, 2020, against evictions in the region. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

She added, "That is to say, the only remaining applications in the system are those in an appeal process or those where there is still missing or unverifiable information from an applicant."

But some tenants say they have been frustrated when their attempts to add or verify information are not accepted.

Yadira Placante, a Los Angeles renter, said she received two notices that her application was declined because she was unresponsive, despite two phone calls and an email attempting to respond to the requests.

"I called them and asked them what happened, and they told me I needed to appeal," Placante said.

Instead, she put in a new application. That was about three months ago, and Placante says she is still waiting for a response.

"It's been very, very, very like a nightmare for us," Placante said.

A rise in denied applications

In May, a coalition of tenant organizations filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming its process for denying applications is unfair and opaque. Since the program closed to new applicants on April 1, denials increased from around 20% to about 33% of all applications, Treuhaft said.

"We’ve seen this spike in denials," she said. "So, that raises big questions around, are people receiving due process or should they actually be denied this assistance?"

On July 7, a judge agreed and ordered HCD to stop issuing denials. Applicants have 30 days to file an appeal, so the judge also ordered the state to keep those cases open until it could determine whether the agency's process for issuing denials violates applicants' right to due process.

HCD's Murillo said all denials receive explanations for why they were denied. The main reason, she said, is that the applicant didn’t qualify for assistance.

A red 'for rent' sign hangs in window of classic SF victorian building with downtown skyline in background
A 'For Rent' sign hangs in the window of an apartment building in Nob Hill in San Francisco on July 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

That could be for a number of factors, including that the applicant’s income was too high, or they couldn’t demonstrate they were a tenant or that they had lost income during the pandemic. Murillo said that as of June 3, about 89,000 applications, or 62% of denials, were for these reasons.

The remaining 38%, or around 55,200 applications, were denied due to non-responsiveness, she said.

"If an applicant believes we made an error or has more information to share, they can file an appeal through the online portal or by calling the hotline [at (833) 430-2122]," Murillo said. "We also have an appointment center available to help applicants through the appeal in English and other languages."

'Families just like mine'

But despite the state’s efforts to keep residents housed during the pandemic, some have been evicted anyway.

Delilah Medina of South Los Angeles lost her hotel job during the pandemic. She started working at Walmart, even though it was a big pay cut.

Medina applied for rent relief and got some money but had to reapply in January for more.

Shortly after that, she said, her partner received an eviction notice. Since her name was on the rent relief application, the landlord was able to skirt the state protections.

"We are not shiftless people," Medina said. "We are like the millions of Americans who don't make a wage that supports the rising cost of rent and living."

Medina says now, she and her two young children live in her car. They occasionally use a friend’s house to shower and rest during the day.

"How many more families just like mine are going to suffer?" she asks.

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What to do if you're under threat of eviction

Check whether your city or county has eviction protections

Several cities and counties across the state had their own rent-related eviction moratoriums that stayed in place after the state moratorium expired. In the Bay Area, those places are:

San Francisco's local rules continue to ban evictions for a number of reasons, including owner move-in, condo conversion, breach of contract, capital improvements and demolition. But evictions in San Francisco can move forward for nonpayment of rent, for health or safety issues, or if the owner decides to remove the property from the rental market. San Francisco also introduced new eviction protections for renters starting April 1.

A woman, Sulima Navarrete, wearing a white shirt holds a cardboard box containing an old-looking faucet. The photo is taken above looking down directly into the box
Sulima Navarrete holds an old faucet that she paid to replace at the apartment in Richmond she shares with her family on June 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Find resources and legal assistance

According to the ACLU, 10% of tenants have an attorney in court, compared with 90% of landlords.

Find a legal aid office near you via LawHelpCA. You can also use the Housing Is Key site to find eviction resources for tenants, or look up whether your city or county has additional resources, including local rent relief programs.

Lorraine López, senior attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, recommends that you also look up community organizations and nonprofit legal services that assist tenants, and access their information sheets, workshops and clinics to educate you about your rights in the event your landlord issues you with a legal notice.

Don't move out

If you're facing eviction, López says it's critical that you don’t move out of your home.

"We call this 'self-eviction,'" she explains, and said while "many tenants think that a notice is enough to evict them, in California a landlord needs to get a court order to remove you from your home."

So until a court has issued an order telling you to move? Don’t leave.

"In some cities and counties, a landlord can face not only criminal penalties if they forcibly remove you from your home without a court order, but also monetary penalties if the tenant files a lawsuit. The moment you leave, you lose many valuable protections and you may even end up with a judgment against you," said López.

KQED's Carly Severn and Kate Wolffe contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

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