Faced With Backlog, San Francisco Hits Pause on New Applications for COVID Rent Assistance

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A banner on a building says 'Rent Strike!'
A man walks past a 'Rent Strike!' sign in the Mission District on March 31, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco has abruptly hit pause on a rent-relief initiative that's been drawing scores of new applications from tenants suffering from pandemic-related financial hardship.

The San Francisco Emergency Rental Assistance Program announced last Thursday that it would immediately stop accepting new applications.

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That's necessary, officials say, because the effort has been overwhelmed with requests for help since California shut down its statewide rent-relief program on April 1. With tenants filing about 300 new applications a week, the backlog for the city's program now stands at 4,000 applications.

A group of local nonprofits has been helping the city process applications for the program, which offers lower-income tenants as much as $7,500 in rental assistance.

The volume of new requests was heavy enough that agencies were "basically barely treading water," said Ora Prochovnick, director of litigation and policy with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, one of the nonprofits involved. "They were trying to keep up with the new applications and therefore never able to touch the backlog."

Anne Stanley, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, said the emergency assistance model the city's program has been using "is just not sustainable for the level of need that's being shown."

"What was supposed to be a safety net for people who had been kind of left behind by the state's [rent-relief program] closure, ended up really being more of what clearly needed to be a 'steady state' program," rather than just an emergency one, said Stanley.

She emphasized that the pause on accepting new rental-assistance applications is temporary, and intended to allow agencies to make a dent in the backlog while the city works to revamp and relaunch the effort by the end of the year.

Stanley said the city could commit as much as $30 million a year for rental assistance, a huge increase from the $4 million a year it budgeted for direct tenant aid before the pandemic. The city is also consulting with a wide range of housing agencies and advocacy groups to refine eligibility criteria.

Both Prochovnick and Stanley say the pause in accepting new rental-assistance applications won't lead to a new wave of evictions because of other protections the city has put in place for tenants who have suffered pandemic-related hardships.

Those protections include an ordinance that gives tenants a right to counsel when they face the threat of eviction and a ban on evictions for nonpayment of rent, because of pandemic-related reasons, that was owed on or after July 1, 2022 .

"I think it's important to get the message out that this should not frighten people," Prochovnick said. "It doesn't mean that the funding isn't there. The city has ample resources and has set aside funds to make sure that this rental assistance becomes available."

Even though the rent-relief program is technically closed to new applicants, Prochovnick says, there are still ways for nonprofits to access funds even for tenants who have not yet applied.

"If somebody is not already in the backlog and is at risk of imminent eviction, there will be ways the tenant right-to-counsel programs can intercede to make sure that those are still processed," she said. "So it's not going to lead to additional evictions, we don't believe, because of the careful way that the city is trying to do this."