Tenants and advocates staged a sit-in protest at the San Diego County Housing and Community Development Services building on Tuesday, calling on county officials to address issues with the defunct COVID rent relief program that left thousands of renters in the region facing eviction.
The county’s emergency rental assistance (ERA) program was part of statewide efforts to relieve the impact of economic hardship during the pandemic. Now, several months after the program ended back in March, tenants are still struggling.
Protesters, including one dressed as a turkey to reference the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, blamed the county and state for not effectively carrying out the ERA program while it was available, as issues like a lack of funding to meet demand, inconsistent communication from caseworkers, and vague denials of eligible applications made relief difficult to access.
“We would like to see everyone who is eligible for this program to get the funding that they need as soon as possible,” said the director of the San Diego chapter for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Jose Lopez, who organized the event. “We're hoping that they find a way to fully fund the program, in order to make sure that everybody who is supposed to get help gets the help that they need.”
ACCE said this sit-in at the Housing and Community Development Services building was part of a joint effort with other actions in Los Angeles and Sacramento calling on government officials to address issues relating to the program’s administration, as many tenants were left hanging.
“There’s no options for me,” said Lydia Morales, a member of ACCE and a speaker at Tuesday’s event.
Morales, a single mom of three who lives in San Ysidro, owes about $6,000 in rent that was approved through the City of San Diego’s ERA program. A server for a hotel, she turned to rent relief after the pandemic stifled her source of income due to early shut-downs — something that the hospitality industry still has not fully recovered from.
“I have to ask for money everywhere — family, friends — and I still (can’t) recover,” she continued. “I still (can’t) pay even half of the money that I owe.”
Tenants across the county have voiced similar struggles in the months since the ERA program ended.
Last month, inewsource reported that the county continued to accept and approve applications for assistance that they did not yet have funding for. These applicants were only notified in September that the relief they thought they’d be receiving would not be paid, leaving them scrambling to avoid eviction.
“Thousands of people applied for assistance, but were never given any help,” said another member of ACCE, Barbara Pinto. Pinto, a lifelong San Diego resident, applied for rental assistance after losing her part time job during the pandemic — something she needed to make ends meet after retiring from San Diego Unified School District in 2012.
“I'm thinking, I don't have $25 to walk across the street and buy food,” she continued. “How am I gonna pay five months' arrear rent at $1,550 a month?”
San Diego County received about $243 million in funds from the state and federal government for its ERA program, according to county spokesperson Tim McCain. These funds were prioritized for low-income households significantly impacted by the pandemic.
County officials said in emails with tenants and inewsource that they are still actively looking for funding to cover approved applications, however, it is not clear whether any will become available.
“The County understands the message shared yesterday by ACCE and stands ready to fund more applications should additional state or federal funds become available,” McCain said in an email to inewsource Wednesday.
Statewide, California used almost $4.4 billion for ERA programs, which was distributed to tenants either directly from the state’s ‘Housing is Key’ program or through local agencies, if they chose to administer their own program.
Approximately $278 million was paid by the state to Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based accounting firm, to oversee the disbursement of the state’s funds.
Horne was also hired by the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to perform the same role for a similar COVID relief fund, however, state auditors are reportedly investigating whether employees of the firm improperly received money from the program themselves.
However, the issues with the ERA program raised by protesters and advocates extend beyond funding.
A survey published earlier this year by advocacy group, Tenants Together, on the statewide rental relief program found that issues like difficulty accessing the online application, long processing periods, inconsistent communication, and a lack of community outreach created significant barriers for tenants to access the available assistance.
“The results are clear: rent relief is not getting to those who need it most, leaving hundreds of thousands of tenants in danger of harassment, retaliation, and eviction this year and beyond,” Tenants Together executive director, María Guadalupe Arreola, wrote in the report. “The State of California lacks a plan to protect millions of tenants from eviction for nonpayment…after the limited eviction protections expire.”
Advocates say that denials of applications without proper explanation and little recourse for appeal has also been a major obstacle for tenants seeking help through rental assistance both locally and statewide.
Jamie Thompson, a long-time San Diego resident, also said she received different reasons from different caseworkers she tried to contact after the rent relief application she submitted was denied. Among the reasons, she recalled being told her application was not submitted prior to the March 31 deadline despite having sent it in Dec. 2021.
Thompson told inewsource that she will likely be evicted from her apartment by her landlord soon.
“I would think a priority of the Housing Commission would be to keep people in their houses,” Thompson said. “If they're gonna put out a program and, uh, you know, make it a consistent program, then don't deny people for various reasons (or) not (respond) for months straight, so you don't know if you have help or you don't.”
“Then when it turns around that you don't have help, it's too late,” she continued.
The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development was sued earlier this year by tenants advocacy groups, including ACCE, over this very issue of denials, prompting a judge in Alameda County to temporarily pause application rejections while the litigation is ongoing.
However, the effects of these barriers to rent relief are already being felt across the state.
The county court this year has seen a sharp increase in the number of eviction cases filed since the end of pandemic-era protections like the statewide eviction moratorium. Advocates warn this is the beginning of a looming crisis.
In San Diego alone, the county court this year has seen as many as 935 unlawful detainer cases filed in a month for evictions, according to data through September — about 506 of those were against individuals who could have been eligible for COVID-related financial assistance with debts under $25,000.
“This money was here for the people,” one of the individuals present at the sit-in on Tuesday said. “The people are the ones that are suffering. We’re the ones being evicted. We’re the ones being kicked out. We need help.”
After first declining to speak with the protesters, Lopez met with Housing and Community Development Services director, David Estrella. Lopez said that Estrella told him he would look into the issues identified by ACCE, including the review of applications denied by the county’s ERA program.
“Housing is a big business,” said Morales, the single mother from San Ysidro. “Everything is about the money and I understand everybody needs money, but the government has to look at what's happening because it's too much. It's too much. This is too much.”