SACRAMENTO — California will freeze evictions for some struggling tenants for five more months as it prepares to give out billions of dollars in rent relief.
State legislators on Thursday approved SB91, extending the state’s partial eviction moratorium through the end of June and creating a program to distribute $2.6 billion in emergency rental assistance that California received through the coronavirus aid package that the federal government passed last month.
“At this deadliest of moments in the pandemic, we can’t have tenants pushed out onto the streets or into overcrowded settings,” said Assembly Member David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who had pushed for a longer extension of the moratorium.
The bill passed with bipartisan votes of 71-1 in the Assembly and 34-0 in the state Senate. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who helped negotiate the measure, is expected to sign it soon.
The rules for getting aid are complicated, however, and do not not cover every California renter. Here are answers to questions about how the law works.
The rental assistance from the federal government is meant to benefit low-income tenants who are experiencing financial hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic. If you or someone you live with qualifies for unemployment benefits, has lost earnings or has significant costs related to COVID-19, such as medical bills, you could benefit from the program — but only if your household makes 80% or less of the median income for your county, a figure determined annually by the state housing department.
• It sounds like I’m eligible. Will this money clear my rental debt?
That depends on the person who owns the property you rent. The amount you receive ultimately hinges on whether the property owner wants to participate.
The state will cover 80% of the rent you missed from April 2020 through March 2021, as long as the property owner forgives the rest of what you owe and does not pursue an eviction.
But owners do not have to agree to those terms. If you apply for the program and your property owner declines to participate, you will receive only 25% of your back rent for that 12-month period. That would still be enough to prevent you from being evicted for nonpayment of rent when the moratorium expires. Under the moratorium law, property owners would have to pursue the rest of the rent debt in small claims court.
If there is funding left, you could also get money to cover a quarter of your rent for up to three more months or to pay off utility debts.
• So how soon can I get this assistance?
It will be at least several weeks.
The first step is to allocate the money to communities across the state, which the law dictates must happen by Feb. 19. Cities and counties with more than 200,000 people will receive about $1.1 billion in rent aid directly from the federal government, but the state has an additional $1.5 billion to hand out. It plans to set aside $150 million for counties with fewer than 200,000 people, and then distribute the rest based on population.
Large local governments can choose to manage the rent relief themselves or hand over the responsibilities to the state. California officials will also run the program for small counties. The state is supposed to have an online portal to accept applications for rental assistance no later than March 15.
Even then, this may require patience. There will be three rounds of funding: The first will go to households that make less than half the median income in their area and people who have been unemployed for at least 90 days. The second round will be directed at neighborhoods that have been hit disproportionately by the pandemic. Then all remaining eligible households making less than 80% of the median income in their area can apply. The law requires that the state use up all the money by Aug. 1.
• What happens if I don’t qualify for the rent program?
Even if you make more than the income threshold for the federal rent assistance, you may still benefit from the state’s partial eviction moratorium.
The new law extends the existing moratorium by five months, through the end of June, preventing property owners from evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial hardship related to the pandemic.
If you declare your financial hardship to your property owner and then pay at least 25% of your total rent that you owe from September 2020 through June 2021, the owner cannot evict you. You can pay in monthly chunks or a lump sum by June 30. The rest of the back rent for that period will become civil debt, which your property owner can sue to recover in small claims court. Your property owner cannot charge you late fees on that missed rent or take your security deposit to pay down the debt.
But if you can’t pay that minimum 25% of rent, your property owner could file to evict you starting in July. The law also does not block evictions for other reasons, such as breaking the terms of your lease.
Source: Alexei Koseff, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer