By Manuela Tobias for CalMatters
When California legislators voted last June to again extend eviction protections, they promised the third time would be the charm.
But the state’s rent relief program, which has struggled to reach the neediest tenants and landlords from the start, continues to lag. As of last week, the state has paid $2.4 billion to about 214,000 households — fewer than half of all who have applied for aid.
Those delays — which one study found left the average tenant waiting about three months to get paid — forced legislators’ hands: On March 24, the state’s top legislative leaders struck another last-minute deal designed to stave off eviction for another three months for hundreds of thousands of renters who have applied for relief but are still waiting to hear back.
Assembly Bill 2179 was approved Thursday by the state Senate on a 36-1 vote after passing the Assembly on a 62-1 vote Monday. A few hours later, the bill was signed into law by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who is acting governor with Gov. Gavin Newsom out of the country on vacation.
“California’s nation-leading rent relief program has provided much needed relief for more than 220,000 households across the state. Today’s action will provide additional time to thousands more who are in the process of acquiring emergency relief,” Kounalakis tweeted.
The current law, set to expire Thursday, says a judge must pause an eviction proceeding if a rent relief application is pending. The new legislation shields tenants through June 30 as the state continues to process their paperwork.
“It is on us to take care of the thousands of Californians — landlords and tenants alike — who reached out to COVID-19 emergency rental assistance programs for help and still have their applications pending,” said Assemblymember Tim Grayson, a Concord Democrat who is the bill’s co-author.
“It would be cruel, wasteful and unfair to subject these Californians to eviction or the loss of rental income now, when they have done everything asked of them, and distribution of their emergency rental assistance is imminent,” he said in a statement.
But some landlords may have broken existing law, Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday. His office sent warning letters to 91 law firms representing landlords who may have falsely declared their tenants had not notified them of a pending application so that they could push through an eviction. “This is unacceptable, and more importantly, absolutely illegal,” Bonta said in a statement.
Renters who do not apply to the program by the Thursday deadline will not receive any protections. Landlords will still be able to take those tenants to court over missed rent starting Friday.
California has about $5.4 billion in federal funds to help qualified applicants with 100% of unpaid rent dating back to April 2020, some of which is being distributed by local rent relief programs. Lawmakers last month authorized more state spending if the federal dollars don’t cover the costs.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat, endorsed the new bill in a joint statement last week, promising it would move quickly through both houses.
Newsom also backed the bill. A spokesperson told CalMatters in an email: “The governor strongly supports an extension that continues to protect tenants well into the summer and ensures that every eligible applicant is protected under this nation-leading rent relief program as it winds down.”
Local protections at risk
On March 25, the California Rental Housing Association, which says it represents more than 20,000 landlords with 575,000 units across the state, issued a statement opposing the bill. The group said that statewide eviction protections are no longer necessary, and it urged the timely payment of rent relief. (Some major provisions of the statewide moratorium expired Sept. 30.)
“Enough is enough,” said Christine Kevane La Marca, CalRHA president. “By halting applications for those in need, and extending the eviction moratorium, rental housing providers are being forced to carry the financial weight of the pandemic and some of them will lose their properties as a result.”
Legislative leaders drove negotiations for the last-minute deal, according to Debra Carlton, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association, which also represents landlords at the state Capitol. As in the most recent extension negotiations last summer, Carlton said neither her group nor tenant advocates were at the table, but their recommendations were taken into account.
The association’s main request was granted: Local jurisdictions won’t be allowed to enact new tenant protections until July 1, and any protections put in place by local governments after Aug. 19, 2020, will also be delayed.
That’s exactly what worries tenant advocates. The new law postpones hard-fought protections that were set to go into effect on April 1, notably in Los Angeles County and San Francisco. Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Phil Ting, both San Francisco Democrats, were the two “no” votes on the bill. A few protections put in place before the cutoff — including in the city of Los Angeles, the city of Fresno and Alameda County — will remain in place.
“I see it as honestly cruel,” said Alexander Harnden, a staff attorney at Inner City Law Center, which serves tenants across L.A. County. “Repealing protections the day before they’re set to kick in means a lot of people are not going to get that information. It’s really setting people up to get evicted.”
Informing renters of the patchwork of protections in L.A. County has been no easy feat, Harnden said, as some tenants continue to have the false belief there’s an outright eviction ban statewide. In fact, sheriff’s departments across California have carried out at least 10,000 lockouts — the last step in an eviction process — since the start of the pandemic, according to a CalMatters investigation last summer.
Using data obtained through a Public Records Act request, Kyle Nelson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, found the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department performed lockouts at more than 8,600 households between April 2020 and September 2021.
Tenant advocates worry that after the application deadline for rent relief passes on Thursday, thousands of renters will still need help. In the most recent survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 977,000 California households at all income levels reported no confidence in their ability to pay April’s rent.
According to another poll released last week, 34% of renters said they are “very concerned” about not having enough money to pay their housing costs.
“It feels like a mixed bag,” said Tina Rosales, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “With our budget surplus, we thought that there would be an extension of the deadline to apply for (rent relief), and there wasn’t.”
According to another recent survey of 58 tenant organizations across the state by Tenants Together, an advocacy group, 90% of organizations helping renters apply for aid said their tenants reported difficulties applying. Half of survey respondents complained of inadequate language access and lack of community outreach.
“They’re basically saying, ‘Tough luck,’” said Shanti Singh, legislative and communications director for the group. “If we didn’t do our job telling you this program exists, that’s your problem now.”
Last June, a coalition of tenant advocacy groups filed a discrimination complaint against the state over language barriers for non-English speakers. The case is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Tiffany Hickey, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus.
“Throughout this complaint process we’ve really been pushing to have this investigated and addressed as quickly as possible because people are being left out of relief because they can’t access the program,” Hickey said.