Uncertainty looms over families receiving rental assistance under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, set to expire at the end of December. The new stimulus package recently passed by Congress looks likely to extend the program, but it’s unclear how much funding will be allocated to San Benito County and when it will be available.
Local agencies are concerned that low-income residents will be hard-hit after the first of the year. Eight percent of California residents have now fallen behind on their rent or mortgage, or are unlikely to make this month’s payment, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey for early December. Of those, 35% could face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. Overall, 39% expect to lose income in the next month.
By the end of December, San Benito County’s Rental Assistance program distributed $265,000 to local families. The funds covered rent, including arrears, food and utility bills, said Enrique Arreola, deputy director of the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), part of San Benito County’s Community Services and Workforce Development department.
The program’s funds have now been fully spent, although checks are still going out to families to cover their December expenses.
“The program was successful,” Arreola said. “Over 100 families in need and affected by COVID will receive assistance during tough times. Our assistance may also help prevent eviction for those eligible.”
If someone loses their job and can’t afford rent, Arreola said they can’t be evicted right now.
“But they’re all of a sudden one month behind, two months behind, or maybe even more,” he said. “That causes a lot of stress on the household and the family.”
Funding from the county’s rental assistance program came from the federal CARES act to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which distributed it to counties for rental assistance and other housing needs. However, the funds came with a condition: they had to be used by the end of 2020.
Families were able to apply Sept. 23 to Nov. 30, after getting an extension beyond the original deadline of Oct. 22. According to Arreola, 129 San Benito families applied.
“If someone applied early November or before, we could help pay November and December. If they had one month’s [payment] late, we could pay that one month as well. But if someone applied late November or early December, we could just apply one month arrears and one month rental,” Arreola said.
Only low-income San Benito residents affected by COVID-19 qualified for rental assistance. Eligibility hinged on families being able to verify their identity, income and residency with physical documentation. Consequently, undocumented families could be excluded.
Landlords also had to support their tenant’s application by sending their W-9 forms to the HHSA office.
Arreola said that interacting with landlords was one of the program’s biggest challenges. “Sometimes landlords don’t want to give a W-9 for whatever reason, and don’t want to interact. We can’t help the client because payments are made to the landlord.”
California’s AB 3088—the Tenant, Homeowner, and Small Landlord Relief and Stabilization Act—protects COVID-impacted tenants from eviction until the end of January, but only so long as they pay 25% of their September to January rent by the Jan. 31 deadline.
If families qualify for at least two month’s rental assistance, the payments will have met their 25% rent requirement to avoid eviction. If not, they may still need to come up with more funds to stay in their homes.
Unpaid back rent until the end of January can’t be used as grounds for eviction. However, families will have to pay full February rent by Feb. 1.
And even if families do avoid eviction, they are still subject to accumulating rent debt. Landlords can recover the outstanding debt through small claims court.
Despite the support, families face turbulent times ahead. The pandemic is surging to historic levels and a renewed stay-at-home order is closing many businesses once again, putting jobs at risk.
Current unemployment benefits and rental assistance under CARES Act are set to expire at the end of the year. The new stimulus package recently passed by Congress is designed to extend unemployment benefits to March 14 and send out a $600 per-person direct payment, giving families some financial relief. However, these payments would only be half the size of the last round.
The new rental assistance program is expected to be similar to the first one, covering rent, utility payments and COVID-19 impact requirements, according to the House Committee on Financial Services. Improvements include offering 12 months of support, extended to 15 for those in need—including past rent and utility debt incurred any time since the beginning of the pandemic. Tenants can be paid directly, bypassing uncooperative landlords.
However, the $25 billion set aside for rental assistance nationally could fall short of keeping all low income families in their homes. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, families would need $43 billion over the next six months to stay housed, not taking into account any new job losses.
It’s also unclear how much funding will be allocated to San Benito County, or when it will be made available to local families.
Families still face the expiration of California’s eviction ban at the end of January, with no federal ban to fall back on. If it’s not renewed, or if rental assistance doesn’t arrive in time, or doesn’t cover enough households, the prospect of a wave of evictions remains.
Rosa Contreras is a home visitor supervisor at First 5 San Benito, a local nonprofit focused on the well-being of prenatal to age five children. So far, she said, “None of our families have expressed a fear of being evicted.” As protections expire at the end of January, however, she fears that they will start to see more families reaching out for support.
Arreola agrees. “Many many many households will continue to have hardships,” he said. “We’re still in the pandemic. There are still people being affected. Eventually it will result in eviction.”
Where to get help
First 5 San Benito/ Family Impact Center
My Father’s House
910 Monterey St #215-A, Hollister, CA 95023
Community FoodBank of San Benito County
United Way 211
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