Long Beach extends rent-assistance program, but concerns remain about tenants being left out

Long Beach is extending the deadline for tenants and landlords to apply for the city’s rental-relief program, and officials announced Wednesday that the program is getting a new $21.2 million from the federal government to back-fill residents’ missed rent payments.

The original application deadline for the Long Beach Emergency Rental Assistance Program was May 12, but it is now June 11. The new infusion of funds is in addition to the $29 million program the city created earlier this year with funding from the state and federal government.

The additional money from the federal government will bring the city’s combined rental assistance funds during the pandemic to about $56 million. The current program will pay for up to 80% of a tenant’s back rent if the landlord agrees to forgive the remaining 20%, but a new proposal from Gov. Gavin Newsom this week could eventually see the program pay 100%.

Newsom is expected to announce the full details of his $100 billion “California Comeback Plan” Friday. But earlier this week he said he wanted to set aside $7.2 billion to help pay 100% of back rent and utility bills for low-income Californians. The proposed funding, which includes a third round of stimulus checks to qualifying Californians, is possible in part because of the state’s $75 billion budget surplus.

A city spokesperson said that the city expects to receive more funding through Newsom’s proposed plan but it won’t know how much until the state budget is approved later this year. That additional money could help the city pay 100% of back rent for qualified tenants as well as overdue water and utility bills.

Getting any amount of money is going to be critical to holding off an expected wave of evictions after the current statewide moratorium expires at the end of June, according to Mike Murchison, a lobbyist representing the Small Property Owners Alliance and the Apartment Association, Southern California Cities. Murchison said that while landlords would prefer to get paid in full for missed rents, the current 80% payment is better than nothing, but not all residents who fell behind on rents can qualify under the current guidelines.

“The key question is what strings are attached to qualify or not qualify a tenant to have their rents paid back by the state or the city,” Murchison said.

To be eligible for the program, a person has to be a tenant of the city with a household income below 80% of the area median income, have one or more individuals in the household experience financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and demonstrate that one or more persons in the home are at risk of homelessness or housing instability. The median income for a family of four in Los Angeles County is $77,300—80% would be $56,560.

The program prioritizes lower-income households making 50% or less than the area median income, which would be $35,350 for a family of four, and those households with past-due rents and with persons unemployed for 90 days or more.

Murchison said he has clients who had tenants apply for the first round of rental assistance last year when the city pledged to pay up to three months rent for qualifying tenants. The city received 2,400 applications but was only able to process 1,770 selected through a lottery. Out of those, only about 1,500 applicants were found to be eligible for assistance, a city spokesperson said Wednesday.

Murchison said his clients’ tenants were among those denied.

The current income thresholds could also leave out people who were making too much money to qualify before losing their jobs because of the pandemic. Without a way to pay their back rent, they could be vulnerable to evictions, but Murchison said the industry is hopeful that a solution is found to help those people pay their rents.

“If Newsom has come up with a program with no strings attached then I applaud him,” Murchison said.

While details of Newsom’s program remain unclear, the city’s current program will go toward past-due rents and utility bills first, but tenants are able to apply for partial payments of future rents and utilities as well. The program could fund up to 25% of a tenant’s future rent for up to three months, according to the city. Tenants seeking help with paying just their utility bills can also apply to the city’s program.

The latter could be key for some immigrant communities who took out loans from family and friends or relied on credit cards to weather the pandemic economic crunch.

Hilda Gaytan, president and co-founder of Puente Latino Association, an organization hired by the city to do outreach for the rental assistance program in Latino neighborhoods, said that many immigrants’ distrust of government led them to take on debt that doesn’t qualify for relief from these funds. Like Murchison, she’s hopeful some of the strings can be cut to free up the funds to help more people affected by the pandemic.

Getting approved for future rent assistance could allow these households to work on paying back debts to families and creditors, Gaytan said. Conversely, making too much money has not been a concern for the people her organization has helped sign up. Gaytan said she’s seen some people making up to almost 50% of the area median income, but nothing approaching 80%.

“I always thought that, as an immigrant, I knew the communities and the suffering but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Gaytan said.

Her group has been focusing on West Long Beach and Downtown with a lot of applicants coming from the Washington neighborhood, Gaytan said. Getting people signed up has been a struggle at times with digital barriers like applicants not having an email address or not bringing the right forms to workshops. Gaytan said there was a period of time when the application was also not available in Spanish, but that has since been fixed by the city.

Gaytan said they’ve been averaging about six to seven applications per day.

Applications for the program can be submitted on the city’s website.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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