.County Urged to Increase Covid Rent Assistance Outreach

With Covid variant cases on the rise throughout the country, federal lawmakers allowed the Center for Disease Control’s Covid-19 eviction protections to temporarily lapse at the end of July.

Although a more limited federal eviction moratorium is now in place, the temporary gap served drew renewed attention to how many American households are still at risk of eviction due to unpaid rent. 

Sonoma County and California would not have been impacted by the end of the CDC’s moratorium immediately because both have passed their own laws regulating evictions during the pandemic. However, Sonoma County is among state and local governments across the country which continue to struggle to distribute federal rent relief funds—potentially leaving renters and landlords with unpaid bills once the protections do end.

All told, the federal government has allocated Sonoma County $49.6 million through two Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, according to a staff report from a July 27 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting. So far, however, the county has been fairly slow to disburse the money through its newly-created rent relief program.

Between April 19 and June 3, county staff reported that the nonprofits had distributed $2.7 million to 1,477 tenants and landlords. Then, at the July 27 meeting, county staff said that they had handed out a total of $5.3 million to 2,468 tenants and landlords by July 15.

While the amount distributed by the county almost doubled between the two reports, the county still has only distributed 10.7% of the total $49.6 million in federal funding available. 

Sonoma County is far from alone in this struggle. U.S. Treasury data released in late July shows that the federal government had distributed just 12% of the first $25 billion of rent relief funds by June 30, just a month before the CDC’s eviction moratorium came to an end.

The struggle to distribute the funds seems to be, at least in part, due to a nationwide failure to inform renters and landlords about the existence of the relief funds. A survey of over 2,300 renters and landlords published by the Urban Institute on June 30 found that more than half of renters and 40 percent of landlords were unaware that federal rent relief money existed.

Sonoma County officials and nonprofits have reported a similar problem locally.

Earlier this year, the county signed a contract with Legal Aid of Sonoma County to offer legal advice to local tenants in precarious housing situations. During a public comment portion of the July 27 Board of Supervisors meeting, Suzanne Dershowitz, a housing policy attorney at Legal Aid, said that “Most tenants our Homelessness Prevention Attorney has spoken with in the last 4 months had never heard of the [county rent relief] program.”

As a result of the lack of public information and slow distribution of funds, some are urging the county to increase its outreach efforts to include direct mailers and Nixle emergency alerts in English and Spanish to inform renters and landlords about the available funds. 

“Strategies like going door-to-door at the neighborhood level or sending out a brochure in English and Spanish to every renter in the county are best practices the County should prioritize as soon as possible,” Dershowitz said at the July 27 meeting.

County officials should also consider equity while informing the community about the rent relief program. Sonoma County renters make up 40% of all households and are disproportionately people of color. While 37% of white households are renters, 63% of Latinx or Hispanic households and 89% of Black or African American households are renters, according to a staff report.

At the July 27 meeting, Tina Rivera, the interim director of the county’s Department of Health Services, acknowledged that distributing information about the program to all groups has “truly been a barrier.” Rivera said that the county participated in a public forum to inform landlords about the rent relief program and is currently working to improve outreach, including to undocumented residents.

Also complicating the communication process is the fact that local, state and federal rules around evictions and rental assistance have changed numerous times throughout the pandemic. 

At the beginning of the program, the state allowed landlords to receive 80% reimbursement for rent that went unpaid due to the pandemic. Now, thanks to a new state law, AB 832, landlords and tenants can receive 100% reimbursement for unpaid rent anytime since April 2020, as long as they fill in the proper paperwork and make less than 80% of area median income—about $93,000 for a family of four in Sonoma County. 

That said, at least one glaring hole in the rent relief program still exists. If a tenant turned to family, friends or money lenders to cover their rent payments during the pandemic, those bills are not eligible for reimbursement through the rent relief program, Rivera said during the July 27 meeting. 

Based on previous statements by nonprofit and county officials doling out the money, a considerable portion of possible recipients fall into that category, although specific numbers are not available.

Still, under new state rules, those tenants might be qualified for payments to help them pay rent in the coming months.

“We have been telling our clients and the community to apply for rental assistance EVEN IF you borrowed money to stay current on rent, you moved, your landlord/master tenant refuses to apply, or you have already received rental/utility assistance in the past,” Dershowitz, the Legal Aid attorney, told the Bohemian in an email.

Some aspects of the state eviction moratorium are currently scheduled to end on Sept. 30. Meanwhile, Sonoma County’s protections, as currently written, are set to expire 60 days after the county’s Covid-19 declaration of emergency.

Despite the state and local rules, some evictions have continued in Sonoma County. Between March 19, 2020, and March 31, 2021, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office served 145 eviction notices, according to KQED. The number of tenants who left their housing after being threatened with eviction is likely much higher but currently unknown.

To submit a rent relief application, visit SoCoEmergency.org/erap.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.
North Bay Bohemian E-edition North Bay Bohemian E-edition