Sonoma County Launches Financial Aid Program for Unpaid Rent, Utilities

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Housing - Santa Rosa, California
Photo: Will Carruthers

This week, Sonoma County launched a program to help landlords and tenants cover bills that went unpaid due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the process is more complicated than one might expect, the cash infusion will no doubt be welcomed by many families in need who are able to qualify.

In January, state lawmakers passed legislation to funnel federal stimulus funds to the counties. From there, counties were allowed to decide whether they would like to distribute their millions of dollars in allotments by using the state’s portal or by creating a system to distribute the money directly.

Sonoma County decided to pursue the second option. On April 6, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved agreements with 10 local nonprofits to distribute $32.2 million. The chosen nonprofits will accept applications from landlords and tenants to backfill unpaid rent and utility payments due to unemployment or costs incurred due to the pandemic.

“The vaccine rollout has allowed us to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot ignore the financial strain it has placed on residents,” Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said in a statement about the program. “This relief is a needed resource that will help alleviate stacks of unpaid rental or utility bills, for our most vulnerable populations.”

Under state legislation, landlords who agree to participate in the program can receive up to 80% reimbursement for rent which went unpaid for a reason tied to Covid-19 between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. In return for participating in the program, the landlord agrees to forgive the remaining 20% of unpaid rent.

If a landlord does not agree to participate in the program, a tenant can apply to receive up to 25% of their unpaid rent accrued during the same time period. In this case, the tenant would receive the money directly and have to pay off the rest of the bill.

In order to be eligible for the county’s assistance program, a renter household must earn less than 80% of the area median income (AMI), currently $81,850 for a three-person household. Preference will be given to renter households making less than 50% AMI, or $51,150 for a three-person household.

Finally, in order to receive funds, renters must demonstrate that they faced financial hardship, which could include losing income for some reason tied to Covid-19.

With the information available, it’s hard to tell whether the amount of aid money will be enough to make struggling families solvent.

In January, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimated that renters in California owed a total of $400 million in unpaid rent. Other estimates of total rent debt, generally reached by comparing unemployment data with Census figures, have been much higher than the LAO’s figure. That might be in part because some renters have chosen to forgo their water and electricity bills in order to pay their rent.

In February, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reported that 3.3 million utility customers in California owed an estimated $1.25 billion to the state’s gas and electric utilities. Northern Californian customers owed $605.6 million to PG&E. Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board estimated in January that unpaid water bills totaled $1 billion in California.

Considering those staggering figures, it’s appropriate that Sonoma County families in need can also apply for help to pay their utility bills through the rental assistance program.

That said, if a renter dug into their savings, sold their car or pursued another means to pay their rent and other bills over the past year, they will not be eligible for the rent relief program.

The North Bay Organizing Project, Petaluma People Services Center, Catholic Charities, Community Action Partnership Sonoma County and the California Parenting Institute are offering assistance countywide. Other organizations are providing assistance to specific parts of the county.

Visit SoCoEmergency.org for a full list of the organizations offering assistance, as well as for more information about the county’s current eviction rules. Here’s a quick link: shorturl.at/jsFO6

Representation

At their April 6 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took a step toward limiting evictions by signing a contract with Sonoma County Legal Aid to kick off a two-year pilot program allowing the organization to provide tenants with additional legal representation.

To understand why this may be important, let’s take a step back.

In January, KQED reported that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had served court-order eviction notices to 64 tenants between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020.

The rate was significantly lower than in other years. Records obtained by the Bohemian show that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office served eviction notices to over 400 renter households over the same time period in 2019. And, in an average year, 1,195 eviction cases are filed in the local court. This, in a county with 74,803 renter households.

Since KQED published the figures about the eviction rates, Sonoma County has passed additional restrictions on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, an untold number of Sonoma County renters leave their homes each year before they get their day in court. That’s in part because evictions are a civil matter, not a criminal matter, which means that tenants are not guaranteed an attorney if they fight a case in court.

As a response to this imbalance, some cities around the country have begun experimenting with providing tenants a “right to counsel” when they face eviction.

The county’s two-year pilot program with Legal Aid of Sonoma County does not offer that, but it will allow the organization to hire additional attorneys, and to provide some tenants facing eviction in court with free protection.

Legal Aid estimates it would cost between $5.1 and $5.6 million each year to fully fund a program to provide every tenant facing eviction in Sonoma County with legal representation.

The hope for the two-year pilot program is that Legal Aid can help mediate some disagreements between tenants and landlords, avoiding the need to go to court in the first place.

Any investment in eviction prevention policies could potentially lead to big economic savings for the county by avoiding the costs of providing supportive housing and other resources to people who become homeless after being evicted. According to an April 6 county staff report, a study of Philadelphia by Stout, a financial analysis firm, found that a $3.5 million investment in tenant protections led to $45 million in cost savings for the city.

The California Apartment Association has opposed right to counsel proposals in some California cities on the grounds that the policy “would make taxpayers foot the bill for private legal disputes.”