Sonoma County Struggles to Disburse Covid-19 Rent Relief

Six weeks into its existence, a Sonoma County program to distribute state and federal money to assist tenants and landlords impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic had dealt out less than 10% of the total $32 million available.

In a June 8 report to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tina Rivera, the interim director of the county’s Department of Health Services, said that the county had distributed nearly $2.7 million to 1,477 applicants between April 19 and June 3.

Under state law, tenants and landlords must apply for funding together. If the landlord agrees to participate, they can receive up to 80% reimbursement for some rent which went unpaid due to a reason related to the Covid-19 pandemic. If the landlord does not agree to participate in the program, the program will cover 25% of a tenant’s unpaid rent under the time period covered by state law.

Asked about the struggle to distribute the funds, local officials at recent meetings often pointed to state and federal restrictions on how local governments can spend the money. Meanwhile, the head of one of the nonprofit organizations which the county has contracted with to distribute the funds reported cited the fact that the application paperwork is lengthy and complicated, leaving the organizations distributing the funds on behalf of the county with considerable backlogs of requests.

Sonoma County is by no means the only area struggling to hand out the funds. On June 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Local governments across the U.S. have struggled with how to distribute the money, and some have complained that their staffs are being deluged by a flood of aid requests.” The federal government estimates that approximately 11 million renter households across the country are considered at risk of eviction due to financial hardship, the Journal reported.

A recent survey of 177 California tenant advocates by the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII) and two other organizations found that tenants were struggling to access the funds because of technical difficulties, failure to properly document loss of income and owing money to someone other than their landlord, among other things.

As a result, the state had paid out only $20 million of the $4.6 billion available at the time the report was published in late May.

One major flaw identified by Sonoma County officials is that state and federal laws do not allow local government agencies to distribute funds to struggling tenants who paid their rent during the pandemic by turning to friends and private lenders for loans.

“What we’re finding is that many of our community members really compiled credit card debt to pay down the rent, so that they had a place to stay, and now they’re faced with the interest rates accumulating along with the debt on the credit card,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said during a June 8 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“Accumulated interest and loans is not an eligible use for these [state and federal] dollars. So unfortunately we cannot use these particular dollars for that particular debt,” Rivera responded.

Concerned that the restriction could cause the county to leave some of the $32 million wasted, Gorin and other local officials are requesting that state and federal officials loosen the rules governing how the existing funds can be used.

“My plea [to state and federal lawmakers], is that these restrictions around these dollars be loosened or lifted so that we can use these dollars to provide security for individuals who are facing the mounting debt that creates the housing insecurity for them,” Rivera said at the June 8 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The lengthy paperwork process and the sheer number of requests for assistance are other problems local officials are dealing with when distributing the funds.

“There is a lot of phone time associated with each one of these applications,” Elece Hempel, the executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, said during a May 19 public meeting with city and county officials. 

“We’re getting about 900 questions a day from landlords and tenants on ‘how does this work,’ and ‘what does it mean,’” Hempel added.

On May 10, fresh off the news that the state had a $38 billion budget surplus, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to allocate $5 billion of the funds to increase rent debt reimbursement from 80% to 100% for tenants and landlords who qualify. So far, that change has not come to pass, although negotiations are likely ongoing.

In response to criticisms of the online application system, the state has simplified the application process for rental assistance. However, as of press time, state and federal lawmakers have yet to change what kinds of debts can be covered with the rent aid dollars.

Protection Patchwork

Another issue no doubt causing frustration among tenants and landlords alike is the complexity of the local, state and federal rules governing evictions during the pandemic. Beginning last March, state and federal agencies passed restrictions on some evictions during the pandemic. Then, in response to pressure from tenants’ advocates, Sonoma County passed its own protections.

To make matters more complicated, the rules at all levels have been updated numerous times throughout the past year, making for a dizzying number of interlocking regulations. 

On June 30, some state and federal evictions are set to expire. The restrictions passed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors are set to outlast the higher orders. However, some Sonoma County cities seem to be getting antsy.

On June 8, the Santa Rosa City Council discussed the possibility of opting out of the county’s more stringent protections in favor of the state law. In effect, the change would have allowed landlords the ability to evict tenants for a wider array of reasons.

Supporters of the proposal argued that the county regulations are too burdensome on local landlords, discouraging them from continuing to own or manage rental properties in Sonoma County’s largest city.

Ultimately, after the majority of the public speakers at the June 8 council meeting urged the council to remain under the county’s rules, the council voted to revisit the issue in late August.

Will Carruthers
Will Carruthers is a news reporter for the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.
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