Fearing Money Left on the Table, Officials Push Rental Assistance Program

Government

Fearing Money Left on the Table, Officials Push Rental Assistance Program

Community groups and politicians say people are struggling to apply for rental assistance online and face other barriers to applying. Since the start of the program, the Housing Commission has grappled with the possibility that some of the funding could be left unspent.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe speaks to volunteers before they start distributing fliers with information about San Diego’s COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance Program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego Housing Commission is now – for the second time – handing out rental assistance to people who lost income during the pandemic. But even though the agency has increased its outreach and has more money that more people are eligible to receive, there are still disparities when it comes to who is applying, particularly in some of the city’s historically underserved communities.

Members of the commission have also expressed concern the agency will not spend down the more than $80 million it has to give, even while thousands of residents could be facing evictions this summer when state and local moratoriums end.

In February, the city authorized the COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance Program to help residents who meet certain income thresholds and who have been financially impacted by COVID-19, with an additional $8.5 million for administrative expenses associated with the program.

The commission is still processing the applications that have come in so far and has yet to give out any money.

As of April 20, the Housing Commission had received 9,693 applications for its second pandemic rental assistance program. More than half came from City Council Districts 3, 7 and 9, which include areas like North Park, Hillcrest, Miramar, Linda Vista, Mission Valley and City Heights. While those areas include some communities that not only have been historically underserved, but hit hard by the pandemic, there have been notably fewer applications from Districts 4 and 8, which include areas with some of the highest unemployment rates in the city, like San Ysidro, Logan Heights and Encanto.

District 7 has the highest number of applications so far with 1,996. District 9 follows closely at 1,837. There have only been 950 applications from District 4 and 948 from District 8, according to commission data.

Community organizations and politicians representing those communities say people are struggling to apply online, have to overcome language barriers and that some people may think the program could be a scam or that it will jeopardize their immigration status. But since the start of the program, the Housing Commission has grappled with the possibility that some of the funding could be left unspent.

If the city sees mass evictions when the moratoriums are lifted and it didn’t give out all its rental assistance money, that would effectively mean it had the resources to protect people from evictions, but wasn’t able to distribute those resources. That possibility is driving a sense of urgency among housing commissioners and City Council representatives.

“The bottom line is we have to continue to understand that having assistance is not enough,” said City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe. “We have to inform. We have to communicate. We have to have outreach plans and we have to hold ourselves accountable. I don’t want to leave any of this funding on the table when I know our communities are in need.”

City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera said his team has also noticed the disparities.

Elo-Rivera said the Housing Commission has made a lot of effort to do intentional outreach, but that actually getting equitable outcomes is hard work.

“Even once you get to the place of wanting to be equitable, there is the additional aspect of ensuring the efforts you put forward will actually have the impact you desire, and that requires a lot of intentionality,” Elo-Rivera said. “You can pop up any program you want and no matter how well-intentioned it may be – absent the intention to connect people to that resource – it will go unused by the people who need it.”

The second round of funding will continue to accept applications until all the funding is spent, but the city is still facing some deadlines. The funding from the state must be “obligated” by June 1, meaning that the commission must have preliminarily determined people are eligible for the funds, or the city must have a plan to expend all the state-allocated funds by Aug. 1.

The current program follows another city rental assistance program last year, the COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance program, that provided $15.1 million last summer in one-time rental assistance payments and administrative expenses. That program accepted applications between July 20, 2020, and Aug. 7, 2020. All of the $13.59 million that was specifically designated for rental assistance payments had been disbursed by the end of November, but more than 40 households that had applied and qualified for assistance remained, so the Housing Commission tapped into unused administrative funds to give payments to those households.

For the first round, the Housing Commission received 13,158 applications. Of those, 9,441 were ineligible – either because they did not live in the city of San Diego, their income exceeded 60 percent of San Diego’s Area Median Income in January 2020, their financial hardship was not due to COVID-19 or they were already receiving a rental subsidy.

What if Not All the Funds Are Spent?

Although the two programs were designed differently – for example, the first program was only open to people at lower income levels and was open for a shorter amount of time – there has been a concern that money may be left on the table in this second round. It’s a lot more money to give out than in the first round, and so far, the rate of applications coming in hasn’t been significantly higher.

The city has so far received 9,693 applications, though not all are from city residents, according to data from the San Diego Housing Commission. Scott Marshall, spokesman for the Housing Commission, said more than 7,400 applications have been started and are pending completion.

It seems possible that the Housing Commission isn’t on track to spend the more than $90 million, between rental assistance and administrative funds allocated to the second program, given the number of applications that have come in so far. City residents were also eligible for a countywide rental assistance program and may have already applied for that since the first round of city rental assistance.

If not all the money is spent, there are two possible explanations: there simply isn’t that big of a need for rental and utility assistance in the city among people in the qualifying income ranges, or people who need the assistance are not applying.

The city could soon find out. Right now, an eviction moratorium is in place. If people who could use the assistance are not applying – then the city may face a whole new crisis when landlords can again evict tenants who are behind on rent.

Councilman Chris Cate suggested increasing the area median income cap to 100 percent from the current 80 percent eligibility requirement. Since many people’s employment has been so volatile in the past year, they may have filed taxes in a higher income bracket and since lost their jobs, but wouldn’t be eligible for the assistance. Cate’s suggestion marks yet another sign of concern that the funding won’t be spent and that people in need may not be accessing the assistance.

“We wouldn’t want to negate anybody from getting the help they need because they lost their job at some point during the pandemic,” Cate said.

It’s unclear how many additional people this would make eligible. Only 37 of applications received had incomes above the required threshold, but many people might not even try applying since they are not eligible.

In a February Housing Commission Board meeting, Vice Chair Ryan Clumpner questioned how the Housing Commission would figure out whether it was actually meeting the need for rental assistance.

“How should we think about measuring success if we fast forward six to eight months here?” Clumpner said. “This is a lot of money. It’s easy to imagine we don’t have the money spent fast enough. The explanation could be that not enough people need the assistance, or it could be that we’re not doing a great job of delivering it and on the back end. It could be difficult to sort out whether this was a huge success and failure when looking at the same circumstances down the road.”

“We’re doing everything we know to do,” said Rick Gentry, CEO of the Housing Commission. “We did everything we knew how to do last year, quite frankly. And we got feedback, we’ve upped the game and we continue to improve, and I suspect in five years from now we’ll be doing a better job than we’re doing.”

Clumpner implored Housing Commission staff to find external measures of the potential need in the city, or in other words, ways to estimate how many people might owe back rent, so if the commission didn’t spend all the money allocated to the program, the city could determine why.

But there is “not rock-solid data out there” on how much rent hasn’t been paid, said Jeff Davis, the deputy CEO of the Housing Commission, during the meeting.

“What we’re seeing is there is not a lot of people way behind on their rent,” Davis said. “The vast majority of people are showing us three-to-six months behind on rent and same with utility rears. This idea that there may not be the need out there to expend all these funds is a very real possibility, which again is why I think outreach is so incredibly important.”

Indeed, there isn’t data on how many people are behind on rent payments, but there is other data that indicates that there may actually be a greater need.

The Housing Commission started an interest list for the second rental assistance program on Feb. 4, and 11,510 individuals signed up.

Housing Commissioner Mitch Mitchell, who is also the vice president of state government affairs and external affairs at SDG&E (and a member of Voice of San Diego’s Board of Directors), noted in the February meeting that data exists detailing how many residents are behind on paying their utilities – and that the number is “significant.”

“I will almost guarantee that the number of people [behind] on utilities are probably [behind] on their rent,” Mitchell said during the hearing.

More than 69,600 people in San Diego County were behind on their water bill, according to a report published by the California State Water Resources Control Board in January. The areas where people are struggling most include City Heights, Encanto and Otay Mesa.

Encanto, for example, had 5,669 people behind on their water bills – 1,220 of whom owed more than $1,000. As of April 16, only 323 people in the Encanto ZIP code had applied for rental assistance via the city’s second program. Only 278 applied to the first round of assistance.

Even with the moratoriums in place, some evictions – or unlawful detainers – have been filed in court and could be an indication of the evictions on the horizon once the bans are lifted. Homelessness has also increased in the past year, which indicates that an increased number of people have experienced housing insecurity during the pandemic.

Between Jan. 1, 2020, and April 5, 2021, landlords have filed 3,652 residential unlawful detainers – or eviction cases – in San Diego Superior Court.

A new report from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless shows that 38,023 people received some form of housing and services from the homeless provider system, and noted that the number of people entering homelessness for the first time in 2020 doubled from 2019, likely at least in part due to the pandemic.

Right now there’s no real benchmark to measure the need for rental assistance, but there will be eventually, Clumpner said in the February hearing.

“If there’s a crushing wave of evictions that fall within this scope and we had money left over, that would be quite the unfortunate situation to find ourselves in,” he said.

The Outreach Challenge

For the first rental assistance program last year, the Housing Commission ran radio and television ads in English and Spanish, and collaborated with community-based organizations and 211 San Diego to aid households that don’t have internet access or have other barriers to filling out the application. The agency also created and distributed fliers in English and Spanish to community organizations, distributed press releases to the media and provided suggested social media posts to community organizations and local officials to share through their social media accounts.

The commission, along with City Council members, has been trying to improve outreach efforts with this second round of assistance, with particular focuses on City Council Districts 4, 8 and 9, which include some of the city’s most traditionally underserved and needy communities.

“We tried to learn as much as we can. This is a really tough thing to do, and we want to try to make sure that we’re getting to everyone who needs assistance,” said Montgomery Steppe.

This time, the Housing Commission sent texts and emails to approximately 11,510 households that had signed up to receive notifications. It also continued running radio and television ads and distributing fliers. The Housing Commission also ran ads on billboards, bus benches, in community newspapers and inside trolleys and buses in both English and Spanish. The Public Utilities Department and SDG&E included inserts for the program in their bills. The city sent informational postcards to approximately 170,000 households in the 10 city of San Diego ZIP codes with the highest COVID-19 rates. The Housing Commission also worked with some unions and the San Diego Unified School District to get the word out, and sent emails to the more than 90,000 households on the Section 8 waiting list.

Community organizations, local politicians and the Housing Commission have also gone door to door in some hard-to-reach communities.

But even with the information push, residents still must apply to receive assistance. And two of the biggest barriers to doing so have been internet access and technological literacy. The applications are mostly online.

“The digital divide is very real,” Montgomery Steppe said. “The application may be a little bit onerous, especially for folks who do not have direct access to the Internet.”

Nancy Maldonado, CEO of the Chicano Federation, one of the organizations helping with outreach and applications, said her staff struggles to help people fill out applications over the phone because they often don’t have computers and the application can’t be filled out on a mobile phone.

Some people who need to come to the Chicano Federation offices to get assistance also have transportation issues.

Casa Familiar, an organization in San Ysidro that is also helping with outreach and applications, has two staffers helping people with tech issues related to the applications.

“Some people don’t even have an email or know how to navigate a computer,” said Yessenia Sanchez, who leads Casa Familiar’s Financial Opportunity Center.

Volunteers prepare to distribute information about the COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance Program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Sanchez said language has also been an issue. The Housing Commission has provided many materials in both Spanish and English, but Casa Familiar serves many people who have limited literacy in both languages. The group ended up making its own fliers in both languages, using simpler terminology.

There’s also been confusion over who qualifies for assistance that may be keeping people from applying.

The name of the program – Housing Stability Assistance – has caused some confusion, Montgomery Steppe said, because some people assume it’s for people with mortgages, not those paying rent.

Since prior iterations of rental assistance haven’t been available to unauthorized immigrants – the current city program is available to people regardless of immigration status – Sanchez and Maldonado noted that some immigrants don’t think they are eligible.

The hassles aren’t just affecting participation in the program in San Diego. Latinos have been underrepresented among people applying for rent relief statewide. About 57 percent of the state’s renters are Latino, the Sacramento Bee reported, but just 35 percent of the tenants who have applied for the state’s COVID-19 rent relief program identify as Latino.

Sanchez and Maldonado also noted that a broader mistrust of government and government assistance is also at play, especially among immigrant communities. Although the program is open to people regardless of immigration status, some are concerned that receiving government assistance could impact their ability to get green cards or just generally don’t trust the government.

Elo-Rivera said that distrust is why it is so important residents hear about these programs through trusted messengers, like community organizations they already work with.

“The rental assistance program, if the message isn’t coming from the right person, can sound too good to be true,” he said. “Something could sound like a scam if it isn’t coming from someone you trust.”

City Heights, in District 9, has had a far higher number of applications than other high-needs areas. Elo-Rivera, who represents the district, believes it’s because the area is home to an established group of nonprofit organizations that can assist with outreach.

As of December, City Heights had a 10 percent unemployment rate – at the higher end for the region. Members of the community have submitted 858 applications for rental assistance as of April 16. In the first round, 905 applications came from City Heights.

Other parts of the city – and even other parts of District 9 – don’t have an established nonprofit infrastructure, which can help bridge the gap between government and marginalized communities. But even other organizations have examples of how they are more trusted than local government.

Maldonado said the Chicano Federation runs its own flexible assistance program and has noted that even though it offers less money than the government-funded program, many people will opt for its program instead.

Casa Familiar also has its own funding program and says it has provided assistance to about 180 people since late January. Again, it’s a smaller amount of money, but the program received more applications from the San Ysidro ZIP code than either of the city’s rental assistance programs. In the first round of assistance, the Housing Commission received 141 applications from San Ysidro. In the second round, it has received 170 as of April 16.

Sanchez said Casa Familiar also designed its funding program to fill some of the gaps in the government assistance. For example, many people in San Ysidro live in multifamily households – where families may be living in the same home, but paying rent separately to a landlord.

The city’s program won’t allow more than one family per household to receive assistance. Casa Familiar’s program will.

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