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CA must stop denying emergency rental assistance applications

California cannot reject tenants’ applications for COVID-19 emergency rental assistance after a renter lawsuit raised questions about whether the state program meets constitutional standards.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge on Thursday ruled the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) can’t deny pending applications for rent relief “until the court can determine if HCD’s process meets constitutional due process standards,” according to a Western Center on Law and Poverty news release.

“Over the past few months, I’ve worked with hundreds of tenants who received a denial with little to no explanation and are terrified about losing their homes,” said Patricia Mendoza, organizer at the tenants’ rights group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “I’m just so relieved to see the judge take action to address this problem, and to give families a fighting chance to receive the rent relief they are due.”

The group teamed with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and research institute PolicyLink to sue HCD in June, claiming the rent relief program denied funds to hundreds of thousands of renters without explaining why or providing them with chances to appeal.

They also said language barriers made it more challenging for non-English speakers to communicate with HCD while applying for relief funds, leading to disproportionately negative outcomes.

“We stand by the work we have done to keep more than 340,000 low-income households — over 700,000 Californians — stably housed through the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief Program and will continue to do what we can to support Californians in need of assistance,” said Alicia Murillo, an HCD spokeswoman, in response to the decision. “We are disappointed by the court’s ruling and will continue to defend California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program.”

California’s rent relief program

California started its rent relief program in March 2021 to help eligible tenants pay off back rent that accumulated during the pandemic.

HCD administers the program, which closed to new applications on March 31.

During the year and a half the program has been active, it’s provided more than $3.9 billion in rental assistance to more than 340,000 tenant households throughout the state, according to HCD data.

Relief recipients have gotten an average of $11,690 per household.

But backlogs, and long applications requiring lots of documents have frustrated tenants and the nonprofits and social service agencies that have helped them seek funds.

The California Legislature in March extended eviction protections for applicants still waiting for their relief money, but they expired on June 30.

That means there are still likely tenants living in fear of eviction while still waiting to have their relief applications processed.

HCD had also denied about 33% of the tenant applications it reviewed, as of June 23, according to the Western Center news release.

The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency reported in late June that 30,000 Sacramento County households applied for rent relief but didn’t receive any funding, according to a Sacramento Bee story.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Lindsey Holden covers the California Legislature for the Sacramento Bee. She previously reported on housing and local government for the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the Bee’s sister paper. Lindsey started her career at the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. She’s a native Californian raised in the Midwest, where she earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.

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