Steve has been living in his Encinitas home since 2017. When he moved there, it was advertised as a “beach cottage,” but in reality it’s just a 325-square foot, one-bedroom trailer.
The fifty-one year old, who requested inewsource withhold his last name, lives there with his youngest son, who is 12. He settled there after he got the opportunity for his child to live with him full time — he’s in the bedroom, so Steve is on the couch.
While the place was a little expensive for his means, it didn’t matter to Steve since his son was able to go to a good school, where he’s finally thriving. But when the pandemic hit, he lost his job working in television and paying rent became difficult.
“I was not in the best position (to know) what to do next,” he said. “I’ve done one thing for so many years … I (didn’t) know how to get back into the workforce.”
He applied for San Diego County’s Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, receiving help for a month’s rent at the end of 2021. He applied again for April through June of this year, getting approved for help over the summer.
Late last month, however, thousands of tenants like Steve received emails from the county notifying them that the rental assistance they had been approved for — covering April through June — would not be paid. Now, many are facing eviction.
The county’s ERA program was implemented last year to help tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic stay in their homes, funded by money received from the state and federal governments.
The county received about $107 million in funds last year to implement its ERA program, which prioritized low-income households significantly impacted by the pandemic.
Given the county’s participation in the state’s program, the timing of coverage eligibility was limited to months prior to March 31 of this year. The federal funds the county received could have been used for later months, but those had been depleted with previous rounds of ERA.
Despite this, San Diego County continued to accept applications for the months of April through June, without knowing if any funding would be available.
Show me the money
“All of the applicants that have pending requests for April, May, or June 2022 have been notified that currently there is no available funding for those months,” county spokesperson Tim McClain said in an email to inewsource. “The County will process awards if and when funding is available for their application.”
Some 3,700 tenants in the region applied to the ERA program for April through June, according to the county. About 2,000 of those applicants were residents who had received money for previous months.
This comes as rental costs have spiked in the region and the majority of eviction moratoriums enacted at the beginning of the pandemic have expired.
The City of San Diego is one of the only municipalities in the region that has a moratorium on eviction remaining in place, applying to tenants with rental debt accrued after July 1. The protection does not cover those with debt predating July.
County officials said in emails with tenants and inewsource that they are still waiting on additional federal funding to cover aid for those months promised to tenants. They stated that when it does become available, it would be dispersed to those approved. However, it remains unclear whether or not there are any pending federal funds.
Nonetheless, tenants who were expecting that money to come are now scrambling to figure out how to stay in their homes.
Patricia Mendoza, an Imperial Beach tenant who was approved for ERA to cover months after March, is still not sure how she is going to pay off the backed-up rent on the apartment she’s lived in since 2017. She said it’s difficult to make ends meet for her and her two children after being laid off from her non-emergency medical transport job in 2020.
“What do I do now? It’s three grand,” Mendoza said referring to the amount of money she was supposed to receive. “I can’t pay like three grand just like that.”
Steve, the Encinitas resident, found himself trying to scrounge money together to cover those months he was expecting aid for, selling and pawning his stuff to make sure he and his son didn’t get kicked out.
“I’m screwed,” he said. “I’m in a panic, because every once in a while the realization just sort of washes over you and hits you like a really big wave or something … just, ‘Oh God, what am I gonna do?’”
Crucial relief, when?
Rental assistance has been a lifeline for many tenants throughout the pandemic, clearing debts and staving off eviction for tenants experiencing economic hardship during an uncertain time.
In San Diego County, unemployment rates during the pandemic hit levels higher than those seen during the 1991 and 2008 recessions, according to a SANDAG reportpublished last year.
Rent relief programs were introduced countrywide to help address the issues that came up because of household income loss, funded primarily by the federal American Rescue Act of 2021. States, as well as local governments, received money through this legislation to run programs aimed at relieving the burden of pandemic-related rental debt.
Across California, local governments had a couple options for how they chose to run their ERA programs: the state’s department of Housing and Community Development could administer it on their behalf, the local entity could take their portion of funds for ERA and run it entirely on its own, or they could opt for a hybrid program.
San Diego County implemented a hybrid program, accepting about $107 million in the first round of funding from both the state and federal governments. Because of that, the county’s program was subject to stipulations implemented by the state for the program.
Timing of coverage eligibility, in particular, was established at the state level. When the program was launched last year, it was initially set to only cover rent up until June 30, 2021.
Shortly after, the federal government made a second round of ERA funds available to the state, prompting the legislature to extend coverage through March 31 of this year.
As part of the legislation that established ERA, the state also introduced other measures to protect tenants from eviction, such as a moratorium on eviction due to nonpayment of rent relating to COVID-19 hardships.
These measures prohibited landlords from evicting tenants based on nonpayment of rent, including those who had a processing application for an ERA program — however, those protections preempted any set on a county level prior to its expiration on June 30.
Given these regulations, ERA was not guaranteed for the months of April through June, as the only way the county could fund the relief was through federal money provided through a reallocation process that took unused money and redistributed it to governments that used up all their funds. San Diego County was one of them.
They kept the application open past the deadline set by the state’s program allowing for tenants to apply for the months of April through June — planning to use federal funds to cover the assistance. However, those funds never came, while many of the eviction moratoriums lapsed.
“The programs were hopeful that they might be able to pay some of that off through the redistribution process,” said staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Gilberto Vera. “Once the programs knew that they weren’t getting any more funds or that the money they got wasn’t gonna cover the applications, they started notifying tenants that they were not gonna pay any rental assistance.”
The county said in emails with both inewsource and tenants that they are still “actively applying” to the federal government for money to cover rental assistance for these months.
Shell-shocked and paralyzed
Given the regulations on the state’s cashflow program, the months of April through June were not guaranteed for ERA coverage.
Tenants, however, said it was not made clear during the application and review processes that funding for those months would not be available.
Many expressed to inewsource that they were “shell-shocked” and confused when they received the email from the county notifying them that there was no money that could be distributed to cover the months they were approved for.
Prior to the county’s closing of the application on March 31, the landing page for the application portal said that assistance would be contingent on availability of funds; however, there was no mention of the county not funding April through June while accepting applications for those months.
It wasn’t until sometime between March 20 and April 12 that the website was updated to include a statement about how the county “will no longer provide rent and utility assistance for the month of April 2022 and beyond.”
According to the county, about 3,200 of the 3,700 applications requesting ERA for April through June were submitted during the last two weeks the application was open.
Communication was also limited between the county and residents who applied to the program, according to applicants inewsource interviewed. Some expressed frustration that the case worker assigned to their application was often difficult to get a hold of and few updates were given about the status of the process.
When tenants who applied to the program were able to get ahold of someone regarding their application, they said the case worker on the other end did not make it clear that their aid was contingent on money the county did not have yet.
“They told me I was gonna be approved … We (were) waiting,” said Joyce, a Spring Valley resident who also asked for her last name to be withheld. Joyce owes about $3,000 to her landlord for these months and is now working two jobs, with multiple shifts a day to pay it off.
“I did have interaction with them and they were assuring me that, ‘Yes, you’re going to get this.’”
Mendoza said she called her case manager numerous times to make sure her application was all set. According to her, neither herself or her landlord were made aware that those months of rental assistance might not come.
“My case manager … she always said, ‘Oh no, you’re approved. It’s just pending,’” Mendoza said of her conversations with her case manager. “Why (weren’t) we told about this the times we spoke to (her) about my situation.”
For some of these tenants, the first time they were told that April through June would not be paid for was when they received the email in late September about the county’s lack of funding to cover those requested months of assistance.
Steve, the Encinitas resident, tried calling the county after receiving his notice to get some answers about what to do now that he’s facing eviction. He described getting transferred from department to department before having to hang up and call back.
“I eventually ended up getting someone who basically just said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you,’” he recalled. “I (feel) paralyzed … I’m alone. It’s just me and my son against the world and there’s nowhere for me to go.”
Homeless and/or bust
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the possibility of eviction due to economic hardships caused by COVID-19 has been an emerging threat for many tenants.
A 2021 report from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that during the first year and a half of the pandemic renters in California owed nearly $400 million in unpaid rent, with the average household that has debt owing about $4,500.
More than two years into the pandemic, that hardship continues to be felt by Californians. Nearly one in seven residents remain behind on rent and one in four feel they will be evicted in the next two months, according to an August survey conducted by the Census Bureau.
Advocates warn that an eviction crisis is on the horizon.
“We don’t have adequate protection (or) successful state programs in place,” said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director of Tenants Together. “We’re gonna be dealing with the repercussions of this on homelessness and on indebtedness for years to come.”
San Diego County has acknowledged this threat in the past. In a 2020 letter obtained by inewsource last year, county supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Gregory Cox wrote of a “looming eviction crisis that could leave many San Diegans homeless.”
But for tenants, that danger became a reality when the rental assistance programs ended.
The number of eviction cases filed have been steadily increasing over the last few months, largely returning to pre-pandemic levels.
“Nobody wants to (evict) somebody, but it’s a business relationship and — depending on the housing provider’s circumstances — they may need to have that unit vacated so they can get somebody in who can pay so they can keep and maintain their property,” said Molly Kirkland, director of public affairs for the Southern California Rental Housing Association.
“If housing providers don’t have the income to operate their properties, then they don’t have the shelter to provide,” she continued.
The county court this year has seen as many as 935 cases filed in the month of August for evictions with rental debt under $25,000 — about 506 of those were against individuals who could have been eligible for COVID-related financial assistance.
“We’re just one step away from being homeless,” said Jamie Thompson, a resident in the City of San Diego. Thompson, who has been living in her home for about 21 years, said she is now waiting for her landlord to serve her an eviction notice after not being able to receive rental assistance earlier this year.
“It was a lifesaving measure that was absolutely necessary,” she continued. “When they pulled the plug, nobody was ready for it.”
Since the expiration of most of the eviction protections, the need for legal services has skyrocketed — overwhelming organizations like Legal Aid, which was offered to applicants by the county in their September email notifying them that there was no funding for ERA.
“It’s been a massive demand for our services,” Vera said. “Now, we’re kind of going back to how it was before (the pandemic) with a lot of tenants being vulnerable to homelessness, (because they) no longer have the protections they had (or) rental assistance. Us attorneys, we can only do so much given the laws to keep our tenants housed.”
Studies have shown that evictions are a leading contributor to the homelessness crisis, particularly when formal or informal support — such as rental assistance — is not available to ensure housing stability.
As officials nationwide struggle to address the growing number of unhoused individuals, advocates stress that it is more important than ever to make sure that tenants have protection from housing displacement.
“It’s far more cost effective to the taxpayer to do everything to keep a tenant in their home,” Singh said. “Once somebody becomes homeless, it is a lot harder to get them back in a house.”
Why this matters
Eviction is one of the leading contributors to homelessness. High rates of eviction could undermine efforts to combat the homelessness crisis, which is one of the most pressing issues for residents and government officials in San Diego County.
Danielle Dawson is a reporting intern for inewsource through a partnership between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute for Nonprofit News. Originally from San Diego, she joined the newsroom after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree.
By agreement, The Grapevine was one of the first news groups publishing investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit http://inewsource.org/about