Los Angeles tenant groups are suing California’s housing department, alleging that the state’s decision to wind down its rent relief program on April 1 unlawfully cut off applicants waiting for funds and put them at risk of eviction.
California’s Housing and Community Development Department stopped taking new rent relief applications at the end of March. It also denied requests from April onward. The program had previously distributed relief for “prospective” rent that applicants couldn’t pay.
Renter advocates say that decision left many tenants facing eviction, because they couldn’t pay April rent and weren’t aware the state’s rent relief program would no longer cover future debts.
“That’s really contrary to the purpose of the program,” said Public Counsel staff attorney Greg Bonett, one of the lawyers representing Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the groups that filed the lawsuit Wednesday.
“The program is supposed to prevent evictions and stabilize households,” he said. “It’s supposed to cover 100% of the rent debt that accrued during the pandemic.”
SAJE and ACCE have been assisting low-income L.A. tenants in the rent relief application process, which has proven confusing for many — especially those with language barriers and limited home internet access.
The tenant organizations say the state has failed to make good on promises that qualified applicants would receive funds covering 100% of their pandemic rent debt, up to 18 months.
The state announced its March 31 deadline about a month in advance. Renter advocates say many applicants still experiencing pandemic-related hardships only learned that their requests for help in April and beyond would be denied when they logged into their online accounts to see those months wiped out.
According to U.S. Census survey data from early April, about 48,000 households in the L.A. area who were still waiting for their rent relief applications to be processed said they were not at all confident they could pay next month’s rent.
Tenants who applied in early 2022 suddenly found themselves cut off. And many have already received eviction notices, said plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Jager of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
The statute is clear that tenants who are in this situation are entitled to their April and May rent payments.
— Plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Jager
“The statute is clear that tenants who are in this situation are entitled to their April and May rent payments,” he said. “The department is not following state law in not paying those months.”
State housing department spokesperson Nur Kausar said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But she noted that the state’s rent relief program has so far delivered more than $3 billion to households throughout California.
“We continue to process applications that were received by March 31,” Kausar wrote in an email. “This program was designed to be a temporary support and we stand by the work to date that kept Californians housed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The lawsuit is not seeking to force California to reopen its rent relief program to new applicants. Rather, it seeks an injunction ordering the state to cover all the rent debt sought by tenants who got their applications in on time.
Jager said the state committed to pay these applicants. He argued the department’s decision to cut off assistance beyond March was arbitrary. He said it would be a policy failure to let landlords collect government-funded rent relief, and then turn around and evict those very same tenants over failure to pay rent starting in April.
“If the goal of the rental assistance program was to prevent eviction, the state and the department now have taken a position that is allowing tenants who are in the program to still be evicted,” he said.
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