Marin County Helps Tenants Navigate State Rental Assistance Program

I tried entering $2.4 billion into my iPhone calculator. There aren’t enough spaces for all the zeros.

That’s the whopping amount California tenants owe in back rent to landlords, according to Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW! California. The bulk of the past-due amount is attributable to job and income loss during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“An estimated 1.5 million California families, front-line workers and low-wage earners are behind on their rent due to the economic fallout of this pandemic,” said California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency Secretary Lourdes Castro Ramirez.

Even with its vast wealth, Marin didn’t escape the pandemic’s financial hit. More than 3,000 people, predominantly residents of color, have contacted the County for help with unpaid rent related to the pandemic, reports the Marin County Community Development Agency. Fifty-five percent of those residents in need are Latinx, and 7% are Black.

As we emerge from lockdown, there is good news for both tenants and landlords. State legislation and federal funding have paved the way for rental relief.

To protect renters from losing their homes, the State of California stepped in and enacted legislation, Senate Bill 91, which bans evictions for non-payment of rent related to the pandemic through June 30, 2021. SB 91 also established the State Rental Assistance Program to distribute the $2.6 billion that California received in federal rental assistance.

“Once again, California is leading the way by enacting the strongest eviction protections in the nation, which will provide relief for millions of Californians dealing with financial difficulties as a result of Covid-19,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom when he signed SB 91 into law at the end of January.

To avoid eviction, a renter must submit a signed declaration to the landlord stating they have experienced pandemic-related financial distress. In addition, by June 30, the tenant needs to pay the landlord 25% of the total rent due from September 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. Once the landlord receives these two requirements, a renter is protected from eviction through June 30, 2021.

Fortunately, funds are now available to help Marin’s low-income renters pay their back rent. The state allocated $16 million in rental aid to Marin County. Since the program opened in March, the County has distributed more than $736,000 to renters and landlords. The funds may be used to pay back rent and utilities.

The application process for funding is complicated. There are eligibility requirements and the requisite paperwork, but the County is trying to make it as simple as possible, for both tenants and landlords, by offering an online application and two in-person events to help people apply for the money.

“Not everyone has internet access, and we really hope the in-person events address the digital divide that some of our landlords and renters are facing,” said Leelee Thomas, planning manager for the Marin County Community Development Agency.

To qualify for assistance, you must be a low-income Marin County renter earning 80% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI) who has been financially impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and owes back rent. For example, in Marin, a family of four with a household income of $146,350 or less is eligible for rental assistance.

“Right now, we’re only serving people at 30% of AMI or less, and then we’ll get to higher incomes later in the process,” Thomas said.

Basically, that means the lower your income, the more quickly you will receive rental assistance funds. However, qualified applicants are urged to submit their applications as soon as possible, and to be patient.

There are other important aspects to the program. Renters and landlords may apply to receive 80% of back rent that was due between April 1, 2020, and March 30, 2021.

Both the renter and the landlord must apply for the funds to qualify, although they do not need to complete their portions of the application together. The County database system matches up the paperwork.

To tap into the available funding, the landlord must agree to forgive the remaining 20% of the past due rent. This essentially wipes out a renter’s entire debt for the 12-month period.

While most Marin property owners agree to the terms, landlords can reject the 80-20 deal and reserve their right to attempt to collect the entire debt from their tenants. The County only knows of two Marin landlords who have taken this position, according to Thomas.

Some assistance is also available for renters whose landlords refuse to participate in the 80-20 program. The County can pay tenants 25% of the back rent they owe, which is the minimum amount tenants must pay their landlords to prevent eviction.

In this situation, the fine print gets complex. A landlord can go to court and get a money judgement against the renter for the remaining 75% of the unpaid rent. The past-due amount becomes consumer credit debt, like a credit card, and will likely mar the person’s credit report. The tenant may even be required to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees.

Although the renters are on the hook legally for the remaining rent balance, they are still protected from eviction—as long as 25% of the total rent due from September 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021 has been paid.

“It’s important to know your rights as a tenant,” Legal Aid of Marin Attorney Lucie Hollingsworth said. “As long as you submit your declaration and pay 25% of the total rent owed, you can’t be harassed. Your landlord or property owner can’t keep asking you for rent.”

Once the eviction moratorium ends on June 30, a renter is then responsible for 100% of the monthly rent going forward, or a landlord may initiate eviction proceedings. The eviction process in Marin can move quickly, beginning with the landlord providing the renter with a three-day notice to pay. If rent still isn’t paid, an unlawful detainer is served, and the renter only has five days to provide an answer. It can be especially difficult for seniors and non-English speakers, Hollingsworth says.

More relief from the State may be coming. This week, Newsom announced a new proposal for another $5 billion in rental assistance, which could pay up to 100% of back rent, and $2 billion to help pay overdue utility bills.

“Sit tight, learn your rights, and seek help from Legal Aid of Marin or any of the other partner agencies in Marin that are working with tenants,” Hollingsworth said. “Help is on the way.”


Rental Assistance Program Events:

Wednesday, May 19, 4–8pm

Sunday, May 23, 10am to 3pm

Marin County Civic Center Exhibit Hall in San Rafael

Bring a copy of your photo ID, income documentation and proof of tenancy.

Translation services in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese will be provided.

Nikki Silverstein
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