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New rent relief is on the way for L.A. tenants and landlords. Here’s how to apply

Activists on a sidewalk hold signs, including one that says, "Stop COVID-19. Keep everyone housed."
Tenants rights activists assemble in El Monte in March 2020. Eviction protections that began early in the pandemic will phase out soon.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Oct. 1 is a crucial day for California residents who have fallen behind on their rent because of the pandemic. That’s when the state’s lengthy moratorium on evictions will start to expire, allowing landlords to seek the removal of tenants who have failed to pay what they owe.

Tenants will have to meet either of two conditions to avoid being tossed out:

  1. Pay the new rent in full and cover at least 25% of the rent they haven’t paid since September 2020;
  2. Be enrolled in a rental assistance program offered by the state or their local government.

The good news for tenants and landlords in Los Angeles is that they soon will be able to apply for the state’s Housing Is Key emergency rental assistance program, which can cover 100% of back rent as well as three months of future payments. Housing Is Key could help far more people than the rental assistance program the city offered earlier this year, which stopped taking applications at the end of April. Here’s what you need to know about the aid and how to apply for it.

What help is available?

The federal government has allocated California a total of $5.2 billion for COVID-related rental assistance, and a state law enacted in June (Assembly Bill 832) authorized the state to pay 100% of a qualified tenant’s unpaid rent dating to April 2020. The state had previously covered 80% of a tenant’s rent debt; now, anyone approved for aid under the earlier program will automatically have the remaining 20% paid as well.

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If you still have trouble making rent payments after receiving the state’s help, you can apply for aid again.

Landlords participating in the program will receive the rent payments directly from the state. The aid is considered taxable income for the landlord but not the tenant. For landlords who aren’t participating, the state will send the aid to the tenants (who still would not be taxed on it), who must agree to then pay it to their landlords. Failing to do so would constitute fraud, and Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state department that oversees the program, noted that state officials have the means to check whether landlords get paid.

The program also covers unpaid utility bills dating to April 2020, but the state will pay no more than 12 months of utility bills for any applicant. That money will go directly to the utility companies, assuming they participate.

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Who qualifies?

The relief is available for people living in rented homes, apartment units or mobile homes, subject to two main eligibility rules.

First, tenants have to attest that they suffered a financial hardship related to COVID-19, such as lost wages or increased medical or child-care expenses. (A full list can be found on the Housing Is Key website.) Applicants don’t have to provide evidence of the hardship, but false claims would expose an applicant to charges of perjury and, potentially, fraud.

For the record:

9:57 a.m. Sept. 1, 2021An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Housing Is Key applicants in L.A. County had to earn less than $44,800 for a single individual or $64,000 for a family of four. The correct amounts are $66,250 for a single individual and $94,600 for a family of four.

Second, applicants cannot earn more than 80% of the area median income, which means that Los Angeles County tenants must earn less than $66,250 for an individual or $94,600 for a family of four. When the city of Los Angeles offered emergency rental assistance in April, the cutoff was 30% of the area median income, or less than half the state’s limit. The state will calculate income eligibility.

California tenants who are noncitizens are eligible for the program as long as they meet the two requirements.

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Landlords can also apply for aid, but they’ll need the cooperation of their tenants, who will have to provide the attestation and paperwork required by the state.

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When and how can you apply?

People who live in the city of Los Angeles can apply online at Housing Is Key as soon as Wednesday. Tenants and landlords in other cities participating in the state program can apply immediately, but some cities continue to run their own programs with their own application processes on their local websites. Long Beach is one example. To find out if your city is participating in the state program, consult this map at Housing Is Key.

After the passage of AB 832, the state reduced the paperwork required to obtain help with rent debt. If you’re a tenant seeking relief, you’ll need to submit a copy of one of the following:

  • Your 2020 tax return;
  • Your 2020 W2 or, if you were unemployed, your 1099G;
  • Your current pay stubs;
  • Proof that you participated in a state or federal safety net program, such as CalFresh (your 2020 or 2021 acceptance or renewal letter is preferred).

The state says it’s possible to apply without that paperwork, though, as long as the applicant can provide proof of identity. For help with utilities, applicants need to submit “utility invoices or statements for any unpaid utility, water, trash, and internet bills after April 1, 2020,” according to the Housing Is Key site.

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The paperwork burden on landlords is a bit heavier. To qualify, you are expected to submit copies of all of the following:

  • The lease or rental agreement reflecting the renter’s name, residence address and monthly rent due;
  • A rent ledger or rent statement showing the balance of unpaid rent from April 1, 2020;
  • Your W-8 or W-9, if you received one.

As with tenant applicants, landlords unable to provide any of these documents may still apply and work with the state on other ways to verify their claims.

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Is the state actually paying claims?

State and local rental assistance programs didn’t open for business until March, and then they were slow to distribute aid. By mid-May, claims had been approved for less than 10% of the money available, and some of the approved claims had not yet been paid.

The state has ramped up its efforts considerably since then and has streamlined the application process, although a large backlog remains. As of Tuesday morning, the state had completed review of a little more than two-thirds of the 169,000 applications received, and had paid $426 million in claims on behalf of 36,000 households, or an average of about $11,800 per claim. Heimerich said the state should clear the backlog within two weeks, at which point it hopes to pay claims within 30 days of a qualified application being submitted.

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How do I avoid eviction?

If you’re behind on your rent, a landlord seeking to evict you has to send a notice giving you 15 business days to submit a form certifying that you have suffered from “COVID-19-related financial distress” that prevents you from paying the rent in full. If your landlord has records showing that your income is more than $100,000 and more than 130% of the area median income — for example, more than $130,000 for a family of four — your landlord can demand to see proof of the hardship you’re claiming.

With the state’s eviction moratorium expiring Sept. 30, the main protection for those unable to pay the October rent in full and at least 25% of the rent debt they’ve accrued since September 2020 is to apply for the state’s emergency assistance program. Once you’ve applied, your landlord’s eviction claim cannot proceed unless and until your application is rejected.

Your landlord can, however, still try to collect the rent you owe by taking you to small claims court. Under AB 832, those claims can start to be filed on Nov. 1. A list of organizations providing free legal advice on evictions in L.A. County is available from LawHelpCA.org.

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When will the program end?

The state aid will be available until the funding runs out. The National Equity Atlas, a joint project by the PolicyLink research and advocacy group and USC’s Equity Research Institute, estimated that Californians owed $2.8 billion in rent debt, or about half the total the state has received in federal rent assistance grants.

Where can I get help with my application?

Housing Is Key offers a hotline — (833) 687-0967 — and a list of organizations in each county that can provide guidance, computers and internet access.

Here are some other resources:

If you’re like most people in Southern California, you live in a rental.

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