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Californians behind on their rent can still get help. But you need to apply now

People hold up signs in support of rent relief outside Los Angeles City Hall.
People hold up signs in support of rent relief outside Los Angeles City Hall on April 20, 2020.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

If you missed rent payments because of the pandemic, the window to apply for state help in paying what you owe has closed.

California’s Housing Is Key program was set up to pay all of the rent debt that eligible renters had run up since April 2020. Landlords could apply too if their tenants met the program’s criteria and provided the necessary paperwork. And if a tenant has an application pending, the landlord can’t seek to evict you before July for any rent debt you amassed from March 2020 to March 2022.

The state announced in mid-March, however, that the program would stop accepting applications on March 31. Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the program is running short of funds, which is why it’s shutting down.

As of March 29, the state had received more than 480,000 completed applications and distributed more than $2.3 billion on behalf of almost 206,000 households. The grants, which can cover unpaid rent and utility bills, are averaging $11,508.

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But there’s no shortage of other tenants with rent debt. The National Equity Atlas, a joint effort by the USC Equity Institute and PolicyLink, estimated that 740,000 California households owed more than $3.5 billion in unpaid rent as of early February.

The program’s rent relief goes directly to landlords if they participate; if not, the aid goes to renters, who are obliged to pay it to their landlords.

What follows is an explanation of how to determine if the state’s program was able to help you and of the application process. But the application window is now closed.

Who qualifies for help?

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 them to charges of perjury and, potentially, fraud.

Second, applicants cannot earn more than 80% of the area median income, which in Los Angeles County is $66,250 for an individual and $94,600 for a family of four. The program’s online application form will show you what the income limit is for your household.

California tenants who are not U.S. citizens are eligible for the program as long as they meet the two requirements.

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.

People who live in the city of Los Angeles and other communities participating in the state program can apply online at Housing Is Key. Some cities, though, 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.

What you need to apply

The state requires little paperwork 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 W-2 and, if you were unemployed, your 1099-G;
  • Your current pay stubs;
  • Proof that you participated in a state or federal safety net program, such as CalFresh (preferably, an acceptance or renewal letter from 2020 or 2021).

For help with money you owe for utilities, trash removal and internet service, you’ll need to submit copies of your bills.

The state says it’s possible to apply without that paperwork, though, as long as the applicant can provide proof of identity.

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.

Can I be evicted?

The state rent relief program can provide at least a temporary shield against eviction for renters who moved in before Oct. 1. Under a new state law (Assembly Bill 2179), a landlord must wait until July 1 to seek to evict tenants who fell behind on their rent between March 2020 and March 2022 unless the landlord has applied to Housing Is Key and has been denied, or unless the tenants have not informed the landlord that they’ve applied to the program.

The city of Los Angeles has its own eviction moratorium that’s scheduled to continue at least until April 1, 2023.

L.A. County also adopted tenant protections that guarded at least some renters affected by COVID against eviction for failing to pay their rent in the remaining months of 2022. But AB 2179, which was signed into law March 31, preempted the county’s ordinance.

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:


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