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Housing

$16M rent relief program for Santa Cruz County tenants, landlords launches — but not without snafus

To apply or verify eligibility for the rent relief program, applicants can visit HousingIsKey.com. While the program was meant to fully launch Monday, some local community partners say the effort did not go smoothly.

Beginning Monday, Santa Cruz County tenants and landlords struggling financially amid the pandemic will be able to apply for a share of more than $16 million in federal funds.

The money is “available to low-income renters and landlords impacted by the pandemic to help with rent, utilities and home energy costs; rent and utilities arrears; and related housing costs for eligible participants,” the county said in a news release.

But while the program was meant to fully launch Monday, some local community partners say the effort did not go off without a hitch, with online applications slow to appear on the state’s website and contracts with partners still not finalized.

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Background on the program

County supervisors last month approved the county’s participation in the new state-led rental assistance program. That move meant the county — through a reimbursement agreement with the state — would commit an $8.1 million federal grant it received in mid-January to the state program to obtain an additional aid allocation of about $8.8 million.

Though the program will be administered through the state, the county’s funds will be reserved for eligible residents in unincorporated Santa Cruz County as well as all four of its cities.

“Renters with household income at or below 80 percent of area median income are eligible, with priority for households at or below 50 percent of area median income,” county officials wrote in the release.

The income levels eligible for the program vary on the size of the household. In Santa Cruz County, at 80% of the AMI, an individual can earn up to $74,350 annually to qualify for the program. For a household of four, that number is $106,200.

Renter households also have to include at least one person “who qualifies for unemployment or has experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19, or demonstrates a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability,” according to the news release.

To apply or verify eligibility, applicants can visit HousingIsKey.com. Assistance is also available by calling (833) 430-2122 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily. Applications and assistance are available in multiple languages.

Because there is no specific dollar limit on assistance per household, it’s not yet clear how many people in the county and its cities will be able to benefit from the state program. But the county last year implemented a similar rental assistance program with $1.1 million from its share of federal aid received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act. That program helped 205 residents in unincorporated areas, according to a county spokesperson. Cities had access to their own CARES funding that could be used for that purpose; this time all applicants are being routed through the same portal.

Landlords who agree to participate in the program would accept 80% of rent arrearages for a given tenant as payment in full for a period spanning April 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021. Tenants with landlords who decline to participate are still eligible to receive up to 25% of back rent owed.

Local groups — including Community Bridges, Community Action Board, Families in Transition, California Rural Legal Assistance and United Way 211 — will assist tenants and landlords through the application process. “Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA) and the Conflict Resolution Center (CRC) will also be providing public outreach and education about the program,” county officials wrote.

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Problems with rollout

The state program’s launch did not go as smoothly as planned, according to at least one local community group. Applications were supposed to be on the state’s website starting at 7 a.m. Monday, said Community Bridges CEO Ray Cancino. But only by 5 p.m. did it appear that things were up and running on the state’s website.

Cancino believes it is part of an “ongoing issue” with the state announcing programs before they’re fully implemented, including having contracts with local partners solidified. “That causes everyone to get frustrated,” he said.

Although his group has already started to work with clients, they’ve so far had to subsidize that effort, because there is no contract in place yet with the state, Cancino said. The hope is to get more than $933,000 from the state across all the county’s local partners, but it’s not clear yet if they will receive that much and the actual amount will determine how much the organizations will have to subsidize, which could affect how much they’re able to do, he said.

Cancino, whose group is the lead for all the county’s partner organizations, said he hopes to have a contract in place by the end of the week.

Updates:

5:43 PM, Mar. 15, 2021: This story has been updated with comment from Community Bridges, one of the local agencies helping residents apply for the program. The amount the local partner organizations are hoping to receive from the state has also been updated.