New $2.6 billion California rent relief program aims to help the most vulnerable renters and their landlords

Many people have fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic, and landlords are hurting financially too. A new statewide rental relief program is rolling out on March 15, 2021. It’s aimed at low-income renters who are at risk of losing their homes. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW.

Since the start of the pandemic, Kelli Lloyd has fallen behind on rent for her Baldwin Hills area apartment, which she says is a first.

“I'm fastidious about financial business. You keep stellar credit, you pay your bills. This is a way of life,” she says.

Lloyd is a virtual law student and single mom to two school-age kids. She’s had to rearrange her daily schedule around her children’s remote learning. While she eventually found an outdoor classroom where her kids could attend Zoom school, allowing her to pick up part-time paralegal work for a lawyer in her building, she says it’s not enough to cover the nearly $2,000 monthly rent on her two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. She currently owes about $10,000 in back rent.

A lot of tenants are in Lloyd’s shoes. Otherwise financially responsible, the pandemic has put them behind. They’ve stayed in their homes because of local and state eviction protections, but are still on the hook for back rent. 

But relief is coming, at least for some. On March 15, the application period is scheduled to open for a new statewide rental relief program using $2.6 billion in federal funds. It’s meant to help the most vulnerable renters and their landlords.

Established by the Senate Bill 91, passed by the California Legislature in January, the program is for low-income renters at risk of becoming homeless. Landlords of qualifying tenants can apply on a unit-by-unit basis to get reimbursed for up to 80% of the back rent, if they agree to forgive the remaining 20%. 

Qualified tenants whose landlords don’t apply may ask for relief themselves, but only for up to 25% of what they owe — the minimum to avoid eviction when the state’s current eviction moratorium expires on July 1. Landlords in those cases can still pursue the entire amount owed after the emergency period expires, through small claims court or other measures besides eviction.

Diane Robertson, an LA property owner and founding member of the Coalition of Small Rental Property Owners, says landlords are hurting financially too, particularly independent ones who operate on thin margins.

“As small owners we are very different from corporate owners,” she says. “In fact we are more similar to our tenants than not.”

While all of her tenants have been able to pay full rent through the pandemic, Robertson says she’s heard from other coalition members who are struggling.

“We need help,” she says “And many simply cannot continue to house their tenants for free with increasing utility costs, increasing fees.”