Analysis of California Emergency Rental Assistance Program Highlights Progress and Ongoing Renter Needs

A report released by the Housing Initiative at Penn, An Early Analysis of the California COVID-19 Rental Relief Program, provides insight into program progress, program changes, and experiences of renters applying to the program. The report finds that since its launch in March 2021 through June, the program had spent 10.2% of its funds. The report also finds that that white, non-Latino applicants comprise the largest group in the applicant pool, suggesting the program may be less accessible to renters of color most affected by the pandemic. A survey of applicants finds that approximately 57% of renters had some trouble with the application, including challenges with internet access, not having income documents, and not having proof of lost income.

The report provides a snapshot of program progress through the end of June, detailing program performance before significant changes were made in accordance with Assembly Bill 832. These changes include a decrease in tenant and landlord participation requirements and increases in payment amounts for past-due and future rent, now covering 100% of the monthly rental amount. As of July 6, the program, funded at $1.12 billion, had received $870 million in requests for assistance and had disbursed $114 million. The program received approximately 68,000 applications as of July 6, which had largely leveled off to around 393 applications per week after an initial influx when the program opened.

The analysis finds that white, non-Latino renters make up 20.5% of all applicants – the largest application group. Because renters of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, the report suggests that information about the program may not be reaching those most in need of emergency rental assistance. The application process may also pose barriers for those in need of assistance. A survey of program applicants found that approximately 57% of applicants reported facing barriers during the application process. For example, 19.9% experienced problems with internet access, 14.9% of applicants did not have income documents, 16.3% of applications did not have proof of lost income, and 20.8% were not aware of a hotline that would have allowed them to apply over the phone.

The renter survey collected data on renter experiences more generally during the pandemic, including how far applicants were behind on rent, whether applicants have gone into debt to pay housing expenses, and whether applicants forewent other necessities to pay for housing. The survey found that 24.2% of survey participants owed less than three months of rent, while 43.2% owed more than six months of rent. Fifty-six percent of participants attempted to borrow money to pay their rent, which increases an applicant’s “shadow debt.” If an applicant technically paid the landlord with borrowed funds, they cannot receive assistance for this portion of their rent. Survey participants also made other significant adjustments to keep life affordable during the pandemic, including delaying bill payment (77.8%), reducing food consumption (55.5%), decreasing transportation costs (50.0%), and going without medicine or seeing a doctor (34.6%).

Though promising program changes could increase the rate of emergency rental assistance disbursal, the authors note that these resources cannot be expended fast enough to meet the overwhelming need. In particular, emergency rental assistance programs are not currently designed to address accumulated shadow debt or the costs of trade-offs with other essential needs to pay rent. Future research on California’s Rent Relief Program will focus on fund disbursement, the effect of rental assistance on household outcomes, and equitable program access.

Read the report at: