Assistance Denied: Examining California’s Emergency Rental Relief Program in the Bay Area
July 22, 2022
As of July 13, more than 26,000 predominantly income-eligible Bay Area households have been denied rental assistance. They, along with the more than 8,000 households still waiting for their applications to be reviewed, continue to face the threat of eviction and homelessness. Urgent policy fixes are needed to deliver on the program’s promise and prevent more Covid evictions.
By Jennifer Tran, Alex Ramiller, Sarah Treuhaft, Selena Tan, and Madeline Howard
Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the housing crisis in the Bay Area had reached epic proportions. And the pandemic has only made things worse. Many residents fell ill and lost family members to the disease, and many lost their jobs or suffered financially from reduced hours and incomes. School closures and a childcare shortage forced many working parents, especially women, to stay home and forego wages. And while renters made tremendous sacrifices to keep current on rent — often incurring large debts to friends, family, and predatory lenders — many still fell behind. These issues have been especially difficult for the renters most vulnerable to eviction, of which many are disproportionately low-income people of color and immigrants.
California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) offered a pathway to clear the rent debt that low-income tenants impacted by the pandemic accrued. It operated between March 15, 2021, and March 31, 2022. During that period, renters with low incomes (those below 80 percent of the area median income) who experienced Covid-related economic hardship could receive up to 18 months of rent and utility arrears for rent debt that accrued after March 31, 2020, as well as prospective rent and utility payments. Funded by the US Department of the Treasury as a part of national Covid economic recovery efforts, the program aimed to prevent eviction and housing instability for renters hardest hit by the pandemic.
Since March 2022, the National Equity Atlas — in partnership with Housing NOW! and Western Center on Law & Poverty — has been tracking the program’s performance. Our analyses of the program have underscored the challenges renters have faced in receiving rental assistance, which also has been documented in surveys of rental assistance providers and media coverage of the program. In addition, we have released weekly data updates through a dashboard that features data down to the zip code level.
This analysis provides a closer look at how Bay Area applicants have fared in the statewide program. It is based on program data through July 13, 2022, which we obtained from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) via a Public Records Act request. The analysis includes jurisdictions that both fully or partially participated in the statewide program (Contra Costa, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Solano Counties) and excludes those that opted to run their own ERAP programs (Alameda, Marin, and Sonoma Counties).
Our key findings include the following:
- About one in five rental assistance applicants to the statewide program were from the Bay Area. In total, more than 89,000 renter households in the Bay Area applied to the statewide rental assistance program. The largest number of cases originated in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and San Francisco Counties, each of which had more than 20,000 applications.
- Two in three program applicants have received assistance. Sixty-seven percent of renters who applied to the program (60,098 households) have received assistance. Another 2.4 percent have been approved for assistance but are awaiting payment. In San Mateo County, more than 69 percent of applicants have received at least one rental assistance payment. The lowest share is in Napa County, where 64 percent have received payments.
- Thus far, 26,362 Bay Area applicants (30 percent of reviewed applications) have been denied assistance. Among Bay Area counties, the denial rate for processed applications ranges from 28 percent in San Mateo County to 32 percent in Napa County. HCD denied 51 percent of these applicants (13,813) due to a “lack of response.” Another 31 percent of these applicants (8,389) were denied because of “inconsistent information within the application.”
- On average, Bay Area applicants waited three and a half months for their applications to be approved and another month to receive payment. As of July 13, about 8,100 households were still waiting for their initial applications or reapplications for assistance to be reviewed.
- One in three households were facing imminent eviction when they applied. Of the Bay Area applicants, 27,601 reported receiving an eviction notice or being threatened with eviction by their landlord — an understatement of eviction risk since many renters receive notices while awaiting payment. The highest risk of eviction for applicants was in Solano County, where 43 percent of all applicants (3,645 households) were facing imminent eviction.
- Renters whose primary language is not English and Asian American and Pacific Islander renters appear to be underrepresented in the program. Asian American and Pacific Islander renters appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pools of San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties, where they comprised roughly 16 to 17 percent of applicants but 30 percent of severely cost-burdened renter households. Spanish-speaking renters and Chinese-speaking renters also appear to be underrepresented: a significant share of the region’s extremely cost-burdened renters speak Spanish (23 percent) and Chinese (8 percent) at home, yet only 13 percent and 2 percent of applications were submitted by people who indicated Spanish and Chinese as their primary languages, respectively.
The program’s excessive wait times, its abrupt closure on March 31, HCD’s refusal to provide rental assistance for rent accrued after March, and the lack of a transparent process for denying assistance have left many applicants at risk of eviction and homelessness. On June 30, one of the critical state eviction protections expired, leaving the tens of thousands of rental assistance applicants still awaiting a response, appeal, or payment on their applications more susceptible to eviction. On July 7, in response to a lawsuit filed by tenant advocates, a judge ordered HCD to stop denying tenants rental assistance, pause denials issued over the past 30 days, and pause appeals of denials until there is a court hearing, which is expected to be held in the fall.
In the meantime, urgent state and local policy solutions are needed to fulfill the promise of the state’s rental assistance program, prevent more Covid evictions, and make an equitable recovery possible. The absence of comprehensive state-level protections ensures vulnerable tenants who meet the ERAP program’s eligibility criteria will be evicted and potentially become homeless, undermining the purpose of the program and inflicting further harm on families. With the state’s alarming rent inflation and worsening homelessness crisis, keeping people who are currently housed in their homes isn't just a sound investment, it’s key to strengthening communities and ensuring the well-being of families.
We also recommend California policymakers:
- Conduct an audit of all rental assistance denials, approving tenants who were wrongfully denied while also creating a fair, transparent process for challenging denials of assistance;
- Target outreach for rental assistance programs to communities of color to combat long-standing patterns of segregation and racial discrimination in housing;
- Institute a permanent program to support renters across the state who are struggling to get by with low incomes and skyrocketing housing costs while also investing in permanent, deeply affordable housing for extremely low-income households; and
- Ensure the Housing Is Key program covers 100 percent of tenants’ accrued rental debt, including debt incurred after March 31, and extend comprehensive statewide eviction protections without preempting local ones.
Additionally, the findings from this analysis highlight the importance of ensuring that future rental assistance programs are accessible to people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, and people with limited access to technology.
Data and Methods
This analysis is based on a dataset tracking all rental assistance applications submitted by renters to the program, which we obtained through a Public Records Act request. The state program covers about 63 percent of the state’s population; the other 37 percent of California residents live in the 25 cities and counties that opted to administer their own programs. The dataset provided to us every week by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) includes anonymized individual case data with applicant demographics (race/ethnicity, income, and language of application); zip code; eviction threat/proceeding at the time of application; the amount of rent and utilities requested and paid; and landlord participation in the application. The application question about eviction risk was added to the dataset in March 2022 upon our request. The specific yes/no question is: “Has your landlord issued a Notice to Pay, an Eviction Notice, filed an Unlawful Detainer against you due to unpaid rent, or indicated they will be seeking to evict you?” The reason for denials was added to the July 13 dataset. There are 10 different possible reasons that HCD denies applicants, and applications can be denied for multiple reasons.
The statewide program does not cover the entirety of the Bay Area, as certain jurisdictions elected to operate independent local programs for either part or all of the program’s duration. Bay Area jurisdictions fall into several categories:
- Full participation in the statewide program: Contra Costa, Napa, and San Mateo Counties operated entirely within the statewide program since its inception.
- Partial participation:
- San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Solano Counties operated hybrid state-local programs during the first phase of the program, before shifting to fully state-operated in the second phase of the program.
- The city of Oakland also initially operated a hybrid state-local program, but it shifted to a fully locally-operated program.
- Exclusively local programs: The programs in Alameda (outside of Oakland), Marin, and Sonoma Counties have been entirely locally run.
This dataset is the same dataset used to populate the state’s own public dashboard, but with much greater detail. It includes, for example, 16 detailed case-status categories assigned by HCD, including statuses, such as “Application Complete: Pending Payment,” assigned to households who have been approved for payment but have not actually received funds and are still waiting for assistance; recertifications, or households that received assistance and applied for additional support; and denied applicants.
We used the 2015-2019 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample to summarize rent burden, racial/ethnic demographics, and primary language to compare program applicants and beneficiaries to the likely population of renters in need of assistance. To construct this comparison geography, we excluded the Bay Area counties that opted out of the current phase of statewide rental assistance (Alameda, Marin, and Sonoma).
More than 89,000 Bay Area renter households, predominantly those with low incomes, submitted applications to the Housing Is Key program
Since March 15, 2021, when the state began accepting rental assistance applications, about one in five (more than 89,000) rental assistance applicants to the Housing Is Key program were from the Bay Area.
Through the program, about $728 million in aid has been delivered to struggling renters and landlords in the Bay Area, and another $9.4 million is in the process of being delivered to applicants whose payments are pending. An additional $9 million has been requested by households with applications still under initial review. Bay Area renters requested just over $1.3 billion in total rental assistance; $6.8 billion has been requested statewide.
There was a surge in applications during the last 10 days of the program: 4,452 renter households submitted applications between March 22 and 31. About half of these applications (1,979) were submitted on March 31, the final day of the program. This surge signals the high demand for the program, as well as effective outreach and support conducted by rental assistance providers and others to get the word out and ensure renters could successfully submit online applications. As the graph of applications below illustrates, applications surged at two other points in the program: first at the end of August 2021, corresponding with the end of the national eviction moratorium, and second at the end of September 2021, which corresponded with the expiration of California’s eviction moratorium on October 1, 2021.
The vast majority of program applicants have incomes low enough to qualify for the program. Fewer than 2 percent of all applicants had incomes above 80 percent of the median income of their locality, which was the threshold for both federal ERAP assistance and the statewide program. More than two-thirds of applicants have extremely low incomes that are below 30 percent of the area median income.
Among Bay Area counties participating in the statewide program, the highest number of applicants originated from Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and San Francisco Counties, each with about 21,000 to 22,000 applications for assistance. Among participating Bay Area cities, the largest number of applications came from San Francisco (20,691).
On average, Bay Area applicants waited three and a half months for their applications to be approved and another month for payment
Over the program’s lifespan, applicants from the Bay Area have typically waited three and a half months for initial approval and another month to receive payment. The pace of delivering rental assistance has improved over time: households that applied for aid in March 2021 waited an average of 145 days to receive aid payments while that figure declined to 59 days for households that applied in March 2022.
Among the more than 89,000 Bay Area applicants, two in three (67 percent, or 60,098 households) have received assistance as of July 13, either directly or through a payment to their landlord. This includes applicants that have been paid and have reapplied for additional assistance. Another 2.4 percent, or 2,168 households, have been approved for assistance and are awaiting payment. At the county level, San Mateo and San Francisco have the highest share of applicants that have received payments.
Nine percent of applicants — 8,100 households — were still waiting for their applications for assistance to be reviewed as of July 13. The vast majority of these households (7,573) had already received initial payments and are waiting for additional support. Another 527 households were still awaiting initial assistance. Renters awaiting a decision on their applications are at risk of eviction now that the main remaining state eviction ban expired on June 30. Tenants in cities with fewer local tenant protections are especially vulnerable. As Lauren Hepler and Raheem Hosseini of The San Francisco Chronicle reported, Sulima Navarrete, a tenant living in Richmond, applied for assistance in October 2021 after her husband was laid off from his job early in the pandemic. She continues to wait for initial rental assistance while receiving notices to pay back rent or face eviction. As of July 13, Richmond still had 21 applications under initial review and 348 applications for subsequent funds under review; 1,236 applicants in Richmond (32.5 percent) had reported facing imminent eviction risk when they applied to the program.
More than 26,000 Bay Area applicants have been denied assistance
About 30 percent of Bay Area applicants (26,362 households) have been denied assistance, with denial rates ranging from 28 percent in San Mateo County to 32 percent in Napa County.
There are 10 different reasons that HCD denies applicants, and applications can be denied for multiple reasons. As of July 13, 51 percent of the denials (13,813) were due to a “lack of response” from tenants, while another 31 percent of the denials (8,389) were due to “inconsistent information within the application.” Very few denials were for reasons relating to eligibility criteria, such as income level or Covid-related hardship.
Paralleling statewide trends, the share of Bay Area applicants being denied assistance increased significantly after the close of the program — from 23 percent on April 13 (when denials data was consistently available at the county level) to 30 percent as of July 13.
In June, tenant advocates filed a lawsuit against HCD for administering ERAP in an opaque and discriminatory way and for refusing to provide an adequate explanation to tenants who were denied assistance. They raised several concerns:
- The notices indicating that the applicant submitted “inconsistent information” are confusing to tenants because they do not explain what information is inconsistent or how to fix the problem. Nor do they say whether the tenant or their landlord submitted the “inconsistent information” — the notice refers only to the “applicant."
- Tenants who do not speak English are also denied for being “non-responsive” when they are unable to respond to HCD notices sent only in English.
- Tenants are also denied for being “non-responsive” while they are in the process of submitting requested documents, and they are even being retroactively denied without explanation after they have already been approved and provided the rental assistance funds to their landlord.
- Tenants who don’t agree with the denial decision are not offered any chance to see the documents or information HCD used to deny their application, and HCD does not provide a meaningful opportunity for the tenant to explain why they should be approved.
These issues make the accelerating rate of denials over the past few months very concerning and suggest that eligible tenants may have been improperly denied assistance. On July 7, an Alameda County judge ruled in favor of tenant advocates and ordered HCD to stop denying tenants rental assistance until there is a further court hearing. The judge found that tenant groups would likely prevail in their claims that HCD denial notices are too vague to meet constitutional standards. As a result of this court decision, HCD stopped denying rental assistant applications on July 7 and is prohibited from denying further applications until further court review. The 30-day deadline for tenants to appeal initial denials of rental assistance will be paused for this period as well, and those denials cannot become final. Nor can HCD deny tenants who have already filed an appeal.
Program data on applicant incomes indicate that 95 percent of denied applicants have incomes low enough to qualify them for the program. Just 5 percent of denied applicants earn incomes above the 80 percent of area median income threshold, compared with less than 2 percent of all applicants. This suggests that the vast majority of denied applicants were actually eligible to receive assistance.
One in three applicants reported receiving an eviction notice or threat from their landlord
The statewide program has prioritized serving renters at risk of eviction, and the application includes a question directly asking renters if they have received an eviction notice or if their landlord has threatened to evict them.
One in three Bay Area applicants to the statewide rental assistance program (27,601 out of 89,155 total applicants) reported receiving an eviction notice or being threatened with eviction by their landlord at the time of their application. Given that eligible applicants wait several months to receive payment, a far greater proportion of renters likely face eviction before assistance arrives.
Of the 27,601 renters at imminent risk of eviction, 18,446 have been paid and another 414 have been approved for payment. However, 2,070 of those paid households are still waiting for additional rental assistance, which means that they may still be at elevated risk of eviction. Of the remaining applicants at imminent risk, 145 are still waiting for initial approval and another 8,596 (31 percent) have been denied.
Among program applicants, over one-third of Black, mixed race, and white applicants were facing imminent eviction risk at the time when they applied to the program. And while a small number of Native American renters applied to the program overall (696), over half of the Native American applicants were at risk of eviction at the time when they applied.
Solano County had the highest share of applicants facing eviction risk in the region
Among the Bay Area counties participating in the rental assistance program, Solano County as well as the Solano County cities of Vallejo and Fairfield had the largest share of applicants (43 percent) at imminent risk of eviction when they applied to the program. About one-third of Contra Costa (33 percent) and Santa Clara (32 percent) applicants were facing eviction risk when they applied. San Mateo County had the lowest share of eviction risk at 24 percent. Currently, only a select number of jurisdictions have local eviction protections in place. Solano County’s ban on Covid-related evictions will extend for an additional 90 days after the state of emergency has been lifted.
Zip codes with the largest number of applicants facing eviction risk were located in Antioch (94509), Pittsburg (94565), Fairfield (94533), Vallejo (94590), and San Pablo and North Richmond (94806).
Renters whose primary language is not English and Asian American renters appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pool
Since the launch of California’s rental assistance program, low-income renters who suffered job and income losses due to the pandemic have faced numerous challenges accessing relief. These include technological and language barriers; lack of access for tenants with disabilities; difficulty supplying the necessary documentation of income losses; difficulty communicating with landlords or obtaining documentation from them; and fear of landlord harassment/retaliation and deportation or other immigration-related consequences.
To assess whether California’s rental assistance program is reaching renters with the greatest needs, we compared the racial/ethnic composition of applicants with that of severely cost-burdened renters (those who pay more than 50 percent of their household income for rent and utilities), a population that represents renters at the greatest risk of having pandemic-related rent debt. To approximate the statewide program's service area in the Bay Area, we excluded the counties and cities where local rental assistance programs are operating from the severely rent-burdened reference group (see the Data and Methods section above for the list of excluded places).
Asian American and Pacific Islander renters are underrepresented in the applicant pools of San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties, where they comprised roughly 16 to 17 percent of applicants but 30 percent of severely cost-burdened renter households. White renters also appear to be underrepresented among program applicants in the Bay Area. For example, white applicants represent 22 percent of applicants but are 35 percent of cost-burdened renter households in Solano County. On the other hand, Black renters represented a higher share of program applicants across all Bay Area counties.
Renters whose primary language is not English, particularly Spanish-speaking renters and Chinese-speaking renters, also appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pool. Among Bay Area renters who are extremely cost-burdened, 51 percent speak a language other than English at home, yet 83 percent of program applicants indicated that their primary language is English on the application form. A significant share of the region’s extremely cost-burdened renters speak Spanish at home (23 percent), yet only 13 percent of applications were submitted by people who indicated that Spanish is their primary language.
Additionally, our analysis shows that the incomes of program applicants and recipients reflect the program’s targeting: well more than half of renters who apply to and are served by the program are extremely low-income renters.
Urgent policy fixes are needed to prevent more Covid evictions and support the renters hardest hit by the ongoing pandemic and long-standing structural inequities
Until recently, tenants with pending ERAP applications had protections under state law that stopped a landlord from obtaining a summons in an eviction case, meaning that the court case could not move forward. But those protections only applied to rental debt that accrued before April 1, 2022, leaving tenants who cannot pay rent in April and subsequent months vulnerable to eviction, unless there are local protections in effect. With the expiration of these very limited state protections, landlords are free to file eviction cases, and tenants need the assistance of an attorney to use the few protections that remain. As a result, thousands more Bay Area tenants could now face eviction in court. Many could lose their homes because of the application backlog and lack of protection in more recent months, exposing families and communities to the cascading harms of eviction and homelessness. Even with temporary protections in place, every day of delay leaves families more vulnerable to eviction and unable to make financial plans.
In addition to those who are still awaiting rental assistance or need help for months after March, many renters living on low incomes either have been denied assistance or have not even applied for help. These renters living in places without local protections have few eviction protections and face extremely limited affordable housing options in a state with high and rising rents that are unaffordable to working-class people.
As the state and region grapple with the complex and contentious challenge of how to assist people experiencing homelessness, it does not make sense to allow landlords to evict more families when the state has ample funds to protect them. The state, counties, and cities can enact policies and invest in rent relief so people can stay in their homes. With the state’s current misguided policies having cut off rental assistance on March 31, rental assistance funds likely will be delivered to landlords who have already evicted their tenants.
We recommend local governments take immediate action to support tenants by enacting strong, permanent protections to prevent unfair evictions and create long-term stability for renters. In the absence of state protections, cities and counties can pass tenant protections, such as just cause for eviction, rent stabilization, and tenant anti-harassment ordinances. Renters in cities like Fresno and Pasadena are championing rent control and just cause ordinances, and advocates in Los Angeles County are calling for a tenant bill of rights to ensure renters have liveable, healthy standards for living. In the Bay Area, Concord recently passed an anti-harassment ordinance. Local governments can step up to protect their renter communities from unfair evictions and prevent a rise in homelessness in their communities.
We also recommend California officials and lawmakers:
Conduct an audit of all rental assistance denials, approving tenants who were wrongfully denied while also creating a fair, transparent process for challenging denials of assistance. Rental assistance means the difference between a family keeping their home and a family facing eviction and homelessness. Yet HCD denies assistance without providing any information about the reason for denial and offers no opportunity for the tenant to see the information used in denying their application. Tenants are not provided any kind of meaningful opportunity to explain why they should be approved. The unfairness of this process is especially concerning given the drastic increase in denials since the program closed to new applications, and the extremely high percentage of people who are income eligible for the program yet were still denied.
Target outreach for rental assistance programs to communities of color to combat long-standing patterns of segregation and racial discrimination in housing. The rental assistance program represented a huge investment of public money and should have provided an opportunity to address long-standing racial inequities in access to housing and the overrepresentation of Black people among those experiencing eviction and homelessness. Yet program delays and the abrupt termination of the program undermined its ability to prevent evictions in these communities. Long-term rental assistance programs must be intentionally designed to reach communities of color to disrupt deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination and segregation.
Institute a permanent program to support renters across the state who are struggling to get by with low incomes and skyrocketing housing costs while also investing in permanent, deeply affordable housing for extremely low-income households. California was in a housing crisis before the pandemic began, and long-term solutions are necessary to ensure that low-income people can access and keep affordable housing in the communities of their choice. While the rental assistance program has had a rocky start, a permanent program to assist renters in need has the potential to help mitigate the harms that stem from the state’s severe lack of affordable housing. Policymakers should think boldly about how to create an effective and equitable rental assistance program to meet the long-term needs of low-income Californians and support proposed legislation, like AB 2817, that will lay the groundwork for long-term solutions. Pairing a rental assistance program with equal funding for programs for permanent, deeply affordable housing for extremely low-income households, like the CAPP (Community Anti-Displacement & Preservation Program), and strong protections against exorbitant rent increases would ensure longer-term stability for all renters.
Ensure the Housing Is Key program covers 100 percent of tenants’ accrued rental debt, including debt incurred after March 31, and extend comprehensive statewide eviction protections without preempting local ones. Families who were eligible for rental assistance and could not pay rent for months after March were subject to eviction, even as their landlords received massive payouts for prior months of rent. HCD’s refusal to pay rental assistance for months after March 2022 undermined the entire purpose of the program by ensuring that tenants eligible for assistance are evicted while their landlords are paid. Public funds should not be used to support landlords while allowing tenants to become homeless. Extending statewide eviction protections while allowing local governments the flexibility to meet the needs of their communities is the most effective way to stabilize vulnerable renters and keep them in their homes while assistance is distributed. The state’s laws should complement local efforts instead of restricting them. To ensure this, local governments must be given maximum flexibility to pass their own eviction protection laws to meet the needs of their communities.
The findings from this analysis also underscore that future rental assistance programs should be accessible to people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, and people with limited access to technology. The pandemic has deepened the harms of structural racism on communities of color, who have suffered disproportionate deaths, job losses, and housing instability. Increasing targeted outreach to renters who do not speak English and underrepresented communities of color is imperative to ensure that rental assistance dollars do not further exacerbate the racialized harms of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now that the limited state-level eviction protections are expired, policymakers have left California renters exposed to eviction and have increased the likelihood of a wave of homelessness in the state. Local and state policymakers must take urgent action to prevent mass eviction and realize the promise of its rental assistance program.
We are grateful to the entire project team that contributed to this research, including Francisco Dueñas and Rae Huang of Housing NOW!; Abbie Langston, Simone Robbennolt, and Gabriel Charles Tyler of PolicyLink; Justin Scoggins of the USC Equity Research Institute; and Chris Schildt of Urban Habitat. We thank Madeline Howard of Western Center on Law & Poverty for her assistance in obtaining the data through a Public Records Act request.