Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera speaks to volunteers distributing information about San Diego’s COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance Program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera speaks to volunteers distributing information about San Diego’s COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance Program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Both the county and city of San Diego have indicated they may not be able to spend the millions of dollars they’ve allocated for rental assistance.

Tenants and landlords who have been applying for and participating in the program say the programs’ websites are confusing, making it difficult to apply, and that several of the rules have meant that even when they are awarded funds, it often falls short of their needs.

As of May 26, the San Diego Housing Commission, which handles the program for city residents, anticipates spending $43.8 million to help qualifying households receive rental and utility assistance based on the more than 12,000 applications it’s received so far, including $10.6 million that has already been dispersed. That is roughly 52 percent of the $83.7 million available. As of May 24, the county received 13,600 applications requesting $61.4 million in assistance, including $7.4 million that has already been dispersed. The county has $107 million allocated for the program.

On March 15, Lens Pierre-Lys submitted his application to the San Diego Housing Commission for rental assistance. Pierre-Lys worked in the service industry and has been surviving on unemployment and his credit cards since March 2020.

At that point, he was one month behind on his $1,750 rent.

When he finally heard from the Housing Commission in May, he had paid off most of March’s rent, part of April’s rent and still owed all of May. Pierre-Lys said the Housing Commission told him it would pay $120 to his landlord for what he still owed for March – 80 percent of the $150 owed – and some additional funds to cover utilities he still owed.

He said he was told that since there would likely be additional funding available, in which case he would likely be able to get funds to pay off 25 percent of what he owed for April, May and June. But that money, if it comes at all, might not be available until late summer or early fall. He says he can’t afford to wait that long.

“I would have been ‘better’ off not paying anything, until I knew when this 2 month ordeal would be processed,” Pierre-Lys wrote in an e-mail.

Housing Commission spokesman Scott Marshall said the policies limiting how much it pays in certain instances are dictated by state guidelines. SB 91, the state law that allocated the funds to localities for the program, defined past-due rent as anything owed between April 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021. Anything after March 31 is considered future rent – and the program will only pay 25 percent of what’s due “regardless of when an application was submitted,” Marshall said.

“I just wish there was better communication,” Pierre-Lys said in an interview. “If I had known that, I would’ve waited or gone about things differently.”

Kat Blue, who also qualified for Housing Commission assistance, said she felt lucky that her landlord would take the 80 percent of funds she owed as is. Blue said she’s fairly certain he won’t accept just 25 percent of the rent she owes in May and June.

Blue received funds from the city’s first round of rental assistance money last year. That, plus Social Security income she receives due to a disability and borrowed money from friends have helped her pay small amounts toward rent. Social Security covers less than half of her monthly living expenses.

Jessica Teaster, an Escondido resident who applied for the county’s rental assistance program, said she was shocked to hear about the same policy within the county’s program. Teaster’s family owes nearly $13,000 on the single-family home they rent and a couple thousand more on their water bill.

Teaster applied for assistance on March 5 and was told funds would come in mid-May.

Before she heard from the county, she received water shut-off notices that prompted her to borrow the money to pay them off instead of waiting.

The county did not respond to requests for comment.

Teaster’s husband is a sound engineer in the touring concert industry. His last gig was March 11, 2020, and he likely won’t be able to start working again until the fall. His job made up most of their income, and they have two kids.

“We just lost everything due to this thing,” Teaster said. “It’s been very challenging and difficult, especially for our children. They can feel our tension and hear our convos – and our convos have been, ‘How do we keep from becoming homeless?’”

‘There Is No Other Industry Being Asked to Do This’

Many landlords resent being asked to waive 20 percent of rental payments they’re owed in order to receive rental assistance from the city and county.

“The assumption is if you own property, you are wealthy and don’t need assistance,” said Lucinda Lilley, who works for a San Diego property management company that serves about 690 independent rental owners. “And that’s just not the situation for independent property owners in Southern California or even elsewhere in the country.”

Paul Krueger and his wife rent out a condo his wife bought before they were married. They’re still paying mortgages on it and the house they live in, but their tenant hasn’t paid rent in nearly a year due to COVID-related income loss.

That means Krueger’s family finances have taken a big hit.

Krueger said that once the rent paid off the mortgage, homeowners association fees, property taxes and any upkeep and repairs on the property, they were only earning about $100 a month in profit.

Now they have to cover those costs from their working incomes.

“We lost $12,000 that we would’ve otherwise had,” Krueger said. “We have two mortgages to pay and expenses and all the regular stuff. We can’t absorb it. It’s easy to say these are big companies that own a lot of units and are heartless, but I think a significant number of units are mom-and-pop rental units.”

Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry expressed concern last month in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom that the city wouldn’t be able to give out all the funds, and asked the state for several programmatic changes, including providing landlords 100 percent of past rent due and upcoming rent that tenants won’t be able to pay.

“There is no other industry that is being asked to do this during the pandemic,” Lilley said. Many of her clients are making their mortgage payments “by the grace of God” or coming up short themselves.

If tenants who owe rent move out, their landlords no longer qualify to receive funds to cover what’s owed, Lilley said.

“There’s no way for the property owner to recoup any of those funds right now,” Lilley said. Property owners in that situation will just have to file claims in court – once courts start processing those types of claims again, that is.

In his letter to Newsom, Gentry also requested that landlords qualify for reimbursement even if tenants move out.

Website Troubles

Both landlords and tenants say that the online portals to apply for and submit documentation for the program are difficult to use – and that it’s often hard to get answers when they call for help.

Blue said once she applied and was notified she would be eligible for funds, her landlord struggled for weeks to access the portal. Both Blue and her landlord called several different people at the agency, including the worker assigned to her case, and no one had answers.

“It was so frustrating,” Blue said. “I think it’s really great that the government is providing this assistance. I just wish it was an easier, faster process and that it was easier to contact people and get answers to your questions.”

Krueger said his check for the assistance was delayed because it was so difficult to understand what was needed with the process, in part due to the website design.

Lilley agrees it’s been difficult to navigate the website and get assistance, but reasoned that the city and county had to design their systems quickly once they found out they would be getting money from the state and federal governments for rental assistance.

“The city hired a bunch of people to answer the phone,” she said. “The problem is the people who answered the phone didn’t have any answers.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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