How much is rent relief helping Californians?

When Blanca Esthela Trejo, 46, lies down to sleep, what feels like shards of glass stab her back and cut into her lungs — a lingering effect of COVID-19.

“I’d like to be crouched down, hunched over all the time, because the pain is too much,” she said.

But Trejo is foregoing medical treatment because she has put paying the rent on her Salinas apartment above all else — to keep a roof over her three children’s heads.

A state law passed in January extended eviction protections for tenants through June 30, as long as tenants show they lost their income due to COVID-19 and pay a quarter of what they owe.

The law also allocates a whopping $2.6 billion in federal money for rent relief.

Trejo, however, is one of many desperate Californians who won’t benefit because her debt is not to a landlord.

After losing her packing shed job — where she believes she caught the virus — she also lost her health insurance. Her husband has been out of work for most of the pandemic. Too scared to test the law, she paid rent in full every month with loans from friends. The couple now owes about $3,000, a debt Trejo wouldn’t dare deepen, even to cover medical needs.

“Could you imagine?” she asked in Spanish. “We haven’t paid them and we’re going to ask for more?”

With the eviction moratorium set to expire in two months, the verdict is still out on the biggest rent relief program in the country. But legislators and tenant and landlord groups who complained about the 11th-hour compromise worked out by Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders say their biggest fears are coming true.

“I am very concerned about tenants who sacrificed everything to pay the rent but went into extreme debt,” said Assemblymember David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who helped craft the original eviction moratorium last year as the economy cratered during the pandemic. “How we assist those individuals is something that (the new law) did not contemplate.”

To assess the success and shortcomings of the unprecedented rent relief effort across the state, CalMatters interviewed more than two dozen officials, advocates, landlords, tenants and volunteers, and reviewed several surveys and studies. That analysis found:

  • Tenants who voluntarily move to less expensive housing or take out loans to pay off rent are not eligible to receive relief.
  • Some landlords are turning down rent relief and still evicting their tenants.
  • Many mom-and-pop landlords, either struggling to cover their costs or tired of heavy regulations, are leaving the rental market.
  • While there are strict regulations to ensure only the neediest tenants get money, there are no restrictions on the landlords who can benefit. That favors larger and corporate landlords.
  • Strong legal protections for tenants are being undermined by a lack of understanding of the law and lack of access to legal representation.
  • The total need for rent relief remains largely unknown, but bigger cities say the funds are already insufficient.

More on Cal Matters

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