In a county notorious for exorbitant rent prices, coronavirus has created housing concerns for tenants who’ve lost their paychecks. In response to tenant inquiries, as well as frequent changes in government rules, Legal Aid of Santa Barbara County and the City of Santa Maria hosted an hour-long virtual information session on May 8 addressing rent payments and evictions for people who have been temporarily or permanently laid off.

An emergency rule on April 6 prevents lenders from foreclosing on mortgages and stops landlords from evicting tenants. It expanded Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide protections put in place at the end of the March. The Judicial Council rule lasts until 90 days after the governor lifts the pandemic state of emergency or until it is amended or repealed by the Judicial Council.

Legal Aid suggests that individuals who cannot pay their rent should communicate their situation to their landlords. “You should explain to your landlord why you cannot pay all or part of your rent,” the Legal Aid website advises. Individuals can do so through letters delivered within seven days of the rent’s due date. The website provides templates of such letters in both English and Spanish.

“You must also give your landlord proof of the reason you cannot pay rent with your letter or as soon as you can. This could include a layoff notice, signed letter from the employer, pay stubs, bank statements, etc. Tenants must keep a copy of this documentation for their records,” the website states.

Legal Aid Managing Attorney Tanya Villegas emphasized that these increased protections do not absolve a tenant’s responsibilities. “It is still very important that a tenant take proactive steps and notify the landlord of their inability to pay rent due to the financial impacts of COVID-19,” Villegas said in the digital meeting, which was held in English and Spanish.

Another update came on May 12, when the federal CARES Act provided California cities and counties with grants to help pay rents. According to a Housing and Urban Development Department briefing, these grants are going to be used to “help low- and moderate-income households pay up to three months’ rent.”

“We encourage local cities and counties to quickly act on using these funds as rental assistance because financial support is immediately needed for millions of Californians,” said Jack Schwartz, legislative chair for the California Rental Housing Association. “Helping renters pay their rent now will help keep Californians sheltered in place and avoid future possible homelessness.”

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