United Way’s Steve Ortiz said his staff will grow to help handle the demand that $27 million in rental assistance is expected to bring. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

More than $27 million will soon be available for rent and utility payments to keep Santa Barbara County residents in their homes and their landlords paid. About half of that is in a new county program set to start next week; $13 million will fund payments due and past due for people who have lost income or seen their wages reduced because of COVID-19. A second program administered through the state — and totaling $14 million from the U.S. Treasury — is on tap for the middle of March.

The influx of money is part of $25 billion in the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a gargantuan sum compared to previous support received. Tenants and landlords in Santa Barbara County got nearly $4.5 million in financial help since the beginning of the pandemic through monies, including federal CARES Act funding, from the county and the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, and also through funds raised through the nonprofit Joint Response Effort spearheaded by the Santa Barbara Foundation and Hutton Parker Foundation. More than 3,000 households were supported by those programs.

The heavy lifting to coordinate applicants and funding has been accomplished by the Family Service Agency, which vets program applicants, and the United Way, which handles finances and administration — both agencies have been called on for the new programs, as well.

Rental assistance has far-reaching consequences, said Laura Bode, who leads the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association. Rent payments to landlords and utility payments to the city water system, for instance, keep mortgages paid, utilities operating, people in jobs, and the whole system humming along. “Mortgages have not been forgiven, you have to remember,” she said of landlords. As well, property tax payments are due to the county in a couple of months.

Rachel Sim of Santa Barbara’s newly formed Tenants Union said her organization was pleased to see rent relief was on its way but had hoped for more from the county. “Too many landlords have taken the opportunity to strong-arm tenants and ignore valid and legal tenant complaints,” she said. One reason the group had formed was because they knew tenants whose landlords had evicted or threatened to evict them, including working families and persons who were undocumented, elderly, or disabled.

“We remain concerned about the long-term financial impact of the pandemic on tenants, the ongoing affordable housing crisis, and illegal and ‘soft’ evictions,” Sim said.

Bode noted that her association offers classes to landlords, especially owners of small numbers of units, who might not keep up with rapidly changing rental laws. For instance, she said, landlords cannot discriminate against potential Section 8 tenants.

In the new state and county programs, tenants must not only be affected financially by COVID but also meet low-income requirements. The federal assistance funds are meant for tenants at or below 80 percent of the area median income, and people at the lowest tier receive preference. For example, single people making up to $66,750 annually would qualify, while for a family of four the income level is up to $95,300. Navigating requirements and dealing with paperwork is one reason United Way is involved.

The nonprofit has spent the months since April 2020 taking phone calls and emails, and meeting people at their doors, to answer questions and steer people into programs, said Steve Ortiz, CEO for United Way of Santa Barbara County. This will be especially important once the state program rolls out in March. “It has different guidelines and is more able to address arrears going back to April,” Ortiz explained, “but to eliminate debt, landlords have to agree.” His staff has spent the past month preparing for an expected onslaught of applicants. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of new systems,” he acknowledged. “At the end of the day, it’s a benefit for the community, and we’re excited to participate.”

Program Details

The county program that opens to applications on Tuesday, February 16, will offer rental assistance for three months at a time and goes up to $6,000; the term renews every three months up to a maximum of 15 months.

The state program will be significantly different, per the terms of Senate Bill 91, which was passed in January and also extended existing eviction protections, allowing only “just cause” evictions through June 30, 2021. In the rental assistance portion of the legislation, the amount owed has no cap and can go back as far as April 2020, explained Dinah Lockhart of the county’s Housing and Community Development Department. But, the landlord or utility must accept 80 percent of the amount owed and agree to forgive the remaining 20 percent.

Lockhart, who is the go-to person at the county for the programs, emphasized that the documents requested of tenants do not include citizenship papers.

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Both programs require the tenant to make the application, and both cut the checks to either landlord or utility company. Importantly, Lockhart said, tenants cannot apply to both programs for overlapping months.

Another thing to know, said Bode, is a February 28 deadline for tenants to sign the forms so that landlords qualify for the funds.

The Financial Need

The pandemic has clearly taken a toll on restaurant and hotel employees, or any workers connected to Santa Barbara County’s tourist-related businesses. Unemployment in December 2020 was at 7.6 percent compared to 3.6 percent in 2019. There are fewer visitors than in years past, and shutdowns and restrictions have all too frequently kept doors closed.

Those visitors who have come, however, seem to be buying homes, said Bode. The roughly 1,000 landlords who form the Santa Barbara Rental Property Association are mostly mom-and-pop operations, many of whom also hold day jobs. Bode has seen a few have to sell their rental property because they lost their job or business during the pandemic, or simply because the increasing value of single-family homes in Santa Barbara County has made it worthwhile.

“There’s an enormous influx of people come from Los Angeles, from the Midwest to get away from the weather, even from San Francisco,” said Bode. “Realtors say there’s so much demand for houses that prices have gone up as much as 20 percent in the past year.” She noted that a study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center had found it was the small landlords who were worst affected by a lack of rent payments during the pandemic.

That made a major provision of the state program a bitter pill — Senate Bill 91 allows landlords to receive 80 percent of the rent owed, not 100 percent. “Why single out one group?” she asked. “Would you want a 20 percent pay cut?”

From her perspective, landlords in Santa Barbara County have worked out deals with their tenants rather than lose them. “Small mom ’n’ pops tend to keep their rent below market rather than hassle with looking for new tenants,” Bode said. “They also start to think of tenants as family, so when they start to have difficulty such as losing jobs or pay cuts, they’ll try to work it out.”

Santa Barbara has held together as a community better than most places, Bode observed. The state version of her group had sent a survey at the end of last year asking how many association members had tenants behind in their rent. From among the small group of Santa Barbara respondents, only a handful reported they were still owed rent. Bode was surprised by the fact but thought it could be due to the extensive outreach her association had done for the rental assistance programs.

Rental Property Association staffers helped landlords figure out the forms in the prior programs, Bode said, and they were available to answer questions about this new program, she offered. The association can be reached at (805) 687-7007 or by emailing laura@sbrpa.org.

The United Way has a temporary message about the county program at its website, which will be replaced with detailed information once the program opens next week: https://www.unitedwaysb.org/covid19-financial-assistance.

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