When the Fresno Retention Housing Grant program was announced on July 1, hundreds of local families rushed to the phone to apply. Most are still waiting for someone to address their concerns.

“The questions [on the application] are confusing,” said Naomi De La Rosa, Fresno resident and mother of three, who is seeking financial assistance for utility bills. “I did my best and dropped it off; we’ll see what happens.”

Like many California residents, De La Rosa, whose work hours have been reduced, acted quickly in the hopes of receiving help.

The $5 million grant came from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in March 2020 to help the coronavirus economic crisis, said Esmeralda Soria, Fresno city councilmember for District 1.

Grants of $1,500 for individuals and up to $3,000 for families are available to Fresno residents to help pay for rent, mortgage or utility bills, if they can show they have been financially impacted by COVID-19. Funding is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The first round of the grant — $1.5 million — was distributed to six local organizations: Reading and Beyond, the Fresno Center, Centro La Familia, Education and Leadership Foundation (ELF), Jakara Movement, and the West Fresno Family Resource Center (WFFRC).

“I don’t need assistance for rent, but for utilities,” said De La Rosa, who spent all day calling the six organizations but was unable to reach anyone.

“My sister-in-law printed a copy for me,” she added. “I called Reading and Beyond and their voice message said to drop it off.” On July 13, De La Rosa dropped off her application and now anxiously waits for a callback.

During the grant program’s early planning stages, the six organizations made up a committee that met weekly with Soria and Miguel Arias, Fresno city councilmember for District 3, to adopt a uniform application process to guide the distribution of the funds to the community in need.

“We know there is a greater need than the resources we have,” Soria said. “We’ll learn from this first round. We did it first come first serve, but maybe we’ll need to do a lottery system [for the second round] like the small-business grant.”

Gustavo Contreras, 79, said he desperately tried to get help. He is facing a social security income penalty that drastically lowered his benefits from $800 to $350 for three months because he left the country for longer than Social Security allows. Contreras was stuck in Mexico when the pandemic caused airports to close.

“I didn’t know I would get in trouble,” he said.

Reading & Beyond office is one of six locations accepting applications for the Fresno Housing Retention Grant. They are located in Southeast Fresno’s Sal Mosqueda Community Center. Dayana Jiselle

“We told him to stay put because we were scared of him traveling. He has medical conditions,” Contreras’ granddaughter added.

Contreras drove to Reading and Beyond’s office on July 2 to drop off his application but was told it would not be accepted without an appointment. His family spent the next two days calling Reading and Beyond, but could not speak to a live person to schedule a drop-off appointment. On July 6, they got a hold of a staff at ELF and turned in his application but was told it would be waitlisted.

“We had to do so much just to get his application accepted somewhere,” said Contreras’ granddaughter. “I can’t imagine what other people are having to do.”

Yolanda Randles, executive director of the WFFRC, said their phones have been ringing nonstop. Kayla Parker, lead staff for processing the housing grant, said that as of July 15, WFFRC had accepted 15 applications for the agency’s $75,000 allocation. They have 150 applicants on the waitlist.

As of July 22, ELF, which was awarded $318,000, has received 390 screened applications and are in the process of collecting the supporting evidence. Raul Moreno, CEO, said they have stopped taking applications for Phase 1; however, they are screening residents to add to the waiting list for Phase 2 which has not been funded yet.

Reading and Beyond received $79,000. As of July 22, it has accepted 49 applications and has 122 applications on a waitlist. Luis Santana, executive director, said they have more than 1,500 calls to be returned which may result in more submitted applications.

The Fresno Bee was unable to get updated numbers from Centro La Familia, the Jakara Movement, and the Fresno Center.

The four-page application can be found on the websites of Reading and Beyond, West Fresno Family Resource Center and the Fresno Center. It requires the applicant as well as the property owner to provide information on the name and dates of birth for people living in the home and how much back rent is owed. There is no collection of social security numbers, immigration status or other background information.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone who had a need and was impacted by COVID had the ability to qualify,” Soria said.

The application also includes a waiver from the landlord to accept 80 percent of owed rent and to not increase rent or charge late fees during the state of emergency. The supporting paperwork that is requested includes the tenant’s rental agreement, late rent notice and past due bills, or alternative forms of documentation verifying past due expenses. Once an application is accepted and reviewed, the applicant is contacted by the corresponding organization and asked for additional paperwork proving income.

The income eligibility thresholds ranges from one person at $39,150 to 14 people at $100,650. Soria added that the additional unemployment benefits of $600 a week will count toward the applicant’s income for round one, possibly disqualifying an applicant for the assistance. However, the additional unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of July, unless Congress decides to grant an extension.

Further protection for tenants

On March 19, the Fresno City Council passed an eviction moratorium that “prohibits the eviction of residential tenants for non-payment of rent if inability to pay is COVID-19 related.” It also allows for the city council to extend the moratorium by additional 30-day periods. On April 6, the California Judicial Council voted to put a hold to nearly all evictions until 90 days after Gov. Newsom lifts the state’s emergency order on COVID-19.

However, community leaders and advocates continue to campaign for additional protection against evictions and landlord harassment. The Central California Legal Services (CCLS) and a number of churches and organizations, known as the CCD Collective, launched an online survey in English and Spanish to assess the growing concerns of the various communities, particularly in relation to evictions and possible homelessness resulting from the economic impact of COVID-19.

The survey results will be used to advocate for solutions to the pandemic housing crisis.

Before the pandemic, Amber Crowell, regional housing coordinator with Faith in the Valley, was already working to understand tenants’ need. She was collecting surveys to understand the experiences of tenants in eviction court and guide Faith in the Valley’s policy advocacy work. Those efforts were paused in March when everything shut down because of the pandemic.

Crowell said the estimated median rent owed across eviction filings last year was about $1,200 in Fresno before the pandemic and higher unemployment rates.

Faith in the Valley and community members have now launched a new anonymous survey. The goal of this survey is to understand what tenants are currently experiencing in the San Joaquin Valley in terms of housing instability and the impact of COVID-19.

“I want to be clear that I think the city has done a great thing in setting up the grant program,” Crowell said. “[But] I’m not confident it can fully protect renters through the duration of the pandemic, with no sign of things getting better.”

Crowell believes state and federal-level funding is needed to provide much longer-term protections for tenants who can’t pay rent.

Artie Padilla, executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, is a supporter of bills that are working to protect renters during the crisis, such as AB 1436. Padilla says many residents are still unaware of their rights under the eviction moratorium and are being forced out of their homes. AB 1436 was amended on July 2 to include additional rights for tenants. The bill states that, for the remainder of the pandemic, landlords should defer rent for those unable to pay due to COVID-19.

“Families are hurting and scared,” said Padilla. “Many know their rights during COVID, but they are worried more about when the relief period ends.”

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