The city of Fresno’s emergency rental assistance program has been slow to roll out funding in its first six months because of a lengthy documentation process, initially required by the state and federal government.
“When landlords don’t have money to pay their mortgages, they want that money two weeks ago,” said Pao Yang, CEO of The Fresno Center, which partnered with the city for the program. “But because of requirements, because of auditing these public funds, it does take time. We are trying to be efficient.”
Despite receiving $42 million, the city has only distributed 22% or about $9.5 million to tenants, landlords, to offset PG&E bills and support housing stability programs and organizations, six months after the inception of the program.
Specifically, as of Sept. 2, $7.8 million has gone to tenants or landlords for rental debt accumulated since April 2020; $1.1 million toward paying PG&E debt from 672 households, and an additional $1.5 million to housing stability programs and organizations.
Likewise, only 13% of qualified rental assistance applicants — 1,348 of the 10,142 qualified applicants — have received the money. In total, the city and community based organizations received 14,590 applications for rent assistance as of Sept. 2.
Though eligible, about 8,794 qualified applicants have not completed the documentation. Funds are not guaranteed until all documents are turned in and vetted.
“It’s like when you get a mortgage,” Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias said of the nearly 8,800 applicants waiting. “You are pre-qualified and then you have to do a bunch of steps to close escrow.”
If all the “pre-qualified” applicants receive funds, the city and CBOs will end up paying out more than $35 million, and there are still millions of dollars that eligible residents can apply for.
How the ERAP works
The city of Fresno has received roughly $42 million for emergency rental assistance from state and federal governments. The ERAP, implemented in March, now provides 100% of rental debt to landlords of tenants who make less than 80% of the area median income, have been impacted by COVID-19, and are behind on their rent.
To facilitate the process, the city partnered with six community based organizations — Reading and Beyond, the Jakara Movement, Centro la Familia, The Fresno Center, West Fresno Family Resource Center and the Education and Leadership Foundation — to help renters and landlords complete the application and distribute the money to applicants.
In the city of Fresno, more than $35 million has been obligated, accounting for the more than 8,700 qualified applicants still in the queue as of an Aug. 30 report. Still, the city has a long way to go in distributing the money.
Stipulations in the ERAP prevent courts from moving forward with an eviction for nonpayment of rent, if the tenant is pending rental assistance, has attested to having a COVID-19 financial impact and has paid at least 25% of their rent by Oct. 1.
Even after the statewide eviction moratorium ends on Sept. 30, tenants will have 15 days to apply to the ERAP if they have received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. The city has also created a system that refers tenants in the Eviction Protection Program to the ERAP.
Time is running out, however.
As per current program guidelines, the ERAP will only pay for debt accumulated from April 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021. Although tenants can apply to the program after Sept. 30, they will not receive funds for any debt accumulated in October and afterwards, said Courtney Espinoza, the city program implementation manager, at Thursday’s city council meeting.
And the fast approaching end of the eviction moratorium is causing concern among groups assisting tenants daily.
“We are doing a better and better job everyday at learning how to get this money out quicker, and it’s still not fast enough,” said Harman Singh, ERA project manager of Jakara Movement, on Thursday, pleading that the city set up its own eviction moratorium. “Yeah, we can get this money out after the eviction moratorium ends, but that also puts a lot of people at risk.”
‘The biggest hurdle.’ What’s caused the delay
Chris Montelongo, Fresno deputy chief of staff, said setting up the program itself, initially lengthy applications and lack of documentation from landlords and tenants slowed the city’s rollout of the funds.
“I think early on, the challenge was really bringing the program up to speed and making sure the infrastructure was in place because this was nonexistent,” Montelongo said.
Six months into the program, the infrastructure is in place, there have been several iterations to the application process and changes to how much money will be paid out to landlords.
“A lot of people were hesitant to apply because all of the paperwork that was necessary, you know, all the documentation that was required to even qualify but that was actually cut down a lot,” Singh said. “It’s easier to apply now than people think.”
He added that once the guidelines changed to pay landlords 100% of the rental debt owed as opposed to only 80%, “a lot more folks were willing to come in, a lot more landlords were saying, ‘I’m interested in applying.’”
Yet, extensive documentation requirements have remained a challenge, according to landlord and tenant groups, CBOs and city officials.
“That’s really sort of the biggest hurdle, waiting on the documentation,” Montelongo said.
Montelongo said that in an ideal scenario, a landlord and tenant would work together to bring all the proper documentation. In those instances, they could see the money about 10 days after they submit their application. But that has not been the case in many applications, even for those whose landlords are on board.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t have lease agreements,” Arias, who is on the ERAP subcommittee, said. “And how many folks did not have the receipts to demonstrate they are behind on rent … we’ve learned there’s a lack of documentation, the lack of folks having access to their online utility bills.”
As a result, the city has allowed the use of affidavits by tenants and landlords in place of formal agreements. The city and state government have also continued to make changes to the process, most recently looking at moving toward self-attestations as opposed to requiring documents.
Espinoza said the city is now undergoing the process of reviewing their applications and working to remove barriers.
“We’re really trying to help those that need it most and remove those barriers,” Espinoza said.
Greg Terzakis, senior vice president of the California Apartments Association — an organization that roughly half of Fresno landlords are a part of — said the changes so far have been helpful to both landlords and tenants.
“Our position is we need to accelerate the pace money is getting out the door, so tenants don’t have back due rent,” Terzakis said, “that folks are cleared and that rental housing providers are able to be made whole for rent they have not received, in some cases, (for) up to 18 months.”
“I think the (U.S.) Treasury Department has made it easier because they understand that Fresno and California are not unlike the rest of the United States in that there have been issues in getting the money that has been earmarked for relief into the hands of the rental property providers,” he added.
Montelongo said the city is in the process of hiring 10 employees to help with applications.
Espinoza said other issues the city has seen include people who submit dual applications or fraudulent applications, “bogging down the system” for those who are in dire need. According to Montelongo, the city has seen applicants apply to receive rental assistance for vacant lots and landlords claiming family members who live with them as tenants.
As the city moves toward more self-attestations in the applications, Montelongo said they are facing a “balancing act” to expedite funding while also keeping safeguards in place to ensure fraud does not occur.
City approves more funding to be dispersed through CBOs
On Sept. 2, the city voted to distribute an additional $5.2 million total to the six CBOs that have partnered with the city. The council also appropriated $32 million, which allows the city manager to allocate more money to CBOs that have spent the funds without having to come back to the council for another vote, according to Arias.
The CBOs have played a large role in getting out the funds thus far, accounting for a majority of the funded applicants and more than half of the money distributed.
“The CBOs have been really efficient in outreach,” Singh said. “Tapping into communities that would otherwise not know about these resources, we’re really good about going to places and bringing people in.”
As of a Sept. 2 update, the six CBOs had distributed around $4.1 million to 773 applicants and many of the CBOs had used all or most of their funds by the time the city voted to distribute more money to the organizations.
Yang, the CEO of the Fresno Center, said the CBOs have the benefit of already being embedded in the community.
“It’s not just helping (renters) by cutting a check so they could pay their rent,” Yang said. “It’s about linking them with different services, mental health services, different social services, making sure they have food on their table.”
CBOs, city officials, and the California Apartments Association all encourage tenants to continue to apply for the millions of dollars that remain.
“What we don’t want is for there to be an overhang of debt in arrears for tenants,” Terzakis said. “There doesn’t need to be. For the tenants who qualify for this program, every single one of them should be applying.”
Tenants can also visit or call the following organizations to apply:
- Reading and Beyond: 559-214-0317
- The Fresno Center: 559-898-2565
- Centro La Familia: 559-237-2961
- Education & Leadership Foundation: 559-291-5428
- Jakara Movement: 559-549-4088
- West Fresno Family Resource Center: 559-621-2967
Fresnoland wants to hear from renters and landlords who have applied to the ERAP. Were you given funds? Were you denied? Was it helpful? Text reporter Cassandra Garibay at 559-441-6004 to share. Or fill out the renter survey or landlord survey here.