A once homeless veteran borrowed $1,500 from his mother to pay rent while he waited to hear back from the Housing Retention Grant Program. That decision, he said, cost him approval for the program.

Michael Sumaya said since he was technically paid up though March 2021 by the time the program had responded to him, he was told he no longer qualified for the assistance he applied for in January.

Now engaged in a back-and-forth communication with the city for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Sumaya is further behind on rent and says he fears he will be homeless once more, if he doesn’t receive help by Sept. 30.

“It’s like a daily reminder for me that I’m going to be homeless again because there’s no way I can go back and pay six, seven months of rent in a month,” Sumaya said.

Thousands of Fresno city and county renters have fallen through the cracks of the emergency rental assistance program meant to keep them housed, and time is running out as the statewide eviction moratorium which ends Sept. 30.

The two ERAP programs, which are separate, both launched in March 2021 and now pay landlords 100% of the rental debt owed them through Sept. 30.

As of Sept. 13, in the city of Fresno:

  • About 18% of the $42 million has been distributed for direct rental assistance.
  • 1,396 qualified applicants have been funded.
  • More than 10,000 are still in the queue for assistance
  • 4,793 applications have been denied, for reasons ranging from duplicate applications to incomplete information.

For the county program, as of Sept. 13:

  • About 71% million of the $12.5 million has been distributed for direct rental assistance. The county is waiting to receive more funds from the state for the program.
  • 1,585 county applicants have been funded.
  • 6,256 applications being processed.
  • 476 have been denied, for reasons ranging from duplicate applications to incomplete information.

While the programs will continue past Sept. 30, time is running out.

The state of California did not extend the eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent, and neither the city nor the county have yet to announce a plan to do so, though that is an option. For now, tenants must rely on the emergency rental assistance programs, which, under current legislative restrictions, will not cover debt after Sept. 30, according to city of Fresno Program Implementation Manager Courtney Espinoza.

Why are some renters being denied, not applying

Some renters told The Bee they are in desperate need of assistance but never applied because they’ve been paying their rent on time while falling behind on other obligations. Some were unaware that the ERAP differed from the Housing Retention Grant program which came before the current program.

Others who have applied to the ERAP are worried the relief would come too late, after their landlords have found a way to evict them, despite ERAP regulations prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if they are in the ERAP application process, even after the moratorium ends.

Of the 13 renters that filled out a Fresnoland/Fresno Bee survey of renters who said they applied to the Fresno Emergency Rental Assistance Program, nine said they were left in the dark for weeks or months on whether they even qualified or when they would receive funds.

One survey respondent said the application “stays up in the air too long without knowing what’s going on,” another said “the process was way too late in telling me yes or no.”

The city of Fresno said lack of documents from landlords and tenants has caused delays in getting money out to applicants. And, in Fresno County, Katie Wilbur, the executive director of RH Community Builders — which oversees the county ERAP — said it takes an average of 53 days for tenants and landlords to see funds once they apply.

Both Fresno city and Fresno County officials said they are also receiving applicants from the wrong jurisdiction — for example Fresno County applicants applying to the city program and being denied, and vice versa for the county program.

Here are some of the stories of renters and landlords who were denied help or are waiting for assistance as the end of the statewide eviction moratorium is a mere weeks away:

Fresno veteran says he was denied assistance because of loan

Michael Sumaya, a disabled Navy veteran, said he is six months behind in rent and fears he will end up homeless — which he experienced once for seven years more than a decade ago.

The veteran, who suffers from PTSD, tinnitus, and a major anxiety disorder, said he was a low voltage license contractor when the pandemic hit, wiping out his business. He fell behind on rent and applied to the Housing Retention Grant program in January 2021. He said he didn’t hear back from The Fresno Center where he applied for nearly six months.

“I qualified, but I made a mistake,” Sumaya said. “The landlord was kind of riding me a little bit, and I got a loan to give him that $1,500.”

He said he didn’t want to fall too far behind, so he paid his landlord up to March 2021, using a loan from his mother. He thought the Housing Retention Grant or the ERAP would give him the funds to repay what he borrowed. But because he paid the rental debt he applied for by the time someone responded to his application, he did not receive emergency rent help.

He has, since then, fallen further behind on rent, accumulating upward of $6,000 in rent debt, while still unable to pay back the personal loan. He said he contacted the Fresno Center again at the end of August and is still in a back-and-forth with the city about getting assistance.

Sumaya has not received money through the program. He said that his landlord has been understanding so far, but that he will likely be evicted at the end of the month, if the money does not come through.

“I’ve stuck with all the guidance that I was told to do,” Sumaya said. “But there’s no assurance that, come the end of September, I won’t be asked to leave.”

Fresno property manager was at risk of eviction

On-site property manager Amber Grigsby was at risk of eviction when her Housing Retention Grant application was denied in June 2020.

The $600 a month she made from being on-call 24/7 at the apartment complex wasn’t enough to cover rent when her other job fell through during the pandemic.

When Grigsby was not managing the property, she ran her own cleaning and maintenance service for her landlord’s apartment complexes when tenants moved or were evicted. However, with the pandemic and eviction moratorium, there was less turnover in apartment rentals and therefore, less work for her.

“My (landlord) was not very understanding … He didn’t care about anything,” Grigsby said. “‘Pay your rent first, pay your rent, if you don’t pay your rent, then you have no place to live, so PG&E, groceries, everything is after that.’”

Her business license also expired at the start of the pandemic, and, due to limited services, she was unable to get a new one before applying to the Housing Retention Grant. Grigsby said her inability to renew her cleaning license is the reason she was denied. She did not apply to the ERAP because she believed she would be denied again.

Grigsby said she fell behind on rent and still owes about $1,700 to her landlord who has since sold the property. She relies on unemployment benefits to get by and is now making monthly payments to her former landlord while trying to stay up-to-date on her current rent.

“It’s been a mess,” Grigsby said.

Fresno landlord left on the hook when tenant refused the ERAP

Native Fresnan, Edward Lanfranco, said he became a landlord after inheriting a home from a relative that he cared for. He has rented to the same tenant since 2018, but is in the process of evicting them because they are no longer able to afford the rent and have refused to fill out the paperwork for the ERAP.

Lanfranco said that when the ERAP was first launched, he informed his tenant about the program, but did not want to accept only 80% of the rental debt owed, calling it “unfair”. His tenant did not apply then, although they would have been able to receive 25% of the rental debt owed, at the time, even if Lanfranco didn’t participate.

Lanfranco said that as soon as the program started paying landlords 100% of the rental debt, he began the application himself, initially filling for the Fresno County program but was told he had to apply through the city. Neither program allows landlords to apply without tenant participation.

He said he asked his tenant several times to fill out the paperwork in July, even going as far as printing out and dropping off the forms at the property in Central Southeast Fresno. But no action was taken on the part of the tenant.

“I’m on the hook because she won’t cooperate for some reason,” Lanfranco said. “I, as a landlord, have no recourse if the tenant chooses not to participate in the program. I can’t wrap my head around that.”

Espinoza confirmed that landlords cannot apply to the program alone because “(t)here are income and COVID-related impact requirements for this program that are directly related to the tenant.”

Lanfranco said that around August, he began to notice signs that the renter abandoned the property. He hired a process server and legally entered the home to find that there was no furniture, feces covering the floor, mold and broken cabinetry and appliances, and an abandoned dog.

He then filed for an eviction, but said he is still out about $7,800 for six months of back rent, with thousands more in property damages.

“The thing that really scares me is the end of the year, when it comes time to pay property taxes,” said Lanfranco, who said he has had to dip into his savings to make up for the lost rent.

‘Glitch in the system’ slowed couple’s Fresno County application

Gail Rocha, who lives in the county but shares a zip code with South Fresno, has struggled to complete the Fresno County Emergency Rental Assistance Program online because a “glitch in the system” incorrectly registered her address as within city limits, according to Victoria Santillian, a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance who helped Rocha fill out the application.

Rocha is on a fixed income, and her husband Philip lost income as a mechanic during the pandemic. The couple of 33 years live in Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park and are being represented by CRLA in an ongoing lawsuit against the property owner for exorbitant rent increases. Rocha said she and her husband own their mobile home but have fallen behind by two months or roughly $1,200 on the space they rent, because of lost income. She reached out to her lawyer for help in applying to the ERAP because she couldn’t get through to assistance and does not have access to the internet — an already high barrier for many, Santillan said.

When Santillian went to help Rocha fill out the application online, she was blocked because of her zip code. She said she called RH Community Builders — which runs the county’s program — three times before reaching someone who confirmed that there is an error in the county’s system which prevents some addresses from applying.

Wilbur said the county has become aware of glitches in the program when it comes to county islands and other areas that share zip codes with the city. She also noted some people filling out their apartment addresses in different ways has caused issues. Wilbur said the county has had to manually correct the system to recognize county addresses that are mistaken for the city; however, some addresses may have been missed. She advised people to reach out via phone, email or social media if they run into issues when applying.

When asked if Santillan and Rocha would have been able to complete the application without calling RH Community Builders multiple times, Santillian said, “No, absolutely not.”

“I don’t think the resident would have been able to complete the application on their own, having to navigate these types of issues,” Santillian said. “I think they would have just given up; that’s probably what a lot of residents have done.”

Rocha said she is waiting to hear back from the county about her ERAP application, saying they will likely be behind three months rent by then.

“Plan B is we’ll have to leave,” Rocha said.

District 3 Councilmember Miguel Arias said that oftentimes, people in county islands apply to the city program, yet don’t qualify because they are under the county’s jurisdiction. Rocha’s experience shows that applicants who fall under the county jurisdiction may have been discounted altogether because the county recognized their address as a home within the city.

On the flipside, Wilbur blames many county rejections on people applying from within the city. She said when that occurs, applicants are directed to the city website.

Clovis landlord falls behind on mortgage as his son, renter loses businesses

Chris Neal began renting his Clovis home to his son and moved out of the area with his wife after she inherited a home near Tahoe. However, because of the pandemic, his son, a concessionaire who runs a soft serve ice cream trailer, fell behind on rent and he in turn fell behind on his mortgage payments.

He and his son applied to the Fresno County program about nine weeks ago and were told via phone that they were disqualified about six weeks afterwards because his son was able to book some gigs and pay some of his late rent in cash during the process, Neal said.

Now, his son is about 10 months behind on rent, and Neal is six months behind on his mortgage payments, after dipping into his savings.

“I’ve been trying to make up this house payment,” Neal said. “I’m in arrears, so we are trying to get that caught up, and I don’t know how to do it.”

He said that as a result, his son may have to sell his food trailer in order for the family to keep the house.

“It’s hard. All the money we anticipated on earning,” Neal said of his son’s business. “We had a good gig going until this COVID shut it down.”

How to apply for assistance

To sign up for emergency rental assistance in the city of Fresno, visit fresno.gov/mayor/erap or call 559-621-6801.

Tenants can also visit or call the following organizations to apply:

To apply in Fresno County, visit https://fresnorentalhelp.com/ or call 559-515-4700.

Support our nonprofit journalism.


Your contribution is appreciated.

Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.