WATSONVILLE—Since the state opened its Covid-related rental assistance program roughly a year ago, 889 Watsonville residents who have fallen behind on their monthly payments have submitted an application for help.
But only around half of those people have received funds, putting them in a precarious situation as tenant protections that were baked into the state program—known as Housing Is Key—are set to expire at the end of March.
Countywide, the numbers are equally as bleak. Some 1,600 people are still awaiting funds from the state—more than 3,300 applied for relief.
In response, jurisdictions across the county are pooling resources to help tenants stay housed and keep landlords from foreclosure.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on March 22 approved the use of $500,000 to kickstart that countywide plan and, in a special meeting on Tuesday, Watsonville City Council chipped in $20,000 from the city’s affordable housing fund.
The funds will cover the cost of legal assistance and mediation, flexible financial assistance, tenant rights education and counseling and case management services. The hope is to help stave off evictions for people that are still awaiting funds from the state program.
In a presentation to the council on Tuesday, Housing Manager Carlos Landaverry said that state lawmakers will likely extend those protections before they expire—Assembly Bill 2179 seeks to shield any renters with pending applications for the program through June. But, in the case that they don’t, the multi-jurisdiction fund will give a local coalition of service providers resources to solve tenant-landlord disputes.
The cities of Santa Cruz and Capitola, Landaverry said, were also weighing whether they would contribute funds to the pool.
In all, the state has distributed $3.27 million to Watsonville renters who have fallen behind on their payments because of the pandemic.
But there have been numerous hiccups with the program, Landaverry said. That includes increased scrutiny and longer processing times from Housing Is Key administrators for applications from undocumented individuals and people renting a room or area of a home—a move officials say is a way to prevent fraud.
Many of those Watsonville tenants have instead received help from the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program the council established shortly after the pandemic began. The city kickstarted the program with federal funds from President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Along with paying off tenants’ back rent, the program also worked with nonprofits such as California Rural Legal Assistance, the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Community Bridges and United Way to resolve disputes, conduct educational sessions with renters and landlords and help people apply for the state program.
Landaverry said that the countywide program will be essential in uniting rental assistance efforts between the county and city. There have been instances in which city staff has had to turn away a person who lives a block outside of city limits. The new program will help all renters and landlords, regardless of where they live.
“It helps if we work together and have one, unified consistent message,” Landaverry said.