OAKLAND, Calif. - Californians struggling to pay rent amid the coronavirus pandemic may miss out on emergency rental assistance if the state, counties and cities don’t obligate millions of dollars by the end of September.
Auditors found delays in distributing the first round of federal money potentially forcing the state to forfeit money meant to immediately assist renters to avoid eviction.
In total, $2.6 billion was made available to California and of that, $1.8 billion the state is tasked to oversee, according to the audit report.
The Department of Housing and Community Development has obligated $1.5 billion, risking $337 million of being clawed back by the federal government.
"They really need to commit and obligate those funds by September 30 so they don’t lose any funds," California State Auditor Chief of Public Affairs, Margarita Fernandez said. "We need to insure that we do what we can."
The other $1.1 billion in federal money is up to specific counties, cities and other jurisdictions to dole out, however, progress has been slow.
"There was no infrastructure in place to get this money out," said Anne Tamiko-Omura, executive director of the Eviction Defense Center. "We need more time and we need more bodies doing this type of work."
There’s only a small handful of groups in Oakland, including hers, tasked with getting the federal funding out the door.
The city of Oakland did not immediately respond to requests for a breakdown of what has been obligated, spent and still up for grabs.
Under the federal rules, money is "obligated" when the state has agreed to pay it to households, not when it has actually been paid.
Neighborhood nanny, Zada Flowers has called East Oakland home for 23 years and rented a home where she’s raised four children and was expecting to care for others until the pandemic hit.
"It just shut down everything and the three kids that I was about to take in, I couldn’t," she said. "I have a roof over my head currently but I think about the ones that don’t. It’s a struggle."
Flowers faced financial hardship but qualified for emergency rental relief and finally received money to make ends meet for now.
Tamiko-Omura said it has been a challenge to get people trained to tend to the most vulnerable like seniors, and those with disabilities or language barriers.
"We’re finally at the point now where the money is starting to flow," she said. "We have crazy deadlines. We have so many people in need."
But there is still help out there and renters can apply for assistance beyond the end of the month.
Congress passed a second round of funding as part of the American Rescue Plan, where another $2.6 billion is earmarked for California.
"I can’t keep choosing rent over my food," Berkeley renter Latonya Stelly said. "I’m kind of stuck in a hard place."
Stelly has been unemployed since the pandemic began and is also receiving rental assistance, but said she is fearful of what’s to come.
"It makes me scared because I don’t know if there will be more help," Stelly said. "It’s so hardening to walk down the street and see these homeless camps popping up because it’s too expensive to live here."