San Diego OKs $15.1 Million in Emergency Rental Assistance

Homeless people stand among their items along 17th Street in San Diego. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego approved a $15.1 million Covid-19 emergency rental assistance fund Tuesday to help residents stay in their homes to avoid exacerbating California’s growing homelessness crisis.

The San Diego Housing Authority, made up of all nine members of the City Council, approved using $15.1 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to provide rental assistance to people who have lost substantial income due to the pandemic.

The fund represents a slice of the $248 million in CARES Act money San Diego received for residents and businesses.

Nearly half of San Diego’s 273,050 housing units are renter-occupied, with 60,000 households earning less than 30% of the Area Median Income, or less than $34,650 annually, according to the county.

Another 104,500 — 38% of San Diego renters — earn between 30% and 80% of the AMI.

Nearly all low-income households in San Diego spend 50% or more of their income on rent, with the median rent in San Diego $1,605, according to the county Housing Authority.

San Diego’s neighborhoods with the highest percentage of lower-income families have been hardest hit by unemployment during the pandemic: More than 42% of residents in the Logan Heights neighborhood near downtown are out of work, according to the Housing Authority.

The rental assistance program will offer up to $4,000 to lower-income households living in a market rate unit in San Diego who had a gross household income of 60% AMI or less before a pandemic-induced change in income.

If each household receives the maximum $4,000 assistance, 3,775 rental households could be helped through the program.

Those living in affordable units can receive a maximum of $2,000. But those who already receive assistance through Section 8 or whose savings accounts can meet their housing needs are not eligible for assistance.

Families with children and seniors older than 62 will receive priority in the program.

The program will be administered by the San Diego Housing Commission.

Because the program is using federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, undocumented San Diegans will not be eligible.

Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry assured Councilwoman Vivian Moreno the private philanthropic dollars the commission plans to raise for the rental assistance fund will be used to for rental assistance for undocumented residents.

Council President Georgette Gomez had requested an amendment to the program that landlords who receive rental assistance payments from the city be prohibited for six months after being paid from filing no-fault evictions against their tenants.

Gomez tabled her amendment after senior chief deputy city attorney Leslie Fitzgerald said the city attorney would need time to review the potential infringement on landlords’ rights. 

She and other council members said they expect the fund to run out of money quickly and will need to be replenished somehow as the pandemic drags on.

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell said the state and federal governments need to pitch in.

“This funding is not enough to handle the whole situation. However, the city does not have a huge amount of funding that we can direct to this problem,” Campbell said.

“We really need to have the federal government step up and provide money for cities that are suffering so much during this Covid outbreak. … I’m glad we can at least do this little bit. It will be fair, and I think it will be sad because we will run out of money pretty rapidly. But this is the right approach and hopefully we can get some federal funding.”

Ninety residents, nearly all in favor, spoke on the City Council’s extension of an eviction moratorium through Sept. 30.

The ban was set to expire July 1, but many residents who spoke Tuesday were concerned that people who could receive rental assistance through the emergency program would be evicted before those funds became available.

Councilman Chris Ward, who represents District 3 in downtown San Diego and surrounding neighborhoods most affected by homelessness said preventing homelessness “is fundamentally the importance of this issue.”

“The most important thing is we cannot have people fall into homelessness,” Ward said.

“We do have the power to be able to locally make sure we are preventing evictions. It doesn’t solve the whole system’s issues, but it can delay a growing crisis already a challenge for our communities for families at risk of homelessness.”

Families will have two weeks to apply for rent relief from the emergency fund through an online portal operated by the Housing Commission. A lottery system will be used to review eligibility and make awards.

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