Data and Methods
This analysis is based on a dataset tracking all rental assistance applications submitted by renters to the program, which we obtained through a Public Records Act request. The state program covers about 63 percent of the state’s population; the other 37 percent of California residents live in the 25 cities and counties that opted to administer their own programs. The dataset provided to us on a weekly basis by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) includes anonymized individual case data with applicant demographics (race/ethnicity, income, and language of application), zip code, eviction threat/proceeding at time of application, amount of rent and utilities requested and paid, and landlord participation in the application. The application question about eviction risk was newly added upon our request. The specific yes/no question is: “Has your landlord issued a Notice to Pay, an Eviction Notice, filed an Unlawful Detainer against you due to unpaid rent, or indicated they will be seeking to evict you?”
This dataset is the same dataset used to populate the state’s own public dashboard, but with much greater detail. It includes, for example, 16 detailed case-status categories assigned by HCD including statuses such as “Application Complete: Pending Payment,” assigned to households who have been approved for payment but have not actually received funds and are still waiting for assistance; recertifications, or households that received assistance and applied for additional support; and denied applicants.
We used the 2015–2019 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample to summarize rent burden, racial/ethnic demographics, and primary language to compare program applicants and beneficiaries to the likely population of renters in need of assistance. To construct this comparison geography, we excluded the 11 counties opting out of the current phase of statewide rental assistance (Alameda, Fresno, Kern, Marin, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma) and four cities outside of these counties that also opted out of the statewide program (Anaheim, Santa Ana, Stockton, and Long Beach). In addition, our calculations exclude the city of Signal Hill, because it is entirely contained within the Long Beach census geography.
More than half a million renter households have submitted applications for rental assistance
Since March 15, 2021, when the state began accepting rental assistance applications, more than half a million renter households (534,666) have applied for relief through the program. Every week tens of thousands of new renter households submit applications. Since our initial analysis, 26,996 new households have applied for assistance.
The majority of renters who have applied for assistance are still awaiting a response
Among the over half a million program applications, the majority — 51 percent, representing 270,759 renter households — are still under review. As illustrated in the chart above, the number of applications awaiting review has declined over the past month, but a large backlog remains.
Among households who have been paid and have not reapplied for additional assistance, the typical (median) wait time for initial approval was approximately three months (92 days). Households typically waited approximately three additional weeks (21 days) between application approval and receipt of aid payments. At the current rate of approvals from the most recent four weeks (less than 7,500/week), it would take more than 36 weeks for those still waiting to receive a decision on their application.
The pace of delivering rental assistance has improved over time. Whereas households that applied for aid in March 2021 waited an average of 181 days to receive aid payments, that figure declined to 52 days by January 2022.
About four in 10 applications (204,004, or 38 percent of all applicants) have been approved. Only one in three renters who have applied to the program (176,523 households) have received assistance, either directly or through a payment to their landlord. Another 27,481 have been approved for payment but have not yet been paid.
Eleven percent (59,903 households) have been denied assistance. According to HCD, applications are denied if they are ineligible for the program or if the applicant lives in one of 25 cities and counties running their own ERAP program. Program data on applicant incomes illustrate that denied applicants do typically earn higher incomes than those who are approved: 13 percent earn incomes above 80 percent of the area median income, which is the upper income threshold for the program. However, the majority of denied applicants do have extremely low incomes and also generally face the same level of eviction risk (at the time of application) as approved applicants.
One in three applicants reported receiving an eviction threat or proceeding from their landlord
The statewide program has prioritized serving renters at risk of eviction, and the application includes a question directly asking renters if they have received an eviction notice or if their landlord has threatened to evict them.
One in three applicants to the statewide rental assistance program (176,847 out of 534,666 total applicants) reported receiving an eviction notice or being threatened with eviction by their landlord at the time of their application. Given that eligible applicants wait several months to receive payment, a far greater proportion of renters likely face eviction before making it through the application process.
Of these renters at imminent risk of eviction, 52,084 have been paid and another 8,185 have been approved for payment, amounting to more than one third of all applicants. However, the majority of applicants at imminent risk (97,324) are still waiting for approval, and another 19,254 (11 percent) have been denied.
Black California renters are disproportionately at risk of eviction due to pandemic rent debt: the Black renter households in the statewide rental assistance program facing imminent eviction risk represent seven percent of all Black renter households in California, while the Latinx renters facing imminent risk in the program represent two percent of all Latinx renter households and three percent of white renter households, respectively. This racial inequity is due to the higher likelihood of Black renters having fallen behind on rent during the pandemic. The likelihood of landlord eviction threats or proceedings was similar across racial/ethnic groups.
Four in 10 tenants who received rental assistance have requested additional support
Among renter households who have received rental assistance, 43 percent (77,215 households) have reapplied to the program for additional support. Only 11 percent of those reapplicants have been approved, meaning that nearly 69,000 renters are waiting for another round of review. As Louis Hansen of The Mercury News reported, renters in this situation are at risk of eviction. San Jose’s Ronda Campbell, for example, fell ill at work and successfully applied for and received three months of rent relief from the program. She applied again, but her case has been pending for months. Although she’s still waiting to receive additional assistance, her landlord has sent her an eviction notice.
Given that applicants who are awaiting review or payment have similarly low income levels as those who’ve received payment, we would expect that many of these applicants will also require additional assistance after their initial payment.
According to HCD, renters whose applications have been approved need to reapply for additional assistance before the March 31 deadline, whereas renters whose initial applications are still being reviewed can still apply for additional months of relief after that deadline.
Renters whose primary language is not English appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pool
Since the launch of California’s rental assistance program, low-income renters who suffered job and income losses due to the pandemic have faced numerous challenges accessing relief. These include technological and language barriers, lack of access for tenants with disabilities, difficulty supplying the necessary documentation of income losses, difficulty communicating with landlords or obtaining documentation from them, and fear of landlord harassment/retaliation and deportation or other immigration-related consequences. To assess whether California’s rental assistance program is reaching renters with the greatest needs, we compared the racial/ethnic composition of applicants with that of severely cost-burdened renters (those who pay more than 50 percent of their household income for rent and utilities), a population that represents renters at the greatest risk of having pandemic-related rent debt. To approximate the statewide program's service area, we excluded the 11 counties and five additional cities where local rental assistance programs are operating from the severely rent-burdened reference group (see Data and Methods above for the list of excluded places).
This analysis reveals that the demographics of these groups are similar, indicating that the statewide program appears to be representative of the renters hardest hit by the pandemic rent debt crisis. One exception could be Asian and Pacific Islander renters, who appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pool.
Renters whose primary language is not English, particularly Spanish-speaking renters and Chinese-speaking renters, also appear to be underrepresented in the applicant pool. Among California renters who are extremely cost-burdened, 51 percent speak a language other than English at home, yet 87 percent of program applicants indicated that their primary language is English on the application form. A significant share of the state’s extremely cost-burdened renters speak Spanish at home (32 percent), yet only 10 percent of applications were submitted by people who indicated that Spanish is their primary language.
As described in our initial analysis, the demographics of rental assistance recipients reflect the demographics of the applicant pool, indicating that the program itself is serving applicants equitably and is not introducing additional inequities. Additionally, our analysis shows that the incomes of program applicants and recipients reflect the program’s targeting: well more than half of renters who apply to and are served by the program are extremely low income.
California needs permanent policy solutions, funding, and infrastructure to support the renters hardest hit by the pandemic
California’s statewide rental assistance program was initially allocated $3.07 billion by the federal government. The state received an additional $62 million in January when the Treasury began reallocating funds and received another $136 million of reallocated funds earlier this month. Approximately $2.04 billion in aid has been delivered to struggling renters and landlords, and another $228.5 million is in the process of being delivered to applicants whose payments are pending. An additional $4.86 billion has been requested by households with applications still under initial review. There have been just over $8.6 billion in total requests to date, with more than 9,100 new requests coming in every week and 43 percent of aid recipients reapplying for additional support. The need continues to grow as we approach the end of the program on March 31.
Recognizing the critical demand for additional funding to ensure all eligible renters who apply in time can receive assistance, California’s legislature passed a bill this month that allocates General Fund resources to state and local rental assistance programs.
This budget allocation fills an urgent need, especially given that many locally administered programs have already exhausted their funds. But it will not be sufficient to protect and stabilize all vulnerable households still reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic. The program’s expiration date of March 31 is an artificial and arbitrary endpoint, as the need for rent relief is ongoing and still extensive, and many eligible renters have not yet applied. Despite the desire to return to normal, many renters continue to face Covid-related economic hardships. Recognizing the pandemic is not over, the state of New York has extended eviction protections through the end of 2022, and California should follow suit.
Urgent policy fixes are needed to realize the promise of California’s rental assistance program
If California’s eviction protections are allowed to expire on March 31, tenants eligible for assistance who are still waiting to receive payment can face eviction in court — and many will lose their homes. With application processing times lasting three months and beyond, hundreds of thousands of tenants are likely to still be waiting for relief when these protections expire. If the legislature does not act, many Covid-impacted renters may lose their homes because of the application backlog, exposing families and communities to the cascading harms of eviction and homelessness. Even with temporary protections in place, every day of delay leaves families more vulnerable to eviction and unable to make financial plans.
Even this extension will not address the underlying need; when economic conditions approve, our housing affordability crisis will continue. We recommend the following:
Extend statewide eviction protections without preempting local ones. Extending statewide eviction protections while allowing local governments the flexibility to meet the needs of their communities is the most effective way to stabilize vulnerable renters and keep them in their homes while assistance is distributed. Some local governments, including the cities of Fresno, San Francisco, and Stockton along with Alameda and Los Angeles Counties, have passed their own eviction protections for tenants who could not pay rent because of the economic impacts of Covid-19. However, the most recent Covid-19 eviction protection law, AB 832, severely limited counties’ and cities’ ability to enact local tenant protections. Even though most of AB 832’s eviction protections have already expired, the remaining protections should be extended through August 2022. The state’s laws should complement local efforts instead of restricting them. To ensure this, local governments must be given maximum flexibility to pass their own eviction protection laws to meet the needs of their communities.
Extend the rent relief program. Four in 10 renters who received assistance have already requested more, and the need is continuing. To allow time to reach these communities and to meet the ongoing need for rental assistance, California must also fund additional months of assistance for eligible renters and allow renters to continue applying for assistance beyond this month. At a minimum, renters should be allowed to apply for rental assistance to cover the months from April through August 2022. While federal law limits renters to 18 months of assistance, California should use state funds to cover an additional five months of rent for those in need.
Streamline the application and approval process to ensure funds reach tenants in time to prevent eviction. One third of tenants applying for relief were already facing eviction when they completed their applications. Extended wait times for assistance have inevitably led to a far greater number of tenants facing eviction while their applications are being processed. To meaningfully protect renters from eviction, applications must be processed more quickly and payments must be expedited.
Increase equitable access to relief funds. The pandemic has deepened the harms of structural racism on communities of color, who have suffered disproportionate deaths, job losses, and housing instability. Increasing targeted outreach to renters who do not speak English and underrepresented communities of color is imperative to ensure that rental assistance dollars do not further exacerbate the racialized harms of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Institute a permanent program to support California’s renters struggling to get by with low incomes and exorbitant housing costs. California was in a housing crisis before the pandemic began, and long-term solutions are necessary to ensure that low-income people can access and keep affordable housing in the communities of their choice. While the rental assistance program has had a rocky start, a permanent program to assist renters in need has the potential to help mitigate the harms that stem from the state’s severe lack of affordable housing. Policymakers should think boldly about how to create an effective and equitable rental assistance program to meet the long term needs of low-income Californians.
If policymakers do not act now, families who were intended to benefit from the rental assistance program will face loss of housing after AB 832’s eviction protections expire on March 31. This massive investment of public funds will be wasted if we allow tens or even hundreds of thousands of eligible families to become homeless while waiting for help. California’s policymakers must take urgent action to prevent mass eviction and realize the promise of its rental assistance program.
* Madeline Howard is is a senior attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty.
We are grateful to the entire project team that contributed to this research, including Francisco Dueñas and Rae Huang of Housing NOW!; Abbie Langston, Simone Robbennolt, Jennifer Tran, and Gabriel Charles Tyler of PolicyLink; and Justin Scoggins of Equity Research Institute. In addition, we thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, The Prudential Foundation, the Salesforce Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, the Tableau Foundation, the Target Foundation, and the Truist Foundation for supporting our equitable recovery research and the National Equity Atlas.
 Since our initial analysis, the number of households that have been paid (but had not reapplied for additional assistance) increased drastically, from about 6,000 to about 99,000. Our inquiries to HCD as to the cause for this shift in the dataset have not been answered. In a podcast interview, Geoffrey Ross, deputy director for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, explained that the case status database was lagged, which would seem to be the likely reason for this extreme change in the data.