Millions in County Rent Relief Dollars Going Unused

Both landlords and tenants tell NBC 7 the program just isn’t working

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As of Thursday, San Diego County's eviction moratorium is officially now in effect, but it's only meant to last until August - and pending evictions are already piling up.

Courthouse records show since the start of the pandemic, 3,334 eviction requests have been filed in San Diego County.

The county had a rent relief program in hopes of shaving down that pile, but both landlords and tenants say the program just isn’t working.

“It hurts my heart that we’ve never been in this situation in my whole 46 years of life,” said single mother of two, Patricia Mendoza, while fighting back tears. “NEVER been in this situation.”

The situation Mendoza said is fighting three eviction attempts during the pandemic. Mendoza says her family has had their water cut off, and her internet cut out while her children were doing online learning – while her daughter was taking final exams.

Mendoza’s rent is $1,500 a month. She says her income was only $2,000 a month - and that was before she was laid off in April of last year.

“It broke my heart to see my daughter break down yesterday and say, ‘Mom I don’t know how to be happy or sad at the same time. Because I don’t know if I’m happy I graduated, but I’m sad because what happens when we’re going to be homeless?’ What do you tell your children? What do you tell your children?” Mendoza said.

The county has a rent relief program to help people like Patricia Mendoza. But NBC 7 Investigates found millions of dollars are sitting untapped.

To be specific, the county's rent relief program had $107 million. Of that, just $13 million has actually been distributed to landlords, $66 million dollars is stuck in processing, and $28 million hasn't even been earmarked.

“It’s amazing how little of the funds that have been allocated have been used,” said Lucinda Lilley, president of the Southern California Rental Housing Association, which represents 130,000 rental units.

Lilley says part of why the relief program isn't getting much support, is it only covers 80% of owed rental backpay.

“I can’t think of another industry that’s being asked to take 70 to 80 cents on the dollar as payment for goods and services that they provide,” says Lilley. “Certainly not our grocery stores, not our gas stations.”

Lilley says more landlords would be on board if the county covered 100% of the rent owed.

A county spokesman says that’s out of their hands. State restrictions on the relief dollars limit the program to covering only 80 percent of backpay rent and 25 percent of future rent.

Lilley also says for some, the application is confusing, invasive, and requires a lot of cooperation between the landlord and the tenant.

“We’re in the housing business,” says Lilley. “We’re not in the putting people on the street business. We don’t like that any more than you do. It’s bad business. It costs money. It’s not good for anybody involved.”

NBC 7 asked the county about the application process and limited aid available. A spokesman sent NBC 7 a statement saying in part, “The process is a bit clunky. And through the eyes of folks who are trying to get assistance, frustrating… State regulations currently are more restrictive, but based on the Governor’s May Revise announcement, it is anticipated the restrictions will be lessened.”

As for Mendoza, she says she currently owes $10,500 in rent backpay. She says she applied for the county program and got approved, but says her landlord isn’t making things easy and is holding up the relief – raising the dollar amount of her debt.

NBC 7 reached out to her landlord, but our messages have not been answered.

“You know it makes me upset,” says Mendoza. “You know, it makes me really mad.”

Mad and on a mission to help others, by spreading the word about rental aid programs, and advocacy groups willing to help tenants in trouble, because for Mendoza, failure is not an option.

“I have to be OK,” says Mendoza. “I have two blessings. I have to be OK. Because you know what? I’m their rock.”

The county's eviction moratorium will end 60 days after the state lifts the stay at home order.

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