County News

Counties launch rent assistance measures amid COVID-19 crisis

Tags: Housing

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While it’s a crucial time to have a roof over your head and shelter to self-isolate, there are growing concerns among renters who lost their jobs or received pay cuts because of COVID-19. 

On March 18, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) authorized the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to implement a foreclosure and eviction moratorium for single-family owners with FHA-insured mortgages for 60 days. 

State and local governments are also taking steps to assist renters and homeowners during these uncertain times. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a statewide moratorium from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent through May 31 if they have been affected by COVID-19. Tenants must provide notice to landlords if they are unable to make their payments. The order also slows foreclosures and protects against utility shutoffs. 

Previously, Newsom implemented other measures to help renters including restrictions on excessive rent increases during emergencies. 

In Contra Costa County, Calif., supervisors passed an ordinance expanding upon Newsom’s orders. 

Supervisor Candace Andersen said the county wanted to add a grace period for after the governor’s emergency order was lifted for both residential and commercial tenants. 

“What we were hearing was the day after we lift our moratoriums and restrictions, someone could immediately have eviction papers served on them,” Andersen said. 

Contra Costa supervisors issued an urgency ordinance that includes a 120-day grace period for renters to make their payments or reach a new written agreement with their landlord. 

During this grace period, renters cannot be evicted for non-payment of rent. 

Andersen said the ordinance also bans late fees if it is a COVID-19-related issue. Individuals will have to provide some level of documentation such as a notice of termination or a pay stub showing a reduction of wages and must notify their landlord within 14 days if unable to make a payment. 

There are 19 cities within the county which have downtowns and small businesses, according to Andersen. The county’s ordinance also helps with commercial evictions. 

“By giving this additional period of time to work with their landlord, to come up with a payment plan for 120 days and start paying their current rent, we felt that our businesses would be in much better shape than if the day that the courts reopened, they got an eviction notice,” she said. 

The ordinance allows for evictions for health and safety reasons or if a direct family member of the landlord needed to move into a unit. 

She said the county is working on anticipating economic recovery and providing infrastructure so businesses can go back to normal. 

“What we used to say ‘flip the switch’ now it’s ‘turn on the dimmer going up,’ we really want those business to be able to re-open their doors, to rehire their employees, be able to sell their inventory that is still in there,” she said. 

Andersen said the ordinance does not relieve responsibility for renters to pay their rent but is a “forbearance of rent.” She explained that many landlords don’t have a mortgage on their property where they could be receiving mortgage relief. She said these landlords depend on rent payments as their income. 

“You want now more than ever to have everyone living in a clean and sanitary condition and if they are currently housed, now is not the time to remove somebody,” Andersen said. “It’s in the landlord’s interest. It’s in the tenant’s interest and very much from an economic development in our cities’ interest within Contra Costa County.” 

Across the country, Anne Arundel County, Md. launched an Eviction Prevention Program. 

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said through the program, money goes directly to landlords when tenants cannot pay rent as a result of loss of income or employment from the coronavirus pandemic. 

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) banned evictions during the state of emergency. 

The county’s Community Development Services put together the eviction prevention program, which is for households below 80 percent of median income. 

The program is funded with $1 million from the county — $500,000 from taxes collected by a casino located in the county and $500,000 that was budgeted for affordable housing and rental assistance but was not spent. 

Pittman said the county expects to have the county funds reimbursed through federal funds. 

“What’s important is getting the program up and running now before the federal funds are available,” he said. 

The program also provides counseling to those applying to help them plan finances. 

“We don’t want people to wait for three months and then figure out their finances and they’ll still owe rent,” he said. 

Pittman said it is “absolutely essential” to put money into rental assistance. 

“We want people to keep their homes, pure and simple,” Pittman said. “We don’t want to end up with an increase in our homeless population as a result of this.”

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