Holding California Accountable for Its Failures in Implementing the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program
The COVID-19 Rent Relief program (also referred to as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program or ERAP) was created by the federal government to keep low-income tenants housed if they faced difficulty paying rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic. California identified over $6 billion in state and federal funds, and the California Department of Housing & Community Development (HCD) was charged with creating an application process, screening tenants for eligibility, and distributing the program funds.
However, the application process for California’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program (Housing is Key) was burdensome for many of the most vulnerable people who needed such assistance. It required extensive paperwork and documentation, access to email and the ability to check it regularly, and the ability to navigate the system in English, even if it isn’t the tenant’s preferred language. If they managed to apply, tenants still waited months for a response and received a variety of vague responses, including approval for partial payments or a full denial of payment without adequate explanation.
The process was profoundly unfair, didn’t meet constitutional standards, and failed to achieve its most basic aim in many instances: keeping Californians housed. That’s why community-based tenant organizations Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), along with research and action institute PolicyLink, filed a lawsuit against HCD for administering COVID-19 Rent Relief in a way that is opaque and disproportionately harms tenants on the basis of race, color, and national origin. The suit also challenges HCD’s refusal to provide public records that would shed light on its administration of the program.
Public Counsel, Western Center on Law & Poverty, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and Covington & Burling LLP joined forces to represent the plaintiffs and, in May 2023, reached a historic agreement with the State of California to settle the COVID-19 rent relief cases. The settlement will bring resolution and hope to over 100,000 households who have been waiting for a year or more for the chance to receive support from the State of California. The settlement will provide new opportunities for those denied rental assistance to appeal, will add clarity to application denials, and will expand a network of community partners to assist tenants in responding to denials and appeals. People who still have pending applications as of the date of the settlement should expect to receive a new series of communications from the State and, if their applications are denied, will have 30 days to file an appeal to receive rental assistance.
Because of this lawsuit, the State of California will improve its administration of a crucial pandemic relief program to comply with due process. As a result, low-income Californians will have a better shot at receiving the rental assistance they need to avoid eviction and stay housed.
Superior Court of The State Of California, County Of Alameda
Case Developments and Key Documents
Plaintiffs and defendants have reached a landmark settlement on behalf of Californians struggling with pandemic rent debt. The agreement holds the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) accountable for failures in implementing the Covid-19 Rent Relief Program. The settlement will provide new opportunities for those denied rental assistance to appeal, will add clarity to application denials, and will expand a network of community partners to assist tenants in responding to denials and appeals. People who have pending applications as of the date of the settlement should expect to receive a new series of communications from the State and will have 30 days to file an appeal to receive rental assistance if their application is denied.
Judge Orders State to Create Denial Notices that Satisfy Due Process
In modifying the Preliminary Injunction to comply with the Court of Appeal order, Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said the state’s denial notices must “specify the facts supporting the denial” to satisfy due process, meaning the notice must provide enough information for applicants to understand why the state does not believe their application meets program requirements. The Court acknowledged that being told why tenants are being denied is important to allow applicants a meaningful opportunity to appeal and correct their paperwork.
Court of Appeal Orders Superior Court to Narrow Preliminary Injunction
In November 2022, HCD filed a Petition for an Extraordinary Writ with the Court of Appeal asking the court to overturn the Preliminary Injunction. The Court of Appeal issued an order in December 2022 ordering the Superior Court to modify the scope of the Preliminary Injunction. However, the Court’s order said the Preliminary Injunction could only be modified in a way to still ensure due process so that “it prohibits the Department from denying applications for rental assistance only if the applicant has not been informed of the specific reason(s) for the denial or provided with the documents that the Department relied upon in denying the applications.”
Judge Grants Preliminary Injunction
An Alameda County court sided with tenant advocates and ordered California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) not to deny any pending rental assistance applications until the court can determine if HCD’s process meets constitutional due process standards. Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said California’s denial notices are too vague, don’t tell applicants which of their documents led to denial, and make it difficult for denied applicants to appeal.
Three community groups sue the State of California over its COVID-19 rent relief program (also known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program or ERAP). The lawsuit said the program operates in an unclear and discriminatory way, and doesn’t provide adequate explanation to renters who are denied help, violating due process and fair housing laws.
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action is a grassroots, member-led, statewide community organization working with more than 15,000 members across California. ACCE is dedicated to raising the voices of everyday Californians, neighborhood by neighborhood, to fight for the policies and programs we need to improve our communities and create a brighter future.
PolicyLink is a national research and action institute that works to advance racial and economic equity. PolicyLink seeks to promote economic inclusion to eliminate poverty, shrink inequality, and increase mobility, creating and maintaining opportunity-rich communities through equitable development. PolicyLink uses research to create resources that will ensure that all systems and institutions are just, free of racial bias, and lead to a vibrant democracy where all, especially the most vulnerable, can participate and prosper.
SAJE is dedicated to securing economic justice and building community power in South Los Angeles by advocating for tenant rights, healthy housing, and equitable development. SAJE provides tenants’ rights education, direct tenant services, and tenant organizing support. SAJE has engaged in extensive educational campaigns and conducted direct services to assist tenants in accessing rental assistance.
Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses, and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.
Covington & Burling LLP: In an increasingly regulated world, Covington & Burling LLP provides corporate, litigation, and regulatory expertise to help clients navigate their most complex business problems, deals, and disputes. Founded in 1919, the firm has more than 1,300 lawyers in offices in Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Washington. Since its founding, Covington has demonstrated a strong commitment to public service. The firm is frequently recognized for pro bono service, including 11 times being ranked the number one pro bono practice in the U.S. by The American Lawyer.
- Press Release – Settlement Announced, 6/5/23
- Response to California’s Move to Appeal Ruling in Covid-19 Rent Relief Lawsuit, 3/2/23
- Press Release – Modified Preliminary Injunction, 1/23/23
- Press Release – Preliminary Injunction Granted, 7/8/22
- Press Release – Compliant Filed, 6/6/22
- Media Coverage:
- LA Times, State reaches settlement over pandemic rent relief: What tenants and landlords need to know, 6/9/23
- Capital & Main, Pandemic Relief Program Left Many California Renters Struggling, 6/8/23
- CALMatters, California Rent Relief is Still Available for Thousands of Tenants who Were Denied COVID Assistance, 6/6/23
- Telemundo 52, Investigan casos de inquilinos que no recibieron ayuda monetaria, 6/6/23
- Politico, Rent Repair, 6/5/23
- LAist, Tenant Groups Reach Settlement with State of California Over Applicants Stuck in Rent Relief Limbo, 6/5/23
- NBC4, Tenants and Landlords Call State’s Multi-Billion Dollar Rental Assistance Program a Failure, 3/13/2023
- Sacramento News & Review, Holiday abandonment: More than 100,000 COVID-impacted renters tell state ‘Thanks for nothing’, 11/24/22
- OC Register, Court Orders California to Pause Denying Pandemic Relief Aid, 7/13/22
- KTVU, Judge orders California to stop denying rent relief applications, 7/12/22
- Sac Bee, A fighting chance.’ California can’t deny rent relief after tenants sued state over program, 7/8/22
- Mercury News, Court orders California to pause denying pandemic rent aid, 7/11/22
- KRON4, Judge orders CA to stop denying rent relief applications, 7/13/22
- KQED, Thousands of California Tenants Still Waiting on Rent Relief Can Be Evicted, 6/30/22
- KTVU, 1 in 3 applications denied California rent relief money, thousands still waiting, 6/28/22
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
On May 30, 2023, tenant advocates settled a major lawsuit against the State of California over due process issues in the administration of the State’s COVID-19 Rent Relief Program, also known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) or Housing Is Key, which resulted in eligible tenants being denied assistance. As a result, the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has agreed to several important reforms to the procedures around denials and appeals in the program.
This FAQ provides an overview of the lawsuit settlement and what it means for tenants. For more information about the lawsuit and a complete copy of the settlement, use the tabs on this web page to access more information. To spread the word about this settlement, share this web address: CARentRelief.org
For questions on the status of an application, tenants should contact the State’s Housing Is Key call center at (833) 430-2122. To check the status of their application in the Housing Is Key application portal, tenants can visit: https://hornellp-ca.neighborlysoftware.com/CaliforniaCovid19RentRelief/Participant.
To connect with a community organization that can provide application assistance, tenants should call the Local Partner Network at(833) 687-0967.
1. Who does this settlement impact?
This settlement impacts tenants who applied to Housing Is Key on or before March 31, 2022, and who still have pending applications or were denied on or after June 7, 2022. The settlement may also help some tenants who were denied prior to June 7, 2022 or have other application statuses as detailed in this FAQ.
This settlement only applies to the State of California’s Housing Is Key program. It does not apply to any local rental assistance programs run by a city or county. The settlement also does not reopen the Housing Is Key program to new applications.
Tenants can check their status in the Housing Is Key application portal here: https://hornellp-ca.neighborlysoftware.com/CaliforniaCovid19RentRelief/Participant.
2. What will happen next for tenants who have been waiting for decisions on their rent relief applications?
HCD will resume processing outstanding applications and appeals. Tenants should expect to receive new communications from the State soon, whether it is an approval or denial.
Under the settlement, the State has revised the denial notice so it provides more specific information to tenants on the exact reason for the denial. The tenants that will receive new denial notices are:
- Tenants who received a denial notice on or after June 7, 2022;
- Tenants who never received a denial notice;
- Tenants who submitted an appeal but have not received a decision on their appeal as of May 30, 2023.
The new denial notices will restart a new 30-day period to submit an appeal. The new denial notices will also include information about how to contact an organization who can help tenants with the appeal.
Tenants who are not sure of the date of their denial can call the Housing Is Key call center at (833) 430-2122 to ask for their date of denial.
3. What will new denial notices look like?
All new denial notices will now have more information about the specific reason for the denial so that tenants can address any identified issues and prepare a useful appeal to challenge the decision. Notices will be in English and in any other language the tenant requests. Under the settlement, the State must upload all denial notices to a tenant’s Housing Is Key application portal so it is readily accessible.
If the denial was based on something submitted by the tenant’s landlord, the tenant will have the right to request the document or information provided by the landlord. The tenant will then have 30 additional days to submit their appeal. If HCD does not get permission to provide the document to the tenant, the document will be disregarded during the tenant’s appeal.
4. How will the new denial notices be sent to tenants?
Under the settlement, HCD can no longer send denial notices only by email. Any new denial notices will be uploaded to the Housing is Key application portal, emailed to the tenant and any third-party advocates listed in their application, and mailed to the tenant’s address listed on the application.
We expect new denial notices to be sent on a rolling basis over the next few months.
5. Does this settlement make any changes to the appeal process?
The settlement expands access to the appeal process. Tenants will now be able to appeal by calling the Housing Is Key call center at (833) 430-2122, emailing Appeal@ca-rentrelief.com, or contacting their case manager directly. HCD will also put a link to the appeals portal in the application portal. HCD will also work to find an alternative way for tenants to access the appeals portal if they no longer have access to the email address they originally used for their application.
With an improved denial notice that states the specific reason for a denial, tenants will be able to address the exact issue in an appeal. As was the case before, tenants have 30 days after receiving a denial notice to submit an appeal or the denial will be considered final.
6. What if a tenant was only approved for part of the assistance they applied for?
During the lawsuit, we learned that it was common for HCD to only approve tenants for part of the assistance they applied for without providing an explanation to the tenant (aka “partial payments”). The settlement now requires HCD to send out these partial payments to approved applicants within 30 days of May 30, 2023.
Going forward, if a tenant is awarded only a portion of the rental assistance they applied for, HCD will send them a notice explaining why they were denied the full amount. Additionally, HCD will automatically open an appeal on the tenant’s behalf. Tenants will be able to request additional information and documents that HCD used to make the decision, and to submit new evidence to support the appeal. Tenants should keep an eye out for these “partial payment” notifications and respond promptly if they want to challenge the decision.
7. How does this settlement impact tenants who previously received “recapture” notices?
Some tenants who received rental assistance were later sent “recapture” notices saying that they must return some or all of the money they received. Under the settlement, HCD must provide these tenants a new notice explaining the reason HCD wants them to return the money and give the tenant the right to appeal. After receiving the new notice, the tenant will have 30 days to appeal the recapture. If the appeal is approved, HCD will cancel the recapture notice and the tenant will be able to keep the funds.
If HCD finds during the appeal process that the recapture notice was incorrect but there is still a problem with the application, HCD will notify the tenant of the specific problem and give them 45 days to update their application.
If the appeal is denied, HCD will send another notice providing options to repay the funds, such as through a payment plan. HCD agrees that they will not sell this debt to debt collectors and will allow low-income tenants at least 3 years to repay the debt.
8. What happens if a tenant submitted multiple applications and one of them has been marked a “duplicate”?
If a tenant submitted multiple applications, HCD may have marked one of them as a “duplicate” in the application portal with no notice to the tenant. The settlement now requires additional notice to be provided for applications considered duplicates.
For any tenants who are denied, the denial notice will include a section identifying whether there are any applications that were not processed because they are considered duplicates. HCD must also send a notification by email and by posting in the application portal that an application has been marked as a duplicate. These notices will inform tenants to take action if they believe an application has been marked as a duplicate in error.
HCD will allow tenants with duplicate applications to call the Housing Is Key call center at(833) 430-2122 and speak to trained staff to help make sure their duplicate applications are combined into one.
9. Will this settlement help a tenant who was previously denied rental assistance?
Except as detailed in this FAQ, the settlement does not reopen denial decisions for most tenants who were denied rental assistance before June 7, 2022.
However, under the settlement, the State has agreed to review applications that were denied between March 1, 2022 and May 31, 2022 for being “non-responsive.”
Tenants who were denied between March 1, 2022 and May 31, 2022 for being “non-responsive” can connect with a community organization in the Local Partner Network at (833) 687-0967. Under the settlement, these organizations are able to request that HCD reopen the cases of these tenants, request more information about the denial, and work with the program to add new evidence to try to get the tenant approved.
HCD will automatically review these applications to determine whether any were denied wrongfully. If they find that an application was denied incorrectly, and the applicant is eligible for rental assistance, HCD will issue a payment.
If HCD cannot determine whether the application should have been denied or approved, they must automatically open an appeal. They will also send a notice that clearly explains that an appeal has been opened, that the applicant can provide more information and/or documents to support the appeal, and they may call the Housing Is Key call center at (833) 430-2122 to receive more information about the application. A case manager must contact the applicant directly to request additional information.
10. Does this settlement provide any additional assistance for tenants who do not use English as their primary language?
The settlement requires that the application and appeals portal is translated and that there are staff at the Housing Is Key call center who speak the six most common languages spoken in California. HCD must notify applicants that language services are available in all languages. All letters HCD sends must include a notice informing tenants that language services are available in multiple languages. Denial notices will be provided in English and in the language the tenant requested as their primary language.
11. Where can a tenant go for more information if they’re unsure about the status of their application?
Tenants can call the Housing Is Key call center at (833) 430-2122. As part of the settlement, wait times for the call center must not be significantly longer for tenants than they are for landlords. Applicants are now allowed to add and change contact information over the phone, including to add new third-party representatives. A tenant can also call to find out the date their original denial notice was issued.
12. Where can tenants go to get assistance with their application?
The Local Partner Network is a network of community organizations who can help fix issues with applications and appeals. As part of the settlement, HCD will fully fund this program so that applicants who are denied rental assistance will have access to outside help completing their appeals and navigating the online system.
If you need help with your application or need help challenging a denial, you should call the Local Partner Network at (833) 687-0967 to be connected to a community organization, tenant group, or legal service provider who can help.
13. Where can a tenant go for help if they are still waiting for a decision on their application, but are now facing eviction?
If a tenant has received a notice of nonpayment for rental debt and/or been served with an eviction (unlawful detainer), they can find information for legal services in their area at https://www.lawhelpca.org/issues/housing.
14. How will the settlement be enforced?
The attorneys that filed this case will be checking in on HCD to make sure the settlement terms are being carried out correctly. If HCD doesn’t comply with the settlement, the attorneys will try to work with HCD to find a resolution for any issues that come up. If that doesn’t work, the attorneys can ask the Court to order HCD to comply.
HCD will provide new monthly information about the program publicly on its website, including:
- The number of undecided applications, and their status;
- The number of denials, broken down by zip code, race, and ethnicity;
- The number of appeals still pending;
- The number of appeals denied or approved.