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Government & Politics

Eviction moratorium stays in place in Fresno, while the city speeds up assistance applications

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Sharrah Thompson lives on the second floor of an older apartment complex in central Fresno. Downstairs, dogs in a neighbor’s yard that is separated by a chain link fence won’t stop barking.

“It's not an area you want to live in, but if you got to and you need a roof over your head, definitely, obviously it's going to be cheaper,” she says.

Outside her building, a crime scene investigation vehicle pulls up and parks on the street. A police officer talks to people in a nearby home. 

Thompson says she lived on the streets for about five months after fleeing domestic violence. Since then, she’s lived in several housing arrangements.   

“Yeah, this is the fourth time I've moved during the pandemic,” she says. 

She’s been at this apartment since May, but is having trouble paying the rent. She says she works part-time at Costco but lost money when she got COVID.  She says it took her three months to apply for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program or ERAP.  There were personal delays including illness but the process was also challenging. There was a lot of paperwork, and a lot of follow-up.  

“So it's really tough. I mean, sometimes it takes a little bit longer to get the help than others,” she says.

ERAP funds were first released in March of 2020 to help people out financially during the pandemic. Since then, the city of Fresno has given out $9.8 million in rental assistance and $1.3 million for PG&E. 

That’s only 26% of the $42 million received in two rounds of state and federal funding. And there’s a time limit on when the money needs to be spent. The first round of ERAP funding resulted in $34 million and needs to be fully expended by Sept. 30, 2022. The second round of ERAP funding, about $8 million needs to be expended by Sept. 30, 2025.

The mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Montelongo says the city has faced several challenges like ever-changing state and federal guidelines. But mainly, the application process is tedious.

“You know when an applicant engages the process, one of the biggest barriers has been just the documentation that's required,” he says.

And he says that’s a challenge for similar programs nationwide. Courtney Espinoza, the city’s program implementation manager says the current approval rate of accepted applications is 13.5%. That means the remaining 86.5% are still in the pipeline. But Espinoza says that since the start of Fresno’s program, the city has been making adjustments to ease the process.

“We are in kind of the midst of kind of some large changes to the application hoping to remove all those barriers for folks so we can get the money to them out faster,” she says.

Espinoza says they’re revamping the applications in the online platform, cutting down the number of documents needed, as allowed by state and federal guidelines. 

And in looking through the new guidelines, the city confirmed only last week that applications can also cover rent past September 30th.

“The state is allowing those who need assistance after September 30th for October, November, January etc., they're still able to do so, but again at the maximum of 18 months,” Montelongo says. 

In addition to rental and utility assistance, Fresno has invested $750,000 into its Eviction Protection Program. The program provides free mediation services for tenants and landlords. Tenants who qualify can also receive free legal representation if they feel they are being wrongfully evicted. Councilmember Tyler Maxwell co-sponsored the program, which helps renters even if it’s not related to COVID-19.

“Most of the cases we've gotten so far are non-COVID 19 related, folks that are being evicted illegally from their rental units for whatever reason,” he says.

Since the program has been in place for about three months, 13 cases for representation have been accepted. Four cases have reached pre-court resolutions ranging from preventing evictions from remaining on a tenant’s record, negotiating more time to move out, and reducing the amount of money owed. Maxwell says services like this are crucial to help stem the tide of evictions.

“We want to make sure that none of those people ever have to become homeless and so we put this program together to make sure that if you're being evicted of a COVID 19 reason, that you're going to have legal representation afforded to you and you'll be able to stay in your home and we're not going to continue adding to the homeless crisis we're facing in our city,” he says.

Maxwell says the city won’t lift the eviction moratorium until the local emergency order is lifted, and that all depends on the rate of COVID-19 infections, which the city council and mayor will determine. 

“We're looking at that information every week and I could tell you right now that I don't know when the emergency will be lifted, but based off the numbers I'm seeing, it's not going to be anytime soon,” he says.

For people like Sharrah Thompson, every dollar counts. She didn’t get the rental assistance - in part because she and her landlord disagreed on how much she owed. But now she’s applying for utility assistance. If she doesn’t pay her bill soon, she could lose gas and electric service. PG&E’s moratorium on customer shutoffs for nonpayment expired September 30th. 

“They sent out a letter indicating that I owe like, almost 700 or 800 dollars,” she says.

Thompson hopes this application process is more successful. And she encourages others to apply, working directly with community-based organizations contracted to help with the application process. 

“Just be prepared and make sure everything is accurate and up to date. And that's what these different organizations that are helping you with, that's what they're there for,” Thompson says.

In Fresno, just over 1600 applicants have been approved so far. More than 12,000 applicants are still waiting for review.