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Kern's rent relief program distributes more than $2.7 million

A program to provide financial assistance to renters is picking up steam locally. 

The Housing Authority of Kern County is administering a rent and utility relief program for Bakersfield and Kern County, which will ultimately disperse close to $50 million in state and federal funds. The funds can pay for up to 12 months in back rent or utilities, though benefit amounts may soon change. Applicants may also qualify for payments on future rent, as well.

"We’re seeing millions of dollars going out to the people who need this assistance," Heather Kimmel, assistant executive director for the Housing Authority, said of the program that launched March 15.

So far more than 500 applicants have received a combined $2.7 million, with the average award per household around $5,000.

Another 1,700 applications are under review and 1,300 more are in process, according to figures provided by the housing authority.  

In addition to financial help, applicants who qualify can also receive support and case management to ensure long-term stability. That may include helping someone who can no longer afford their home relocate to a more affordable dwelling, or helping someone apply for disability benefits, Kimmel said.

"Sometimes just making a payment is just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. So we needed to be sure we were looking at long-term solutions," Kimmel said. 

To qualify, applicants must be a renter and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income, which is $55,900 for a family of four. The household must also be at risk of homelessness and at least one person must have qualified for unemployment, had their income reduced or incurred significant costs since the pandemic began. Costs incurred can include childcare when schools were closed, increased medical bills due to COVID-19 illness or other increased expenses. Outstanding balances for utilities paid by the tenant may also be covered. Utilities eligible are electricity, gas, water, fuel or oil and internet service if it is used for doing school or work from home.

Renters in need of assistance are encouraged to apply as soon as possible, Kimmel said, because funds are going fast. Landlords can also initiate an application; coordination between landlord and tenant is required to receive the maximum benefit amount, no matter who files the initial application. 

"We’re telling people there’s not unlimited funds. The program may go until June but when the funds run out, that’s it," said Lorena Lara, whose organization Faith in the Valley is doing outreach to raise awareness about the program. 

The program currently operates under U.S. Treasury rules but will soon switch to state rules, which will only reimburse 80 percent of back rent. In that situation, landlords must be willing to forgive the other 20 percent. Some other changes such as the amount of assistance given out will happen when the change takes effect. It's unclear yet when that switch will happen, said Kimmel.

Even before the pandemic hit, many Kern County residents already lived in precarious housing situations. A recent study by Community Action Partnership of Kern found that affordable housing and housing assistance ranks highest on the list of community needs locally.

It is generally advised that no more than 25 percent of income be spent on rent, according to the CAPK report. But in Kern, 58 percent of renters pay greater than 30 percent of income toward rent, with 47 percent paying greater than 35 percent of their income, the report says.

"The hope is these programs will help people mitigate the built-up costs they face so they can come out the other side of this pandemic and re-establish their stable lifestyle," said James Burger, CAPK's outreach and advocacy coordinator. "These things happen to people through no fault of their own. Bridging that gap is so important."

The bulk of applications for assistance through the program so far have come primarily from households in the metro Bakersfield area, with just 17 percent coming from communities outside Bakersfield, the housing authority's figures show. 

Lara, with Faith in the Valley, said she expects partners engaged in outreach efforts will adjust their focus to try to better reach outlying areas. 

One group that is out spreading the word about the program is Vision y Compromiso, which is a partner along with Faith in the Valley, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and other organizations, in the United Against Covid-19 Coalition. Nataly Santamaria, who manages Vision y Compromiso's network of promotoras — women who promote health information and resources within the Hispanic community — said outreach is happening in areas with "hard-to-reach" populations, mainly in east Bakersfield but also Lamont, Arvin and Weedpatch.

Many of the people they talk to are undocumented immigrants, who are eligible for the funds. They talk to people at the swap meet, churches, in the fields and on corners where vendors sell flowers or food, Santamaria said. 

She said the program is a boon for those who qualify for the assistance, but it's not without flaws.

"A lot of people have been evicted. A lot of the time we hear, 'Oh, I wish I had known because they already evicted us,'" Santamaria said. 

Another issue is that many workers in those communities are paid in cash, which makes it difficult to prove their income on the application. And some struggle to fill out the application on their own.

Still, nearly everyone agreed the program is operating as smoothly as possible. 

"It has been a tremendous success," Kimmel said, "but it also highlights the need in our community."