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California's Eviction Moratorium Was Extended — But Its End Looms For Many Renters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Seven million Americans are now behind on their rent due to the pandemic. Both the national and California eviction moratoriums have been extended. They both prevent people from being evicted, and they provide financial help for renters. But many people who've taken advantage of the moratorium say the system is complicated and getting the money takes too long. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Claire Trageser reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm 2 years old.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: Ramon Toscano sits with his toddler son in his lap. He has five kids and another on the way. He's a day laborer, but during the pandemic, work dried up. In January, he couldn't pay rent on his two-bedroom apartment outside San Diego.

RAMON TOSCANO: (Through interpreter) We could eat, or we could pay rent. I mean, that's a really hard decision, no?

TRAGESER: Toscano decided on food and hasn't paid any rent this year. In March, as soon as funds became available, he applied and waited for relief to come. And when it did arrive in June, it wasn't for the whole six months he needed but only for three months. He still owes $5,000 and is worried about what will happen to his family.

TOSCANO: (Through interpreter) Maybe we're one more homeless statistic because if I don't have enough money for my rent, what's going to happen? I'm going to take my family onto the street or in the car to live?

TRAGESER: The new agreement here in California extends aid through September and provides for paying 100% of back rent, so he's resting a little easier. There are 17 million renters in California, and about 1.5 million of them couldn't pay at least some of their rent during the pandemic. Rene Moya, an organizer with the tenants rights group ACCE, says they risk losing their homes and damaging their credit.

RENE MOYA: A lot of folks are going to end up in a worse financial situation than they were before. We often forget that evictions are not a symptom of poverty; they are also a creator of poverty.

TRAGESER: So far, the state and local governments have only reimbursed a portion of what tenants owe, and they've been slow to get the money out. In San Diego, only a quarter of the funds have been dispersed. Moya says the whole application process is confusing and hasn't been publicized well.

MOYA: We keep on meeting tenants who didn't know that this assistance was available, and that is a fundamental issue, unlike, let's say, with the vaccination program, which has had billboards and TV ads and radio ads and the like.

GINGER HITZKE: In the beginning, I didn't realize that we, as the property owner, were eligible to apply at the same time as the renters.

TRAGESER: Ginger Hitzke owns several rental properties in San Diego. After months of not getting rent, she applied to the program on behalf of her renters. But she points out some landlords want their tenants out so they can raise rents. Some even pay tenants to leave.

HITZKE: You give someone cash, and you ask for their keys. If you can increase rents so that in the next 12 months you could make an additional $4,000, it's worth it to you to give someone $2,500 or $3,000.

TRAGESER: The eviction moratorium is also meant to protect people from losing their homes, but that hasn't always happened. Take Marine veteran Gabriel Guzman. He lost his job, couldn't pay rent, and at the end of his lease, his landlord told him to leave. That shouldn't have happened, but it did.

GABRIEL GUZMAN: I felt that I had let my kids down as a man, being able to support them.

TRAGESER: For renters like Guzman who want to fight these evictions, they have to go to court. But that requires navigating a whole other complicated process.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

CHANG: And Cristina Kim of KPBS also contributed to this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "REMINDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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