Processing delays and the fact that many on the coast pay their rent under the table have plagued a state program that has only doled out a fraction of the $70 million set aside to help San Mateo County residents pay their rent in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down industries statewide last year, California instituted a ban on evictions to help renters newly out of work. The ban is set to expire June 30, when some residents will owe more than a year’s worth of rent or face eviction. The state’s newly launched Housing Is Key program is designed to get Californians out of rental debt and make up for lost landlord income to keep people housed, but less than 1 percent of that money is in the hands of local renters.

One issue with the program, which will pay 80 percent of rent owed for the past year as long as landlords swallow the remaining 20 percent, has been the delay in getting the money out. The eligibility requirements are broad — it’s open to any low-income resident who has been hurt financially by the pandemic and hasn’t been able to make rent — but just around a quarter of the $20 million requested in the county has been approved so far. And just a fraction, $314,037, has been paid out to county residents in need.

Pacifica Resource Center Director Anita Rees said funding delays, while expected with a program of this size, are a barrier.

“There has been a lag in turnaround time in general,” Rees said.

The state program allows renters to apply, but landlords have to accept the offer. It is usually sent to them electronically via email, and they only have a week to agree in order get the full amount. Residents in need are also facing language, technology and other accessibility barriers, which include general mistrust of government aid.

But there’s another wall standing in the way of some residents looking for much-needed rent money. It’s the requirement that their landlord approve the rent relief and produce a W-9, a tax form proving their rental status.

That’s not always possible, Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero said. She estimates that around 60 percent of her clients on the Coastside are subletters, meaning their names aren’t on the lease, so they wouldn’t qualify for funding under the state program. Other landlords are not paying taxes on the rental, she said, so they won’t hand over a W-9. These cases are so common that Coastside Hope has yet to successfully help a client apply for the state program.

Instead, Guerrero said, Coastside Hope has now spent more than $215,000 of its own money targeting rental assistance during the pandemic. And in less than a month, the agency used up a $100,000 grant from the city of Half Moon Bay just on rental assistance for locals.

County Human Services Agency Communications Specialist Bryan Kingston said the county is aware that many renters in need might be ineligible due to an illegal living situation. Those who can’t procure the right documents or get their landlord to sign on do have other avenues. They can work directly with their local agency to apply for no-strings-attached funding set aside for rental relief. Each of the local agency leads said they have their own sources of money for people who need rent, even if their landlord doesn’t sign off.

And the local need is clear. State analysis found that across San Mateo County, 10,580 households are at risk of eviction. The median rent in the county is $2,460 — the highest of any Bay Area county, County Manager Mike Callagy said at a press conference last week.

Rees said PRC has spent a total of $572,000 through two programs targeting rental or housing assistance for Pacificans in the last year. She estimates that a smaller percentage of her Pacifica clients, around 10 percent, are ineligible because of a nontraditional rental arrangement.

On the South Coast, it’s closer to 50 percent of Puente de la Costa Sur clients who are renting under the table. Puente Economic Security Director Corina Rodriguez said stringent building regulations that restrict the amount of housing in Pescadero makes these arrangements common. That has led Puente to help more than 100 people with rent locals couldn’t pay, either due to the fires or the pandemic over the last year.

In Pacifica, Rees said the state has indicated that it may change the program later this month to pay out 100 percent of owed rent to incentivize more landlords to accept the backpay. That would help hurting landlords, who can’t afford the 20 percent pay cut. But modifying the program could be another huge and time-consuming logistical challenge, said Rees, who is gearing up now to help her clients pay their July rent to avoid eviction, with or without state help.

“We’re anxiously waiting for these funds to be available, and our clients are even more anxious,” Rees said. “It's scary to know you have $10,000, $20,000 in debt. … Most people want to pay their rent.”

While the Coastside’s economy begins to reemerge from a yearlong pause for many industries, Guerrero said that it’s not opening up quickly enough to meet the demand for jobs. Hotels are still operating at lower capacities and the fear of the coronavirus hasn’t gone away, either. Meanwhile, with restaurants serving fewer customers and big events like weddings postponed, jobs are still scarce at local farms and nurseries.

One Half Moon Bay resident, who asked not to be identified for this story, has been looking for work since she lost her job at Castillo Seed Co. after the company shut down in January for failing to pay its workers. A single mom without income, she can no longer afford her car and hasn’t been able to pay rent for months.

With or without the state program, Guerrero said, local social service groups like Coastside Hope will find the money to help families like hers.

“We will figure out a way,” Guerrero said. “There are other options for making sure that people’s rents are paid and they can stay housed.”

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