Dec 15Rent Relief Retrospective: Keeping People Housed, During the Pandemic and Beyond
Pictured Above: These members of Mercy Housing California’s rent relief team stepped up to keep residents healthy and secure. From left to right: Alex Harden, Resident Services Coordinator – Santa Cruz; Rene Covarrubias, Santa Cruz Property Manager; Scott Thomas, Resident Services Coordinator – Santa Cruz; Vicenta Gaytan, Resident Services Coordinator – Brentwood; Jose Ibarra; Resident Services Manager – Santa Cruz
When pandemic-focused rental assistance became available to Californians in the spring of 2020, thousands of residents breathed a sigh of relief. For some, though, that feeling of respite was short-lived: many found the process difficult to navigate, and some Mercy Housing California (MHC) residents reported spending more than four hours trying to complete their applications. Others, confused about whether they were eligible, felt hesitant to apply at all.
“We wanted to find a way to centralize the process for residents and make sure they were receiving the full amount of relief to which they were entitled, and to which they deserved,” said Kristen Foley, who played a key role on Mercy Housing’s rent relief team during her time as an MHC Resident Services Administrative Assistant and now serves as a Regional Management Specialist for Mercy Housing Management Group. “When COVID-19 first hit, it changed everything about our resident service provision – from putting together virtual programming in a short amount of time, to securing groceries for residents who had tested positive and couldn’t leave their homes.”
Hoping to bring that same level of emergency support to the rent relief process, Kristen and several colleagues developed a plan that has now helped residents obtain almost $4 million in philanthropic and state-sponsored rental assistance to date.
One hurdle for residents in the rent relief application process was demonstrating proof of employment and income. Parents and seniors were spending hours tracking down documentation of information that Mercy Housing already keeps on file for all residents. Kristen and her teammates worked with the California Department of Housing and Community Development and other state and local partners to create a more streamlined process for residents. Site staff at MHC communities could then compile the documents for residents, who would, in turn, review their applications, make edits if necessary, and sign off. This time-saving support was especially valuable at a time when many parents at family residences were without childcare and impacted by school closures.
MHC staff also engaged in resident education about who was eligible for rent relief. “I don’t think there was widespread understanding of what ‘financially affected by COVID-19’ really meant,” said Kristen. “We’d hear residents say, ‘Oh, I don’t qualify, I didn’t lose my job,’ but then we’d learn they had an increase in food expenditures because they were immunocompromised and had to use a delivery service, or their electric bill was through the roof because the whole family was at home all day, or they got sick and had unexpected medical costs.”
Staff helped residents communicate the impact of the pandemic on their lives, and the effort was successful: almost all 810 households who applied for relief from the state received the full amount requested, meaning most of those residents can enter 2022 free from rental debt.
Beyond assistance with rent relief, MHC staff have made every effort to keep residents stable and healthy since the onset of the pandemic. With an anonymous donation of $2.1 million from a generous foundation, MHC covered rent for more than 700 households and supplied groceries and personal protective equipment to many more. The resident services team also piloted a new, virtual system to help residents apply for public benefits, strengthening their long-term financial safety nets.
MHC staff will continue to support residents in applying for rent relief until it is no longer available, and when that day comes, plans are in place to continue to stabilize residents who have been financially impacted by COVID-19. While no one can predict the future of the pandemic, residents can count on Mercy Housing to do whatever it takes to keep families and seniors housed.
Mercy Housing California thanks Kristen Foley, Virginia Allen, Amy Herrera, Jose Ibarra, Erik Krengel, Scott Thomas, Lorie Warnick, and Mai Yang for their tireless support of residents seeking rent relief and housing stabilization services.
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