More than 35,000 Riverside County households — 120,000 people — got help paying rent during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to a $300 million collaboration between the county and two nonprofit groups, a new report found.
United Lift “was effective in many ways for Riverside County residents,” according to a study of the program by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
The program “served as a useful source of rent debt alleviation, and it was particularly true to its goal of prioritizing those who needed it most.”
The study’s findings will be the subject of a virtual panel discussion Wednesday, March 8, featuring a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, California Department of Housing & Community Development Director Gustavo Velasquez and others.
United Lift launched in 2020, when state-level restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 shuttered or stifled many businesses and with them, renters’ livelihoods.
After considering an eviction freeze, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors instead used federal coronavirus relief money — the county got $538 million through the CARES Act — to establish United Lift with the help of the Inland SoCal United Way and Lift to Rise, a Coachella Valley-based nonprofit organization.
To get help, program applicants’ earnings must have been 80% or below their region’s median income and applicants had to show a documented loss of income due to the pandemic. Those whose median income was less than 50% or who had been out of work for three months prior to applying were given priority.
Program payments went directly to landlords. The study, which surveyed tenants and landlords who took part in the program, found that almost 90% of tenants who got help were unable to pay rent when they applied, with almost 20% reporting rent increases.
Two out of three people surveyed for the study “had not bought any clothing (or) spent any money on entertainment,” said Heather Vaikona, CEO of Lift to Rise. “They delayed paying bills and they went into debt to be able to cover their rent.”
Black and Latino applicants, as well as those who are single parents and immigrants, were especially helped at the start of the program, as were households with very low incomes, the study found. More households with higher incomes got help as the months progressed, according to the study, which the county commissioned.
Help from United Lift “was associated with lower rates of moving in the last year, and also with lower rates of homelessness and doubling up for all groups except immigrants (who commonly live in informal cohabitation arrangements),” the study found.
“Data suggests that challenges for renters not only lessened once payment was received, but also recurred once the rental assistance had been spent.”
Not only did the program keep a roof over renters’ heads, renters were better able to afford food and saw improvements in their mental health, the study found.
About 70% of landlords surveyed by the study had five or fewer properties. But many small-scale landlords weren’t aware of the program, the study concluded.
“These small landlords’ challenges … worsened at higher rates than non-small landlords, and they had to deal with these problems on their own and more commonly relied on these rent payments for personal income,” the study read.
The study’s results are “not anything surprising, but just incredibly sobering,” Vaikona said. “You can’t really see housing insecurity in the population. The only place that manifests itself really is homelessness.”
The findings, she added, are “really validating of the need to push towards urgent permanent solutions so that folks in our community don’t have to live like this.”
While the county will continue to offer rental assistance, efforts on the scale of United Lift won’t continue without another massive infusion of outside cash.
Something permanent that’s the size of United Lift is still needed, “but this problem existed before (the pandemic) and for many folks, it’s worse than it was before,” Vaikona said. “At Lift to Rise, our permanent work is really about radically increasing the supply of affordable housing because that is the way to permanently solve (the issue).”