Housing advocate raises awareness of tenant rights during pandemic before funding ends next month

May 11, 2021 /

Emma De La Rosa grew up in public housing apartments off of Edison Highway and Oswell. While living in the apartment, Emma and her family lacked privacy and support. 

Because of her own personal experience, she has decided to become a housing advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, where she educates tenants on their rights, making her job crucial during the pandemic.

“I organize with community members and to advocate for environmental justice issues,” De La Rosa said. “So for example, with housing, that’s part of our environment and that’s really our main environment that we are in, and we often see discrimnation and a lot of our low income communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution.”

De La Rosa chooses to help people who need housing assistance in the community because she went through this and knows what a struggle it is.

“(The affordable housing apartments we lived in) are next to the train tracks, and we know that a lot of low-income apartments tend to be in the worst places of the town,” said De La Rosa. 

Lately during the pandemic, De La Rosa’s job has revolved around Senate Bill 91, which was extended to the State of California to provide up to $2.6 billion in emergency rental assistance to households and landlords impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. De La Rosa wants tenants to take advantage of this before the extension ends in June.

This bill allows anyone who submits a declaration form to their landlord indicating a financial hardship due to COVID-19 to be protected under this law. However, De La Rosa has seen some issues. 

“Many landlords either don’t know that they have to give this declaration to tenants, or they’re just not giving it to them so while tenants are not being evicted, they still are not taking the steps to be protected by SB 91,” said De La Rosa. “So it’s really important that we spread the word about SB 91, and we share with folks that if they are behind on rent and they faced a financial hardship due to COVID-19, that they are aware that they could submit a declaration form to their landlord so that they can be protected by SB 91.”

Under SB 91, landlords who receive a declaration form from the tenants cannot charge late fees, according to De La Rosa. Landlords also  cannot keep the security deposit as a form of payment, and they cannot use the rent that is paid for that month. The Bill also says tenants cannot be evicted due to nonpayment because of COVID-19.

“So SB 91 ends that protection in June, so starting July there may be an increase (in evictions); however advocates at Leadership Counsel, along with other organizations, are advocating to save to insure that there are other protections that can come in and help our community,” said De La Rosa.

Another thing De La Rosa has seen throughout the pandemic year is many people are either living with a family member, are renting out a room, or are living in small house behind the main house. Because of this situation, those tenants may not have a contract with their landlord, making it difficult for them to have rental assistance. 

“I think right now we are overseeing a huge part of our community that may be living in situations like that who cannot benefit from certain programs because they don’t have a contract,” said De La Rosa. 

To avoid evictions, De La Rosa is pushing for people to get the declaration form and sign it in order for tenants to be protected. The declaration form can be found by going to housing.ca.gov or folks can also reach out to their landlords and ask them for an unsigned declaration form.

By law, landlords are supposed to give the declaration form to tenants, according to De La Rosa. Tenants can also reach out to Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability or California Rural Legal Assistance or Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance for help. 

To help tenants, De La Rosa and the Leadership Counsel have hosted “Know your rights” presentations and trainings.

“Again since the protection under SB 91 will end in June, we want to make sure that folks are able to apply for this assistance to make sure they don’t have to pay the rest of the money they were unable to pay or that they will not be evicted.”