Kenneth* had a nice life as an entrepreneur living in the Coachella Valley. But in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he contracted the virus and it change his life. He lost nearly all his income and needed help to be able to stay in his apartment.
“The combination of circumstances is that the nation shut down, California shut down, I got sick and then, once I got well, I didn’t really get well,” explained Kenneth, who experienced long-haul COVID. “The last thing I could think of was becoming homeless during a pandemic.” That’s when he found United Lift Rental Assistance on Facebook.
Riverside County, in collaboration with Lift to Rise and Inland SoCal United Way, launched United Lift in the summer of 2020 to help people like Kenneth stay in their homes. Since then, United Lift has dispersed more than $80 million to more than 13,000 Riverside County households (an average of $9,200 per household).
“When the pandemic started, we were all in emergency mode and triaging without understanding how long the timeline would be,” said Lift to Rise President and CEO Heather Vaikona, who is also a member of the California Stewardship Network. “When we think about the success that we’ve had in rental assistance, that’s really come from building one central platform with continuous and constant investments in that platform.”
Vaikona also credited the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, the Riverside County Housing Authority and her staff, many of whom are from the local area with experience and relationships with the community. “I think both that local knowledge and that deep rooted concern for folks have created a culture and a spirit,” she added. That, combined with the new platform allowed Lift to Rise to reach communities that are traditionally underserved.
To make the application process more accessible to residents, Lift to Rise partnered with other non-profits, created two additional application sites on either end of the Coachella Valley, held more than 30 pop-up locations and doubled its staff to handle the caseload.
Lift to Rise Senior Implementation Manager Agustin Arreola has worked on the United Lift program since the beginning and has seen the changes in the past 16 months. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was folks who needed immediate stabilization, and now it’s folks who are trying to get back on track. So, they might have their jobs back, but during the time where they didn’t have jobs or their hours were reduced, they were falling behind on their rent.”
“At the beginning of COVID, they lost their employment and that put them back. That escalated and rolled over, obviously that debt stayed there,” said Lift to Rise Special Projects Manager Annjanette Aguilar. “I personally have seen people who ate through their savings to try to stay afloat.”
As successful as United Lift has been to assist residents affected by the COVID-10 pandemic, it is a temporary fix to a much larger problem that will exist long after the pandemic is over. “We’re not suddenly going to be back to an economy where people can afford their rent,” said Vaikona. “More than two out of three local residents couldn’t afford their rent before COVID. They’re not going to suddenly afford their rent after COVID.”
“We’ve known that since before the pandemic that wages are low and rents are high,” added Arreola. “We’re seeing it right now and we see this as kind of a band-aid and an immediate short-term solution, but it’s helping inform us in what ways we can we really solve and get at the root cause or get at a root solution.”
For now, Riverside County has about $150 million in federal and other funds still available for rental assistance. The funds are necessary as applications are coming through Lift to Rise on a daily basis. Said Arreola, “Based on the applications that we’re seeing and on the cases that we’re working with, for the next year or year and a half, assistance will be much needed.”
“It was truly a lifesaver,” said Kenneth who received two rounds of assistance that also covered his utilities. “Somebody throws 18 months at you where you can’t do anything and you’re sick and you’re pretty much out of luck. I was very fortunate to find them.”
*Kenneth’s real name has been changed for this story out of respect for privacy.