Rental assistance program helping lift up struggling Coachella Valley residents

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(Photo: Visitor7/Wikimedia)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the statewide stay-at-home orders, it was a struggle for Cathedral City resident Sabina* and her family to make ends meet. But when everything closed, both she and her husband lost their jobs as housecleaner and restaurant busboy, respectively. Since April, they have been unable to pay their rent and, up to now, have only been able to keep their home because of the kindness of friends and relatives and the eviction moratorium.

“The property manager said we owed April, May and June, and if we didn’t have July rent, we could be evicted,” said Sabrina through a translator.

Sabina’s family will get some relief as they are among the first recipients of the United Lift Rental Assistance Program, a partnership between Lift to Rise, the Inland SoCal United Way and Riverside County. In June, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to allocate $33 million in federal funding from the CARES Act and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to assist households affected by COVID-19. It provides rental assistance for back rent only for three months up to $3,500 to eligible applicants.

“The goal is how do we keep people in their homes, and how do we prevent eviction,” said Lift to Rise President and CEO Heather Vaikona. Lift to Rise recognized in early March that help would be needed for the region’s low wage workers as big events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the Stagecoach Festival and the BNP Paribas Open were canceled. The organization first created a $200 cash assistance program distributed to about 3,500 low-wage workers to help them with essentials.

They quickly learned more help would be needed.

“What we heard from residents overwhelmingly was that they were not going to be able to pay their rent,” added Vaikona. “And Lift to Rise’s long-term work is around increasing housing stability and increasing economic opportunity.”

Lift to Rise initially raised about $2 million for rental assistance, then Riverside County stepped in with the funding and United Lift was created.

“Our Board of Supervisors specifically were very interested in stabilizing the economy. So the idea of ensuring the solvency of both businesses and households was very important to everyone who was involved in this process,” said Heidi Marshall, director of the Riverside County Department of Housing, Homelessness Prevention & Workforce Solutions. “Our Housing Authority had been involved in a similarly large assistance program at the last economic downturn, so we knew what was going to be involved.” But, she added, “This is nothing like we’ve ever faced before, but we knew enough to be ready for it.”

United Lift’s goal is to assist 10,000 Riverside County households. Inland SoCal United Way is servicing the western part of the County as well as the 211 calls. Lift to Rise is servicing the eastern portion of the County. Applications are available to Riverside County residents only and will be open every month for a period of 10 days through November 2020. Once approved, rental payments will be made directly to the landlords.

“We developed a landlord verification form that the County accepted as valid,” said Araceli Palafox, deputy director at Lift to Rise. “They’ve been really great and flexible and implementing those things that are challenging to specific parts of the population, including folks who have very informal living arrangements.” Palafox used the data from the original $200 cash assistance program to target both potential recipients and help create systems to ensure United Lift would run efficiently.

The demand for programs such as United Lift in the midst of the pandemic underscores the economic disparity facing the Coachella Valley. “It’s really rendered the invisible visible,” said Vaikona. “In a place like ours, the reality is that low income workers are driving our economy and that they’re paid exploitive wages and that they can’t survive on the wages that they’re paid.”

Lift to Rise’s data showed:

  • Half of United Lift applicants are not able to work or have lost work because of the pandemic
  • Seven out of 10 applicants are female head of household
  • 45% of applicants are single mothers
  • 45% of applicants have a 0-5-year-old in the house

Sabina’s family is one of 2,700 households that will receive the first round of assistance. For her, it is peace of mind for now, “I’m really happy that we’re going to receive rental assistance and I feel good about that, but I’m still worried for the future rent.” She hopes restaurants are allowed to fully open soon, so her husband can return to work.

United Lift is an example of how regional organizations like Lift to Rise — a part of the California Stewardship Network — are leading and coordinating efforts to respond to their regions’ distinct needs during the recovery and beyond.

*Sabina’s real name has been changed for this story out of respect for privacy.


Nadine Ono

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