A new state program is offering millions of dollars in rental relief to San Mateo County landlords, but it remains unclear how many in the county have applied, according to Bryan Kingston, public information officer for the county’s Human Services Agency.

That’s in part because the program is being administered by a state-chosen organization.

“Applicants apply to the state program directly, and we anticipate receiving local data down the road,” Kingston said in an email to the Review.

The program, which launched on March 15, could pay off 80 percent of eligible rental debt so long as landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20 percent. The other option provides a subsidy that covers 25 percent of tenants’ back rent in situations where landlords decide not to participate.

The county chose to administer the program through the state’s partner, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. This latest package is expected to disburse over $4.7 million, an amount that dwarfs other county rental relief efforts. During the pandemic, the county did have its own rental relief program, but, at a much smaller scale, it was manageable for its core services agencies, including Samaritan House and Coastside Hope.

“This county is doing so many more things than we were over a year ago because of COVID. There is a question of capacity,” said Ken Cole, director of the Human Services Agency, when presenting the rental assistance program to the county Board of Supervisors.

The county did decide, however, for outreach and application assistance to be handled locally. Kingston said information has been shared “through community and client email communications.”

The county is also relying on help from agencies in the county like Nuestra Casa in East Palo Alto and Project Sentinel, which features the new program on its homepage. Kingston said Samaritan House was also selected as a designated partner, but the organization’s CEO Bart Charlow said he could not comment until a contract had been finalized.

Identifying who might benefit from the new rental assistance program can be a challenge. But after standing up its own rental relief program, the county has garnered contact information from tenants and landlords that it can leverage for the new program. According to Kingston, the county has “plans to implement an automated message informing all clients receiving public assistance about the rent relief program.”

MidPen Housing Corp., which owns affordable housing units in 11 counties across California, including San Mateo County, has paid attention to which of its tenants have requested in-house food assistance as a way of determining who might also be struggling with rent.

“We had a sense of who was falling behind on rental payments because they usually have to juggle other household needs,” said Nevada Merriman, MidPen’s policy director.

MidPen saw tenants’ food needs grow more than fivefold over the pandemic. So far, the agency has more than 300 applications in progress for the rental assistance program. Merriman said that, because the program requires tenants to provide documentation and a signature, there has been some lag between MidPen staff starting an application and its submission.

Funds for the program are due to expire on Dec. 31.

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