After Resident Pressing, Irvine City Council Approves Rent Assistance Program

Irvine city council meeting on Dec. 10, 2019.

After months of public pressure from UC Irvine students and other residents, the Irvine City Council approved a plan to help residents handle rent complications caused by the COVID shutdown. 

The approved program would offer a total of $2 million in aid, half for aiding residents trying to pay rent and half for aiding residents struggling with lease break fees. 

None of the funding would come from the city’s general fund, but would come from a mixture of funds including money from the state CARES relief package and additional grants. 

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time this week putting this program together,” Shea said. “This is not just focused on UCI housing, it’s focused on everyone in the city who could possibly need some rental assistance.” 

“It’ll be one time, it’s not a lot but it’s at least something.” 

The council was originally planning to only disperse $500 per person, but increased it to $1,000 after some councilmembers pointed out that while they could reach more people if they gave less money, the funds would be less effective. 

“That’s not accomplishing much for them,” said Councilmember Farrah Khan. “I’m a little weary of putting something out that isn’t benefiting them in any way.” 

“Even if we helped 1,000 people and were able to help them a little bit more, I think that’s more beneficial than handing out $500 checks.”

If each half of the program handed out only $500 checks, assistance could reach 4,000 residents total before funds ran out.    

Applicants would also need to be a city resident and would have to be financially independent, meaning they could not be claimed as a dependent on their parent’s tax returns. 

That addition could disqualify many UCI students who are still claimed on their parent’s tax returns as dependents, and the money cannot be disbursed to students living on campus, only to Irvine residents.

As the Voice of OC has previously reported, many Irvine residents and particularly UCI students have struggled to break their leases and go home during the shutdown, with some stating they would have to pay as much as $15,000 to break the lease a few months early.  

Applicants cannot apply for both programs. 

While some protestors asked that the city implement a complete rent freeze through the end of COVID or order landlords to release tenants from their lease break fees, city attorney Jeff Melching said the only way the city could do that is by taking on the fees themselves. 

“The city doesn’t typically have the ability to go in and rewrite a contract unless it’s willing to pay,” Melching said. “Our own ordinance requires we pay fair compensation, so effectively that would mean the cost of the assistance comes out of the city, not out of the landlord.”

Mayor Christina Shea proposed the discussion on the issue after a protest outside her home and heated comments on her Facebook page. 

The protest outside Shea’s home was organized by a UCI group called UCI For Cost of Living Adjustment, or UCI4Cola. 

Despite the approvals made by the council, Courtney Echols, a spokesperson for UCI4Cola said the council still has lots of work to do. 

“The Mayor has stated that she had agendized the item because she wanted to give individuals who have been expressing concerns a public forum to express their concerns. But as we saw, residents weren’t provided the chance to speak or provide their experience beyond a 500 character public comment, and most of us didn’t even get that,” Echols said. “City officials speaking amongst themselves is not a public forum.” 

Irvine’s policy with public comments submitted during COVID is that any submitted before 2 p.m. will not be read in open session, but will be provided to the council, and the remainder submitted late are summarized or read by the city clerk to the council. As a result, a majority of submissions are not read aloud during the meeting. 

The council also repeatedly brought up their previous resolution that “strongly encourages” landlords to not raise rent or evict tenants due to COVID, but the resolution has no legal enforcement power. 

The resolution has been reapproved multiple times by the council, with the only dissenting vote from Councilmember Melissa Fox. 

“In the middle of a global pandemic and during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, they voted against creating an enforceable evictions moratorium,” Echols said. “They had a chance to rectify that ill-informed decision, and instead chose to double down on their initial decision to not offer protection to renters.”

Fox also asked for the city to consider allocating $5 million in “rainy day funds,” to the rent assistance program, but the rest of the council disagreed with her motion to commit city funds.

“This measure falls very short,” Fox said. “Every purchase they make at Target, every In-N-Out burger they buy pays into our city tax fund. This rainy day fund is their money, and this money belongs to our residents.” 

“We’re looking at a huge deficit coming up,” Shea said on the dais. “Using city funds, it then becomes an ongoing program. Any time people have difficulty with rent they’re going to come to us, and it’ll be an entitlement.”

Currently, the city is projected to lose anywhere from $29-43 million in lost tax revenue due to the shutdown, but is still set to be in a stable financial situation with $113 million in reserves at the start of the shutdown. 

Shea has previously criticized the student’s decision to protest outside her home, and she was joined by Councilmember Anthony Kuo in that criticism during the meeting. 

“I want to complement those who have submitted comments. This is the way to participate,” Kuo said. “I regret that our mayor and I regret that others have had to go through that, that’s just not how polite society does things.” 

The exact amount of funding the program receives could fluctuate depending on the amount the city receives from the state according to city staff, and they expect they’ll have a better estimate of how much funding they’ll receive within the week. 

Fox still supported the program at the end of the meeting, despite her concerns. 

We have a proposal before us that I think should be at least $5 million,” Fox said. “I’ll support this even though it’s not enough.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.