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    Could this COVID program help reduce the California housing crisis?

    Emily HoevenBY EMILY HOEVENAUGUST 8, 2022

    CalMatters

    With California lawmakers debating the fate of some 1,200-plus bills ahead of the end of the legislative session this month, let’s check in on some existing programs’ effectiveness.

    Today, an in-depth assessment of California’s unemployment insurance program is set to be released by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises lawmakers on fiscal issues. As CalMatters economy reporter Grace Gedye notes, the study comes at a crucial time: Not only is California confronting a possible recession and ongoing layoffs in the tech industry, but the Employment Development Department is also working to resolve issues that saw it pay out at least $20 billion worth of fraudulent claims amid the pandemic and scramble to answer jobless residents’ calls for help.

    • Chas Alamo, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office: The report will “describe how the program’s basic design has encouraged the state and EDD to enact policies and take actions that make it difficult for eligible workers to get (unemployment benefits).” It will also include “about a dozen specific recommendations to rebalance the program.”

    Tuesday, state lawmakers are scheduled to hold a hearing to assess California’s response so far to the COVID-19 pandemic — which has killed more than 93,000 residents — and explore how the state can prepare for the next public health emergency. Ironically, the newly formed Senate Select Committee on Monkeypox will meet at the exact same time to discuss the state’s response to the virus, which Gov. Gavin Newsom officially declared an emergency last week.

    Speaking of public health, a little more than a year after California launched a program to provide hearing aids for an estimated 2,300 children annually who lack health insurance, it has provided devices to only 39 children, according to this eye-popping report from CalMatters’ Elizabeth Aguilera.

    • The California Department of Health Care Services, which oversees the program, refused to tell Elizabeth why it had served so few children in its first year.
    • But parents and advocates pointed to myriad problems: For families, the application process is cumbersome and households with partial insurance coverage are ineligible. For physicians, reimbursement time is long and reimbursement rates are low.
    • Pediatric audiologist Dr. Mary Frintner, one of three Los Angeles County providers enrolled in the program, said she has yet to be reimbursed for any services: “I love all my patients, the joy I see when I put a hearing aid on a child for the (first) time. … That’s what I get, which makes me rich.”

    On the housing front, however, there may be some promising news. During the pandemic, the federal government unveiled revamped, emergency Section 8 vouchers, which help cover rent and utilities for low-income households. Local and federal officials say bonuses for landlords and other new features seem to be helping vulnerable tenants find apartments, even as landlords’ reluctance to accept vouchers in some of California’s tightest rental markets — and potential housing discrimination — remain sizable hurdles, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and Jeanne Kuang report.

    • Although California received just 25% of the country’s allotment of emergency vouchers, it so far accounts for 45% of the funds spent on landlord incentives.
    • Voucher utilization rates also vary dramatically across the state: Between July 2021 and July 20, 2022, Redding used about 90% of its emergency housing vouchers to successfully lease units, while the city of Los Angeles used about 5.8%.
    • Sasha Harnden, a public policy advocate at Inner City Law Center who helped draft a 2019 state law barring landlords from rejecting vouchers: “It may be appropriate to talk about incentives at some point. But what we’ve not seen is really robust enforcement of the law that prohibits refusing the vouchers in the first place.”
    • Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles: “There’s just not enough money put on the table for people to jump for it. If I had a vacant unit and had 20 people show up — there’s a bunch of people begging to rent my apartment — why deal with all the administrative burdens (that come with a voucher)?”

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