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Don’t Lose the Roof Over Your Head In Alameda County

Not only has COVID-19 taken a toll on the nation’s health, but it threatens housing security for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Studies show that housing hardships have increased significantly among low income, ethnic minority households in rental properties. Thousands of households across the country are reporting higher evictions as they fall behind on rental and utility payments following job and income losses.

As the Delta variant prolongs the pandemic and exacerbates the affordable housing crisis, a disproportionate number of households of color fear being forced out of their homes.

“We are at an inflection point in the COVID crisis,” said Odette Alcazaren-Keeley of Global X Media, which hosted a briefing (August 18) on pervasive housing disparities and on rent relief, with policymakers and community leaders from Alameda County.

In the Bay Area, minority communities were already experiencing a severe housing crisis pre-pandemic; 46% of black, 45% of Latinx, and of 42% of native American households were rent-burdened and housing insecure prior to COVID, said Monique Berlanga of CentroLegal de la Raza, at the briefing. Seven in ten white households own their homes, but majority of minority households are renters, said Berlanger, calling it “a staggering statistic.”

“Right now, people of color households make up 64% of household that are behind on rent.”

In Alameda County the pandemic and its economic fallout has exposed systemic disparities in housing inequities.

Parween Towfique, a program manager at Keep Fremont Housed who works with the Afghan Coalition to offer housing and rental services to Fremont’s South Asian and Afghan communities, said that the pandemic severely impacted many in the Afghan community who lost housing due to the Bay Area’s high rents and cost of living.

The situation was further complicated by a surge of Afghan refugees currently housed in Oakland, who are hoping to relocate to Fremont, but Towfique admitted that it was “a challenge to get them into Fremont’s low-income housing.”

Housing advocates said that collaborating with community partners like Towfique is key to ensuring that rent relief gets to those vulnerable residents who need it the most.

As housing inequality worsened, the US Treasury made federal funding available through ERAP to state and local governments to help households facing deep rental debt.  In CA, the Rent Relief program provides financial assistance to income-eligible California renters who are unable to pay rent or utilities, and their landlords.

 

What AMI does

Eligibility for funding depends on Area Median Income (AMI) – a metric calculated by HUD for different geographic areas of the country, based on household income and size; sometimes SSI and disability factor into the equation.  Income thresholds and eligibility can vary by county and city.

In California, the local jurisdictions of Alameda County, Oakland, and Fremont administer different rent relief programs based on AMI rates specifically calculated for their region.

This can get confusing for residents, especially limited English speakers. Quite often, residents have no way of knowing how to access the system and available resources, let alone navigate the eligibility requirements and documents required to process an application.

The slow ERAP roll out in Alameda County due to pandemic restrictions and inadequate staffing has confused and frustrated residents awaiting approval, said advocates.

Anayantzin Amezcua, an ERAP beneficiary and domestic violence survivor who lost her job because of COVID-19, said her application took three months to complete, and two months to get approval.

Advocates and community allies at the briefing reaffirmed their goal to provide a pivotal safety net for vulnerable populations – particularly low-income households, communities of color, immigrant tenants and landlords who are experiencing housing distress due to COVID-19. They emphasized that their immediate priority was to expand access and resources to the rent relief program, serving those with the greatest needs more effectively and at a faster rate.

 

How to Apply for  ERAP

Acknowledging that the roll out has been challenging, Alameda Housing Secure (AHS) hopes to make the program more equitable and accessible through a consortium of 24 trusted community partners that includes CentroLegal de la Raza, the Eviction Defense Center and the Afghan Coalition, among others.

CentroLegal has set up a portal that efficiently uploads and processes applications. A landlord or tenant can initiate an application downloaded from website, phone (calling 211) or on paper (by calling CentroLegal) for help with completing and submitting applications. Accessibility features include web-based information in multiple languages, paper applications in 16-20 languages, and  increased disability access by mail and by phone.

By tripling staff, the aim is to scale up the volume of funding going out the door, said Jennifer Pearce, Deputy Director of Housing at Alameda County.

Berlanga of CentroLegal emphasized that the program is prioritized for people most in need and not administered on a ‘first come first served basis.’

An application in Hindi

 

Who Is Eligible?

A prioritization tools allows AHS to prioritize extremely low-income people at 30% or lower median AMI to live in subsidized affordable housing, as well as tenants living in properties owned by mom and pop landlords who own five units or less.

A secondary prioritization which will continue through Phases 1 and 2, uses metrics to identify the most vulnerable community members – people with disabilities, many children in the home, those who have experienced homelessness, or who have recently entered the community, seniors on fixed incomes,  single parents, veterans, people of color and the undocumented as well as people who live in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Under the federal program, people who earn less than 80% of AMI can apply for ERAP. Both renters and landlords can apply for assistance, and “anyone qualifying to up to 80% of AMI should apply,” said Pearce, so their application enters the queue to be processed.

Alameda county residents who pay rent on a residential dwelling (excluding Oakland / Fremont) are eligible to apply. Households had to have experienced COVID-19 related financial hardship, and combined household income cannot exceed 80% of AMI. Undocumented residents can apply and are not required to prove citizenship. Seniors on fixed incomes and those at risk of experiencing homelessness may need proof; eligibility requirements are available at https://www.ac-housingsecure.org

In keeping with low barrier to entry, applicants do not need all documentation in place before applying, said Berlanga. The verification process will only begin after submission to ensure applicants obtain key documents such a government-issued photo id (consular id, library card, birth certificate), proof of residency and rent amount owed, current pretax household income and loss of income due to COVID-19. CentroLegal will work with applicants to obtain documentation if they have none.

Tenants are only eligible for financial assistance for 12 months of rental arrears and 3 months of future rent. Tenants do not have to be behind in rent to apply. If a tenant has borrowed money or is ‘financially exhausted’ they can apply for up to 3 months of future rent assistance.

To date, Alameda County has approved almost $12 and half million dollars in financial assistance to those facing deep rental debt. As of August 16, about 827 of 5400 + applications have been approved, and nearly $750 thousand dispersed per week on average.  Pearce said each household has received an average of $15 thousand dollars to cover up to twelve months of back rent, three months of forward rent, and back utilities.  In the last week, the Eviction Defense Center – a key community partner – has assisted more than 60% of approved applications, confirmed Eric Magana, an outreach coordinator at EDC. He encouraged landlords to respond quickly to calls so the application process can move along rapidly.

The goal is to increase capacity to $2 million dollars a week, said Pearce.

She warned residents about accepting calls purporting to be from ERAP, and emphasized that Alameda County Housing does not call asking for personal data or social security numbers. The county uses a two-part verification system to safeguard against fraudulent applications and vet applications against the county’s property ownership database.

 

ERAP in Fremont & Oakland

Fremont’s ERAP program for constituents runs through the Fremont Family Resource Center and uses a community-based approach to connect with its very diverse community, where upwards of 40% of households are non-English speaking.

In collaboration with four community partners, including the Afghan Coalition, Fremont connects with people by texting, office hours at the local library, and providing language assistance in up to 8 additional languages including Hindi and Punjabi. Nearly 500 applications have been processed and almost $7.1 million dollars disbursed at roughly  $13 thousand per application.

Fremont prioritizes applicants at 80% AMI but its portal is only for tenants, not landlords,  said Paula Manczuk-Hannay of the City of Fremont.

Fremont works closely with the county to coordinate messaging and directs queries to links to other county & state websites as appropriate. Users can access a portal and phone numbers through https://fremont.gov/keepfremonthoused, for live help from the resource center and language assistance to process applications.

Oakland, a proud sanctuary city, will not ask for documentation of  immigration status when processing ERAP applications, stated Cookie Robles Wong from the City of Oakland. Community partners like the Glad Tidings Church, have helped with outreach added volunteer Marilyn Thurman, getting the word out by distributing flyers through neighborhoods, stores, e-blasts, Bible studies, and covid testing corps.

The Oakland program only prioritizes households at 30% AMI and below due to high demand from households in that range. To date Oakland has approved 852 applications; residents in Zip codes 94601 and 94621 have received highest level of assistance as they were most impacted by COVID-19, said Wong. Oakland has approved nearly 74% of a little over $7.5 million received in ERAP1 funds; households received an average of $9000 in assistance for utilities, rent arrears and prospective rent. Due to a surge in volume, the program has stopped accepting applications as of May 17, 2021, and tenants (30%+ AMI) are being directed to California’s Rent Relief Program in the interim. The portal will reopen in the fall with an additional $19.00 million from Federal funds and $10 million from the state.

 

Eviction Moratoriums in Alameda

Though an eviction moratorium is in place, CentroLegal documented a 70% increase in complaints from tenants experiencing harassment, retaliation and legal lockouts in the county because they are behind on rent .

However, Alameda County has one of the strongest moratoriums on eviction in the Bay Area and one of lowest eviction rates  in the region. Advocates offered reassurances that  the county will protect people from COVID impacts and inability to pay rent for the foreseeable future. The moratorium will stay in place for 60 days after the end of current health emergency is declared over by a public health officer – which differs from confirmed state and federal dates. The county is working to implement a state eviction moratorium which disallows unlawful actions from going forward once an ERAP application is already in the system, even if eviction moratorium has expired.

Alameda is bolstering its rent relief program by rapidly expanding its network of community organizations to work on outreach and help people with applications and information.

But advocates called for patience. “Together we can go really far,” said Cookie Robles Wong, but she cautioned, “We are in a pandemic. We are in a new program, and we are learning as we are building it to tweak it as we go along.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents


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