Unable to pay rent in Oakland? You might qualify for a city or state emergency aid program. Credit: Pete Rosos

For a full year, some Oakland tenants have struggled or been unable to pay rent after getting laid off or spending more on childcare during the pandemic. And in turn, some of their landlords have gone months without monthly checks they rely on to fund mortgages, or pay for upkeep and repairs.

Even though Oakland has an eviction moratorium that prevents landlords from removing tenants who fail to pay rent, renters will still be on the hook for making up missed payments when the crisis ends. Oakland’s moratorium will expire when the City Council formally declares an end to the “local emergency.”

Two new programs—one run by the state and one by the city—offer financial assistance to tenants and landlords alike. Both are funded by the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Other local programs give low-income homeowners a break on taxes. 

Here’s who can apply to each program, and how. Note that these programs are complicated, and whether you’re a renter or landlord, you may want to speak to an attorney or housing counselor before applying.

Some low-income renters can get help from the city

Oakland has $12.8 million to distribute to renters considered “very low-income,” through the city’s Keep Oakland Housed program. The initiative supports tenants who are at risk of homelessness or displacement, and primarily covers unpaid rent, as well as utility fees and other housing costs. 

You’re considered “very low-income” if you live alone and make less than $45,700, or if your four-person household makes under $65,250, for example. To qualify for this aid, you must have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic, and be able to demonstrate some indication of housing instability, such as a past-due rent notice. Applicants will be prioritized if they’re in the “extremely low-income” bracket, if they live in a ZIP code disproportionately affected by COVID-19, were previously homeless, are seniors, have children, or live with somebody who has a disability. 

The money will typically go directly to an applicant’s landlord or utility company, unless they choose not to participate in the program. In that case, the funds will be given to the renter.

Applications opened April 1 and will stay open for a year, or until the money runs out. Four local nonprofits are screening applications. Keep Oakland Housed also distributed $4.3 million using previous federal stimulus money in the fall. 

Apply here or call the city at 510-238-6182.

State program pays landlords—and erases tenant debt

A recent state bill, SB 91, launched a program that pays landlords 80% of the rent their tenants have missed during the pandemic—if they agree to forgive the remaining 20% of the renters’ debt. The state has dedicated $13.8 million of the $2.4 billion program to Oakland applicants. 

To receive the full benefit of the program, both landlords and tenants must apply. Landlords can apply for multiple tenants.

Not everyone is eligible, though. To qualify, at least one person in the renter household must meet all of these conditions: make under 80% of the area median income, have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic, and be able to demonstrate some indication of housing instability, such as a past-due rent notice. The financial hardship can be job loss, increased expenses, or other issues.

If you’re a renter who’s eligible for the SB 91 program, but your landlord won’t apply, you can still request help paying up to 25% of your missed rent on your own. 

Apply here.

Low-income homeowners can apply for tax exemptions

In some cases, Oakland homeowners can apply to be exempt from several local property taxes, or get money they’ve already paid back. While this program is not COVID-specific, the exemptions and refunds may especially help homeowners who’ve experienced financial hardship this past year. 

There are five local taxes that homeowners who are deemed “very low-income”—under $65,250 for a four-person household—may be able to skip paying part or all of. If you’re a senior, you can skip some of the taxes even if your income is slightly higher. Applications are open through May 17, and more information and forms can be found on the city website

The Oakland Unified School District offers similar exemptions for its property taxes. Both the city and district programs are only open to homeowners who live in the taxed house, not those who rent out their properties but live elsewhere.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.