Stephanie Alysha is among numerous tenants and landlords who've waited weeks to hear whether they'll receive rent aid. Credit: Amir Aziz

Stephanie Alysha and her partner William haven’t been able to afford rent at their Adeline Street apartment for months. But they also can’t afford to move out.

The couple relocated to the East Bay from San Francisco just a few days after the shelter-in-place orders came down in March 2020, and soon after, the small interior design firm where Alysha worked lost clients and cut the staff’s hours. Alysha’s parental obligations also increased during the pandemic. William, who didn’t want to share his last name, is in coding school and not currently bringing in an income. 

In the fall, they began paying only partial rent, eventually incurring $13,500 in debt. So when Alameda County, Oakland, and California launched rental assistance programs, they eagerly applied for funds.

Months later, they feel they’ve been given the run-around by program administrators and are still waiting to hear whether they’ll receive any assistance. While they’re anxious to move to Sacramento, a cheaper city where they have personal connections and job opportunities, they can’t: If they voluntarily leave their home, their applications will be disqualified, and they’ll still be stuck with back-rent bill. And they’ll be legally obligated to pay back each month of missing rent within a year from when it became due.

“I’m really worried the funds aren’t there, and if we don’t get the rent relief, we can’t pay our debt,” Alysha said. “If it’s impacting us to this degree, how is it impacting people who don’t have the resources and education that we do?”

Alysha and William are among numerous renters and landlords who applied to local and state COVID-19 rent relief programs, but have encountered bewildering bureaucracy, ever-changing application forms, weeks with no communication, and no money yet. 

Oakland, Alameda County, and California all have rental assistance programs

Cities like Oakland could choose whether to let the state distribute all the federal rental assistance funds allocated to local residents, or to create their own programs. 

Oakland did both: The city—through Bay Area Community Services (BACS) and other non-profits—is distributing $12.8 million via its local program (applications are now paused but will reopen). And California has another $13.8 million it’s doling out to Oaklanders through its separate $1.4 billion program. (Apply here.)

Oakland and Fremont are the only cities in Alameda County that have their own programs. Other cities are too small to receive federal rental assistance allocations directly, so the county is administering one program for everyone else.

Confusion about which program to apply to is one of the many roadblocks that have come up for Oakland renters and landlords.

Alysha and William have applied four separate times to rent relief programs, getting mixed messages from program administrators and their landlord about whether they should apply to the state, county, or local programs, sometimes beginning to fill out a form only to get rerouted to a portal they’d already applied through and been denied from, they said. Each program launched at a different time, with different eligibility requirements, so sometimes the appropriate application for a given household one week was not the same one they should fill out the next.

In some cases, emails show the Alysha and William were sent lists of documents, saying “some or all” were missing from the application, but not specifying which, and confounding the applicants, who believed they’d included everything. In an email to the tenants, their property manager noted that she, too, was confused by the messaging front the Oakland program, noting that her renters in Contra Costa County had already received their funds.

After trying to apply to both the county and Oakland programs, Alysha and William’s application ended up rerouted to the state system. They can log in to check the status online, which has changed regularly from “redirected” to “pending” without explanation. Months after they submitted their first request, they’ve received nothing and their debt is wracking up.

According to KQED, California has only distributed rent relief to 2% of its applicants, and the state has received fewer applications than expected. 

The Oaklandside requested up-to-date figures from Oakland’s program multiple times, but has not received them. On May 13, six weeks into the application period, a spokesperson said the city had received 2,000 applications at that point and had approved 122 of them. Some but not all of the 122 households had received their funds. 

Landlords anxiously awaiting payment, too

Renters in Alameda County have one year to pay rent debt or landlords can take them to court. Credit: Pete Rosos

Tenants and landlords have often become unlikely allies in the pursuit of rental assistance. 

In both the local and state programs, the money is distributed directly to the property owner, in most cases. For the state relief, the landlord and tenant must apply together to receive the full benefit: a payment of 80% of the missing rent, if the landlord agrees to forgive the other 20%. (Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he plans to up the amount to 100%.)

Many landlords have come out of the application process just as confused and demoralized as their renters. 

“This process is so impaired, I can’t tell you,” said Derek Barnes, CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), which represents landlords, in an interview in May. “I get really passionate about this because it’s not rocket science. What is the key metric in order to determine if the program is working and successful? It’s, have people been paid? And the answer to that is largely no.”

EBRHA has hosted online and in-person workshops helping both landlords and some tenants apply for state, county, and Oakland relief. Barnes said he’s witnessed widespread confusion around which program to apply to, as well as difficulty completing the sometimes onerous applications. “All the little things can get in the way,” he said.

EBRHA has hosted 150 of its 1,600 members at in-person sessions, and has been invited by the county to apply for a grant to continue the work, Barnes said this month. 

“There are people who went to the portals when they first opened and still haven’t gotten paid,” he said. Barnes recently heard from a property owner whose tenants are considered extremely low-income who had received rent relief from Oakland, but hasn’t heard of anyone getting a check from the state. 

“There’s a level of empathy that escaped people when putting this together,” said Barnes, who noted that the applications are online and require a level of “technological acumen” that many renters and small landlords may lack.

In response to these concerns, the state recently changed its application, requiring fewer documents, adding new translations, and offering paper versions.

Shola Olatoye, director of Oakland’s housing department, said the city edited its application early on, too, after hearing about issues from applicants. Initially, the applications were only offered in English, said one of the program administrators, but they were eventually translated into Spanish.

The city made a deliberate decision to reserve its $12.8 million for very and extremely low-income residents, and the organizations overseeing the program have done extensive outreach to those communities, according to Olatoye. 

“We saw really poor people applying for help, and saw that those folks were not going to be served in the same numbers at the state level,” Olatoye said. “We focused on flooding those neighborhoods.”

After Oakland put its program on pause in mid-May because of a high level of requests, the city targeted areas where there’s low internet access or non-English languages spoken, to encourage applications, said Olatoye.

But the same pandemic that made rent relief necessary in the first place has presented challenges for outreach workers trying to spread the word about the funding. 

“The traditional methods are not available,” said Monique Berlanga, attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services agency. When the organization has distributed rental assistance in the past, staff relied on churches, food banks, and door-knocking to distribute paper applications and connect with community members in need, most of which was impossible this year, she said. 

Centro Legal has mainly assisted with Alameda County’s rent relief program, but the organization did receive a portion of Oakland’s funds to distribute too, and is focusing on residents of affordable housing projects. “The city is doing on-the-ground workshops in highly impacted areas, and then they will route those applications to Centro,” Berlanga said. 

She said there was frustration at the outset of the process, but she “comes at this with an understanding of how difficult it is to stand up a program quickly.” The federal funds did not come with much in the way of administrative support for cities tasked with distributing an enormous amount of money. “It’s somewhat of an impossible situation,” she said. 

Will people get paid before the eviction moratorium ends?

California is slated to receive another $2.6 billion for state and local rent relief programs, thanks to the federal stimulus package. And Oakland will receive nearly $20 million of it, said Olatoye. 

But with both applications and distribution lagging at the state level, tenants and supporters are concerned that renters with debt will be evicted before they get help paying their bills. California’s eviction moratorium is scheduled to expire June 30, and advocates have been pushing the state to extend it. 

If it’s lifted, “we’re defeating the goal of handing out this money to keep people in their homes,” said Patricia Mendoza, a member of the advocacy group ACCE, during a recent press conference.

Renters in Alameda County and Oakland are more protected. The local jurisdictions have their own eviction moratorium policies that are tied to the local “state of emergency,” as declared by the city and county. The local governments have not indicated that they are planning to lift the state of emergency soon, and even when they do, Alameda County’s eviction policy will last for another 60 days.

However, some landlords are still finding ways to push out renters or force them to pay their missing rent, according to tenants and advocates. Berlanga said Centro Legal has witnessed a significant uptick in tenant phone calls to the organization about landlord harassment. 

Alysha, the Adeline Street tenant, said her property manager has been patient and supportive. But that doesn’t erase the debt they’re accruing, or the policy that says they can’t receive money if they move.

“I’m in limbo,” she said. “I can’t apply for a job [in another city], and my daughter’s going to start school in two months. The methodology of how they’re going to pay out is not transparent.”

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.