A broader set of Oakland tenants will now be eligible to receive rental assistance from the city. Credit: Pete Rosos

Update, October 2021: Oakland has now reopened rent relief applications for tenants and landlords.

Original story: If you’re an Oakland tenant who’s fallen behind on rent payments during the pandemic, you’ll soon get a chance to apply for a cut of nearly $32 million in rental assistance to be offered by the city.

City staffers say roughly 1,700 households could be served by this fund, which is made up of a $19.6 million grant from the U.S. Treasury and a $12 million state grant approved by the City Council at a special meeting Wednesday. 

Oakland renters who make under 80% of the area median income—$76,750 for one person, or $109,600 for four—will be able to apply for support in paying their rent. Applications will likely open this fall. 

However, more than 800 households are still awaiting checks from an earlier $13 million in rent relief first announced in the spring by the city. 

Oakland housing director Shola Olatoye said Oakland was among cities across the country that had to scramble to figure out how to efficiently dole out large amounts of rent-relief money allocated to them by the federal government this year. 

With the new $32 million in relief funds, the city is focused on removing barriers for Oakland residents who might be at risk of losing their homes and need speedy assistance, Olatoye said in an interview. 

The city and Alameda County eviction moratorium policies will also remain in place until the local governments declare the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency. In almost all cases, tenants cannot be told to move out currently, even if they’ve missed rent payments or don’t receive assistance checks. 

Oakland takes over state rent relief

Congress approved the $25 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program in December 2020, and in early 2021, the federal government released its first batch of “ERAP I” payments to states, counties, and cities.

Oakland chose to split its allotment with the state, distributing its nearly $13 million directly to very low-income households, and letting the state handle the remaining $13.8 million through a program available to a broader set of Oakland renters and landlords. 

Oakland contracted with several local organizations to process applications for the city program. The demand was so high that Oakland shut down applications after about six weeks, directing hundreds of applicants to the state program instead. 

The patchwork of programs and shifting criteria in Oakland and California—as well as a separate program run by the county—led to considerable confusion among tenants and landlords about which rental assistance funds to seek, and how. Renters and property owners spoke to The Oaklandside and other media about difficulties they encountered filling out the different applications and getting bounced around between programs.

Oakland’s rental assistance program is made up of several different sources, which have been rolled out on separate timelines. Credit: City of Oakland

But lawmakers in Washington D.C. felt the program was successful enough to warrant a second round of funding, which was approved under the American Rescue Plan Act in March. To accept a portion of this $21.5 billion in funds this summer, the state told cities they had to either run their own programs or hand everything over to the state—no more splitting up the funds. Oakland chose to fully take over the rent relief program. 

“There will now be a single stop for all rental assistance for all Oakland residents,” Olatoye told the City Council on Wednesday. But “we will still have a priority for extremely low-income residents and those living in heavily impacted ZIP codes” hit hard by COVID-19.

All councilmembers present Wednesday (Dan Kalb did not attend the meeting and Treva Reid was absent for the vote) approved the new state allotment, and several officials praised the city’s use of the funds so far.

“Honestly the city of Oakland has done far better than many cities across the nation,” said Councilmember Carroll Fife, who is the Oakland director of ACCE, a renter advocacy organization. “The state’s process has been very cumbersome.” 

California is notoriously behind many other states in processing rent relief applications. By early August, only 23% of applicants to the state program had received funds, representing under 5% of the money allocated to California.

However, Derek Barnes, CEO of landlord advocacy group East Bay Rental Housing Association, said he would have liked to see Oakland give control of the program fully to the state, like some other major cities chose to. Many EBRHA property owners and their tenants have been waiting for months for rental assistance funds from both the state and city, said Barnes, but he believes the state is better set up to handle the massive undertaking.

“Does the city have enough resources? Is it their core competency?” he said. “When you finally get to the approval of an application, how quickly can you get checks out to people?”

Who has—and hasn’t—been served by the rent relief program?

International Boulevard in East Oakland
So far, Oakland has distributed the bulk of its rent relief funds in the neighborhoods with the highest COVID-19 rates, many in East Oakland.

So far, 630 households have been able to make up for missing rent with help from the city’s ERAP I rent relief program, according to Oakland. Each household received an average of $9,000, which went straight to the property owner, and in this next round the checks could be even larger because the city removed a previous $15,000 household cap.

“The city has made significant efforts to ensure that communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, namely its Black and Latinx communities, have been served,” housing staff wrote in a memo to the council. Additional community organizations were looped in partway through the process with the intention of reaching the households most in need of the support who might be unaware of the program.

City data shows the vast majority of recipients are considered extremely low-income, making less than 30% of the area median income, and the majority live in the East Oakland flatland ZIP codes that have seen the highest COVID-19 rates, as well as in West Oakland. So far 41% of recipients have been Black and 27% Latinx. 

With the first $12.6 million, the City Council initially withheld 25% of the grant, waiting to see how the program played out. That decision, as well as other bureaucratic hurdles, slowed the distribution of funds, Olatoye said, meaning more than 800 additional households have been granted awards but have yet to receive the money—though she says they will “imminently.”

In recent votes, the City Council approved higher administrative fees for the upcoming round of rent relief, meaning the city and its nonprofit contractors can use a greater portion of the rental funds to higher workers to process the applications and provide related services like housing counseling. 

What about the Oakland applicants shuffled to the state program?

Rene Morrison is an Oakland photographer and bartender who was put out of work early in the pandemic, when the shelter-in-place orders prompted establishments to close their doors and people to stay home.

Unemployment income wasn’t enough to pay rent on Morrison’s apartment, so she missed several months of payments. She—and her landlord—were eager to apply for assistance, so she submitted a request to the state program in early April. 

“I didn’t get any confirmation email or anything from them, until a month later,” she said. That email told her that she lived in a city that was running its own program for people at Morrison’s income level, which at the time was below 30% AMI. So she applied to Oakland’s program and said she again received no confirmation that her application was received or in progress.

Then some weeks later she received a call from the Eviction Defense Center, one of the organizations contracted to run the city program, interviewing her about her application. When they found out she’d been receiving the extra $300 weekly COVID-19 federal unemployment benefits, they told her that put her over the income eligibility mark, and directed her to apply to the state program—the one she’d been rejected from. 

“It was definitely confusing and frustrating,” Morrison said. “Things could be much worse for me if I were in a more tenuous relationship with the landlord. I’m applying for all the programs, trying to do what the city has put in place. But I owe all this money for rent, so how am I supposed to stay in the city when I don’t have a job?”

Morrison, who’s back to bartending, despite feeling certain she’ll eventually contract COVID-19 at work, ultimately heard from the state that her application is now being processed. But inexplicably, she’s being reimbursed for all but one random month of rent. 

Olatoye said Oakland residents like Morrison, who’ve filed applications with the state, should keep pursuing those funds instead of applying to the upcoming, expanded city program. 

“I want to encourage people to continue on the path to the state—they have the money,” she said. “But if they have questions, our offices are willing to receive those, and help make sense of where they are in the process.” 

The Housing Resource Center number is 510-238-6182.

Natalie Orenstein headshot

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.