a new apartment building next to an old one
Oakland could soon get additional support from the state to fund 1,600 pending rent relief applications. Credit: Amir Aziz

With thousands of applications for rental assistance languishing on a waitlist, the city of Oakland plans to ask the state for a loan to boost the program.

But even if the city receives that money, it won’t cover even half of the pending $59 million that tenants and landlords have requested for unpaid rent and utility costs.

In 2021, after the pandemic had cut into countless residents’ incomes and ability to pay for housing, the federal and state governments launched rental assistance programs to help with missed payments. Over the past year, Oakland has applied for and received several rounds of funding, totaling about $44.6 million so far. 

Initially, the state distributed the funds, but the city is running the program directly now. Overall, 2,030 applicants have received payments so far, and 128 additional applications have been approved. The city is currently processing 2,881 more. 

The demand has been so high that Oakland has waitlisted everyone who’s applied since Jan. 7, leaving thousands of households unsure if they’ll get help. 

Oakland’s city administration is planning to seek a loan from the state to use as “bridge money” to continue funding the rent relief program while awaiting an increase in federal support. If the anticipated federal funding doesn’t materialize, the state will forgive the loan. 

The new money would help only 1,600 households or so—a significant number of applicants, but a fraction of the total number in need.

Over the past year, many tenants and advocates have spoken about their struggles accessing rent assistance—or, for some, immense relief to see their applications approved—as the pandemic continues to introduce new financial obligations, illness, and job loss. 

Landlords have also criticized the distribution system.

Jason Russell, who owned about 100 rental units in Oakland until he recently sold three buildings, had around 9 tenants who’ve missed payments during the pandemic, he said. Some are still awaiting word from the state program they applied to months ago, and others are out of luck because both the state and city portals are closed now.

“I’m trying to be patient, but it’s so poorly run and there’s no information,” Russell said. 

Locally there is an 18-month cap on how much aid a household can receive, which Russell called a “bad math problem,” given that the pandemic has lasted longer than that.

“If you want to keep the eviction moratorium, you need to provide more funding—and staff the city and state mechanism to do so,” he said.

Oakland has contracted with four local organizations—Bay Area Community Services, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Centro Legal de la Raza, and the Eviction Defense Center, all working under the title Keep Oakland Housed—to administer the rent relief program. The organizations are paid 10% of the rental assistance funds for those operations. 

A staff report to the City Council regarding the loan application recommends continuing to work with those agencies, saying they “performed extremely well, under tremendous time and public pressure to quickly implement a large program.”

The report acknowledges a slew of challenges, though, including the city’s lack of capacity to get those contracts up and running, increased attempts at fraud from applicants, communication challenges with landlords, and the omicron surge putting a number of staffers out of work for some time.

“The City, along with the State and the entire country, has never seen the scale of this type of program, no less during a global health pandemic,” said the report from the Housing and Community Development Department. “Oakland’s program has been pointed to as an example around the country for its targeting of extremely low-income residents and centering its work in racial equity.”

The city’s rent relief program was initially open to only residents with very low incomes, while other tenants were referred to the state’s system. Since Oakland took over the program, it’s opened to a wider range of households, but has still prioritized low-income residents, targeting outreach in predominantly Black and Latinx communities and in the ZIP codes hit hardest by COVID-19.

Around 90% of renters who’ve been assisted made under 30% of the area median income, according to the city.

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.