When Spanish-speaking tenants in East Palo Alto needed rent relief earlier this year, community organizer Gabriel Manrique helped them write to their elected officials. In one month alone, he translated more than 50 such letters.
Manrique works for the San Jose-based organization Latinos United for a New America (LUNA), which is partnering with tenants' group el Comite de Vecinos del lado oeste, East Palo Alto to support tenants. He said it was hard not to get emotional when hearing some of their stories.
"You can see all the pain and all the hardships they're going through right now because they're not working," Manrique said.
"They don't have money to pay rent or even to bring food to the table," he said. "It's been a little bit hard to tell those stories, especially seeing that they don't see any hope for the future."
Tenants around the Bay Area who cannot afford rent rely on nonprofits like LUNA for support, resources and, in some cases, rent relief. California tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19, but full rent will be due starting in February. As the pandemic wears on, and with the looming end of eviction protections, the strain on renters and nonprofits will likely increase.
Research from the Bay Area Equity Atlas, an online repository of data focused on inequality metrics in the region, estimates that if eviction moratoriums ended, up to 7,900 renter households in San Mateo County could face eviction.
LUNA and el Comite are just two of many nonprofits around the county that have been working since the pandemic struck to support, educate and advocate for tenants. They showed up at local government meetings, repeatedly asking elected officials to extend eviction moratoriums past the months they were set to expire.
In March, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors enacted a countywide eviction moratorium that was eventually extended through August.
But in August, unlike some jurisdictions that further extended their local eviction bans, supervisors in San Mateo County did not extend the countywide moratorium, leading tenants and activists to demonstrate in protest.
At the end of August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3088, the Tenant Relief Act, which protects renters from evictions through January 2021 if they cannot pay rent due to COVID-19 related hardship.
Plus, the unpaid back-rent has become "non-evictable." Instead, the debt is converted to a consumer debt, meaning that landlords — who run the gamut from mom and pop landlords to property management companies — must go through small claims court to retrieve their lost rent.
This is what advocates like Manrique had been pushing for, but a central issue remains: how will tenants? — already hit hard by the pandemic — suddenly be able to pay their rent when the ban expires? Tenants must still pay 25% of rent accrued from September through January, and unpaid rent is not forgiven under the act.
"The rent is going to be due at one point," said Victor Ramirez, administrator of East Palo Alto's Rent Stabilization Program. East Palo Alto is a small, working-class city in San Mateo County where the majority of residents are renters.
"The problem is not going to go away," Ramirez said. "It doesn't matter if we extend this (moratorium) for another five months, or 10 months, or a year. They (tenants) will not be able to save enough money to pay for the rent that they haven't been able to pay."
Staff at the Rent Stabilization Program have been fielding calls from tenants — and some landlords — concerned about rent during the pandemic. Staff share resources and educate tenants on their protections.
Ramirez said that without state or federal action to help renters pay their debt, they could see a lot of people displaced in the future.
"We (East Palo Alto) are a small city with very limited resources and we're trying to do whatever we can to assist those who need the most assistance," Ramirez said.
Staff at local nonprofits have felt the strain of assisting renters with rental assistance applications, which can be lengthy or complicated for applicants without access to technology. Nonprofits have also had to pivot to remote outreach during the pandemic.
"From the administrative front, none of us were prepared to take on the weight that would fall on our organizations," said Ofelia Bello, executive director of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), a grassroots organization in East Palo Alto.
Youth United has been working since April to disseminate information and resources to East Palo Alto's residents in English and Spanish, as residents sometimes face language barriers in filling out applications.
Some renters lack the technology — such as a computer, stable internet or a printer — needed to fill out online applications, an example of Silicon Valley's digital divide bein exacerbated by the pandemic.
With libraries closed, some have nowhere to print the necessary documents required to apply for assistance, which often includes proof of hardship, such as a pay slip or a letter from an employer. Some employers, Bello said, are uncooperative with providing notices to laid-off employees.
They've had to get creative, sometimes going to the place of employment, and taking pictures to show that it's closed.
Youth United is working hard to help people who need it, yet there is "absolutely not" enough support for renters, Bello said.
"It hurts my heart to say that because we're doing everything we can but we know for a fact that there are people falling through the gaps in terms of our messaging and the city's messaging. Our outreach is certainly not reaching everyone," Bello said.
Plus, applications for assistance can be lengthy, Bello said, taking up to four hours sometimes. Adriana Guzman, a community organizer with Faith in Action Bay Area, shared the same concern.
Faith in Action is a network of faith-based organizations that has been helping vulnerable communities such as low-income renters and undocumented immigrants during the pandemic. Their team has been connecting people to resources, advocating for tenants and helping them fill out rental assistance applications.
"People drop off in the middle of the (application) process sometimes because they don't have the things required for it or because they get stressed and try to focus on finding work to pay the rent instead," Guzman said.
Like Youth United, they've had to shift from knocking on doors to phone calls and social media to reach their target communities. Guzman said Faith in Action leaders have made hundreds of phone calls since the pandemic began.
"It's been a challenge not being able to meet in person," Guzman said. "The ability to really make a connection with people was something that helped us. Usually I'm an organizer that's moving across cities in San Mateo County."
Guzman said it's taken a lot more time to build trust with people over the phone, especially as some undocumented people might be afraid to apply for help.
"They are fearful that in the future they will be in trouble if they receive all the resources that are available now," Guzman said.
Another challenge is that resources are running out, which Guzman described as a "moment of darkness" for some who need assistance, but she is hopeful.
Faith in Action helped identify and refer families to San Mateo County's Immigrant Relief Fund, which is administered by the Mission Asset Fund, Samaritan House and the Lega Aid Society of San Mateo County.
The fund, which has raised $13.2 million so far through contributions from the county, the Sobrato Organization and other funders, provides $1,000 grants to qualifying applicants. As of Nov. 16, 10,730 grants had been approved, and almost half of applicants had no monthly income.
Faith in Action, LUNA and Youth United are part of a larger network of Bay Area nonprofits working hard to meet needs during the pandemic, and not just with rent.
Manrique said LUNA and el Comite are now focused on weekly food distributions through the River of Life Foundation, a Silicon Valley nonprofit. Plus, el Comite is collaborating with tech literacy nonprofit StreetCode Academy, which provides tech education classes and i now renting computers to qualifying families, filling an important need for some of the community.
"A lot of our community members don't know how to use the internet or they don't know anything about computers," Manrique said. "Nowadays finding information and everything is online so a lot of times they don't even know what type of help is out there. So I think, for them, being able to navigate the internet and know how to use it is a great help."
In addition to meeting people's tangible needs, nonprofits are helping people feel socially connected.
Guzman recalled the story of a single, undocumented mom who tested positive for COVID-19, along with her children. She wasn't able to pay rent and her children could not focus on school, but Faith in Action helped her apply for rental assistance and cover her other bills.
"It was a lot of pressure on her shoulders, but because she was connected, she was able to overcome all of that, and focus on her health first," Guzman said. "She is now a part of the organizing committee in Redwood City."
Guzman said this is a story she keeps in her heart, because the woman felt so alone at the beginning, but found a way forward with community support.
"Whatever we face, we will overcome this together, one way or another," Guzman said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.