Hundreds of families in East Palo Alto have been unable to pay rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are struggling to get assistance, housing advocates said at a briefing this week.

Community activist and renter Laura Rubio, a single mother whose daughter is at college, cleans houses for a living. She lost her job in April and even though she is back to work now, few clients are hiring. She said she makes up to $200 a week now, only enough to cover basic expenses.

During a Spanish-language media briefing organized by San Francisco-based Ethnic Media Services on Monday, Rubio spoke about the difficulties that families and individuals like herself face as they cannot pay rent and are worried they might be evicted. Ethnic Media Services provided live English interpretation during the meeting.

“No resident deserves to be evicted because of lack of payment. None of us planned to be in this situation. All of us deserve to sleep in peace and to have a house to offer our family and to have a healthy family,” Rubio said. “We don’t deserve to be evicted for a debt that we acquired from the pandemic.”

As a majority-renter city, East Palo Alto already has strong rent stabilization laws to protect tenants from displacement, but the COVID-19 pandemic is making things more difficult for renters.

An April survey by the city’s Rent Stabilization Board showed that of 224 tenants who responded, more than half had lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced due to the pandemic, and 29 percent could not pay their April rent in full.

The city has a moratorium on evictions if tenants cannot pay rent due to COVID-19. The moratorium currently ends Sept. 30, and will automatically extend if Gov. Gavin Newsom extends the state’s order on evictions.

Depending on rent moratorium

Rubio is afraid that she’ll be evicted when the moratorium ends, and estimates that up to 600 families in East Palo Alto may face the same plight. As an activist, Rubio is in touch with families directly to help direct them to resources.

However, she says the process to apply for assistance is tedious and hard to deal with, and sometimes their calls for help aren’t returned. In order to receive protection under the moratorium, tenants must write to landlords with proof that they cannot pay rent due to COVID-19.

“No resident deserves to be evicted because of lack of payment. None of us planned to be in this situation.”

Laura Rubio, renter

“We don’t have the technological education to navigate this kind of thing. That’s one of the barriers that we are facing. One [is] not having a job and not having work [and] we’re risking our health when we do. The second one is filling out these forms,” Rubio said.

Samaritan House, a nonprofit providing rental assistance in San Mateo County, requires applicants to provide documentation through an online form, available in English and Spanish. Applicants can also call for assistance.

Staff at Samaritan House said Monday that eligibility requirements for assistance vary based on the funding source. Their job is to collect information from applicants and match them with the most appropriate funding source.

“The only impediment to the process, to speed, is the client and the client’s landlord getting us the information required,” said Samaritan House CEO Bart Charlow. “If the client and the client’s landlord get the documentation to us quickly, it’s a very quick process. If it takes them a long time, that’s what delays it.”

Ready to offer assistance

LaTrice Taylor, director of customer services at Samaritan House, said that sometimes people don’t return their calls. But once they have all the information and approve a client, they can mail the check within three business days.

The city of East Palo Alto has an agreement with Samaritan House to provide up to $100,000 to support residents, with a limit of $1,500 per family.

Victor Ramirez, the administrator of the city’s Rent Stabilization program, said that this limit exists for two reasons.

“We did that condition because we want the city funds to be multiplied by the agencies, by obtaining other funds from other foundations or corporations,” Ramirez said during Monday’s briefing. “The second goal was to be able to assist more people.”

Samaritan House stated in an email that they had spent $52,064 of East Palo Alto funds to assist 51 families and an additional $118,869 from other funds to assist 65 other households with 194 individuals.

Samaritan House has seen an increased demand for assistance, with more than 3,000 households applying for rental assistance countywide since the initial COVID-19-related shelter orders in mid-March, and housing advocates say that number may go up once eviction moratoria end.

Currently, East Palo Alto’s ordinance gives renters up to 180 days to repay owed rent when the moratorium ends. During a July 21 City Council meeting, advocates like Rubio called on city officials to extend the repayment period and make the debt non-evictable, so that tenants have time to recover without losing their homes.