With nearly 137,500 households in the Bay Area behind on rent and facing debilitating rent debt, the California Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 91 in January — just days before the state’s COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act was set to expire — provided a critical safety net for thousands of tenants. The passage marked the first time the state adopted legislation that included both financial support for landlords and protections for tenants by restricting evictions. In short, it created a pathway for housing and economic stability in this unprecedented time of instability, particularly among often marginalized communities.

So why is the city of Oakland making it so hard for residents to leverage this lifeline?

One of the primary benefits of SB 91 is the state Rental Assistance Payment Program funded by the federal stimulus funds. Under the program, tenants whose income is at or below 80 percent of their region’s Area Median Income (AMI) are eligible to apply directly or through their landlord for rental assistance to cover up to 80 percent of their back rent. Of the total $2.6 billion available in the state’s fund, $13.8 million went to the city of Oakland.

Simon Chen, COO of Madison Park, Oakland. (Photo courtesy of Madison Park)

Accessing these funds, however, has proven to be an impossible task, due in large part to a system lacking in transparency, communication, and consistency with the legislation’s mandate.

Over the past year, my colleagues and I at Madison Park — an Oakland-based real estate development, investment management, and property management company for over three decades — have been working with tenants who have sought our support to keep them informed of various COVID-relief programs, particularly in relation to SB 91. The need was so great that we created a team to work exclusively on qualifying and processing applications in coordination with the tenants. We see the SB 91 program as an opportunity for tenants and landlords to work together toward a common goal. We’ve also seen other jurisdictions working with tenants and landlords toward that common goal. But Oakland has been a different story.

Let’s start with the timing. Other jurisdictions that we operate in opened the application process to its residents in mid-March. Oakland, however, was only added to the state portal on April 1. It was not until an idle and silent month later that the state redirected Oakland applications to the Bay Area Community Services (BACS), who then created a portal to accept applications on May 3 — leaving Oakland a full month behind. In addition to the city’s delays in rolling out the program, there has been little to no guidance in navigating the application process and seemingly no system in place to get tenants’ or landlords’ fundamental questions answered.

In addition to (Oakland’s) delays in rolling out the program, there has been little to no guidance in navigating the application process and seemingly no system in place to get tenants’ or landlords’ fundamental questions answered.

For example: The city has set its own limit of $15,000 per application, which is inconsistent with SB 91. In cases where some tenants can owe amounts exceeding $26,000, this amount falls short of the 80 percent covered by federal funds, a central tenet as stipulated in the legislation. This raises many fundamental questions for applicants, as it deviates from the mechanics and terms of the SB-91 program, questions that are left unanswered.

Under SB 91, tenants who are economically affected by COVID-19 and have paid at least 25 percent of their rent were granted a five-month extension of the eviction moratorium. That ends on June 30. What happens to our tenants — and tenants throughout Oakland — whose applications remain in limbo?

As of May 18, Oakland is no longer accepting applications, and instead redirecting tenants and landlords to the state once again. While we have already applied through the state, we now must determine if we are required to resubmit those Oakland applications, restarting the complicated process once again. (Editor’s note: the city says it expects to reopen its portal for additional applications beginning in July.)

According to Bay Area Equity Atlas, a data support system that tracks state equity across the region, an estimated 86,600 low-income households are at risk of eviction and indebtedness. State legislators designed and adopted SB 91 to prevent that from happening.

It’s time the city of Oakland did the same.

Simon Chen is the Chief Operating Officer of Madison Park Financial. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Chen is a CFA charter-holder and a member of the Urban Land Institute SPUR, and the CFA Institute.