‘What Am I Going to Do?' For Families Losing Wages, Bay Area Rents Are Now a Crisis

Aleyda Rebelo (second from left) with her family at their home in Oakland on Aug. 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Aleyda Rebelo hasn’t slept well since the pandemic began.

Many nights, she tosses and turns in bed, anxious about how she’ll pay the $1,200 monthly rent on the house she shares with her family in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

"I’m so worried because my family depends on me. If I don’t make money, it’s very difficult," said Rebelo, 35, in Spanish.

The mother of four became the main breadwinner in her household about five years ago, she said, after her husband was disabled at his last job.

Rebelo cleans homes in San Francisco and the Oakland hills but, since March, she has lost several clients and more than half of her earnings, she said.

Rebelo is one of hundreds of thousands of Bay Area renters who saw their incomes drop during the pandemic, as shelter-in-place and social distancing measures became the norm. The economic slowdown has compounded the stress on families for whom the regional housing market was already unaffordable — and the strain is felt especially in lower-income areas like Fruitvale.

At the same time, the health of people in the neighborhood has been battered by the coronavirus. A cluster of three ZIP codes there, including 94601 — where Rebelo lives — has the highest case rates of COVID-19 in Alameda County, according to its public health department.

Aleyda Rebelo at her home in Oakland on Aug. 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Rebelo said her 2-year-old niece, whose family lives in the neighborhood, tested positive for COVID-19 this month. And Rebelo worries about bringing the virus home to her husband, who she said suffered lung damage by inhaling chemicals used to treat wood floors at his job.

"If my husband gets the virus he could die, because he already has a more delicate health condition," said Rebelo, an immigrant from El Salvador. "So, it’s a huge stress having to go out."

Like Rebelo, most of the residents in ZIP code 94601 work in jobs that can’t be done from home, so they are at higher risk for contracting the virus. And wages for Rebelo and her neighbors tend to be low.

As a consequence, more than 28% of people in the ZIP code live in poverty — twice the state average, according to census figures.

'We’ve Just Seen the Need Intensify'

Even before the pandemic, many in Fruitvale and adjacent parts of East Oakland were already spending a big share of their paychecks on rent and had no financial cushion to cope with lost income, said Carolina Reid, an assistant professor in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

"It’s hard to come up with the words that are sufficient to describe what a crisis this must be for some households in terms of concerns over their health ... concerns over paying rent," said Reid, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Raphael, 3, Jessalyn, 2, and Genesis 7, play outside of the home of Aleyda Rebelo in Oakland on Aug. 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For now, local and state eviction moratoriums have been a lifeline for renters like Rebelo. But once those policies end, tenants may still have to pay landlords the full amount of their back rent.

Reid and others worry that could lead to an unprecedented wave of evictions, especially hitting low-income renters of color. As many as 5.4 million people in California are at risk of eviction, according to estimates by the Aspen Institute.

"It's going to increase homelessness and it's also going to have an impact on our ability to have economic recovery," Reid said. "We are in for a prolonged recession, if not worse, if we can't get people back on their feet."

To avoid massive evictions, Reid said, the federal government must continue to provide cash assistance to people who’ve been financially hurt by the pandemic, so they can pay for rent, groceries and other basic needs — and help keep the larger economy afloat.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan for a new eviction moratorium that could protect millions of renters in the state, if the Legislature approves it.

Pandemic finance resources

Though the bill, Assembly Bill 3088, does not go as far as tenants’ groups had hoped, it would prevent landlords from evicting tenants for missing rent between March 1 and Aug. 31. Unpaid rent from that period would be converted to civil debt, meaning landlords could take tenants to small claims court to try to recover the amount.

For rents missed between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, tenants would have to pay at least 25% of what they owe or face eviction. The remaining amount would be converted to civil debt.

Christopher, 12, and Raphael, 3, the children of Aleyda Rebelo, play basketball outside of their home in Oakland on Aug. 26, 2020.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, a program called Keep Oakland Housed has been channeling private donations to provide emergency assistance to people in need.

The program has been around for two years, but since the pandemic started it has received hundreds more calls for help, said Jonathan Russell, who directs housing strategy for Bay Area Community Services, one the nonprofits that run it.

"We’ve just seen the need intensify," Russell said. "What was already an extremely difficult and expensive market ... we've just seen that exacerbated and worsened."

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"What Am I Going to Do?"

The Keep Oakland Housed program helped Aleyda Rebelo pay a PG&E bill, car repairs and more than $4,000 in rent payments on her family's Fruitvale home that she had missed from May to August.

"The reality is, it doesn't fix September," Russell said of the aid Rebelo received. "But it puts September in a context where the burden of rent — that would otherwise compound in the future — is gone. And the car is working."

Aleyda Rebelo and her son Raphael Roque, 3, at their home in Oakland on Aug. 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Rebelo said the financial help was a huge relief that gave her and her family an emotional and financial break during the crisis.

But many others she knows who have lost jobs, like her sister, haven’t been able to find help, she said. And Rebelo is still anxious, because she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to work full time again to cover her rent and bills.

"I still don’t have all my work, the way I had it before the pandemic,” she said. "And it’s like, what am I going to do?"

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