Windows are boarded up at Yoga Tree on Telegraph Avenue. Yoga Tree, like most of Berkeley’s businesses, is closed due to shelter-in-place orders. Photo: Pete Rosos

Small businesses, nonprofits arts organizations and renters can now apply to the city of Berkeley for grants to help them weather the economic crisis brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19.

The city will be distributing $3 million to help affected businesses, nonprofits and tenants; it will give out $1 million in each category. Grants from the Berkeley Relief Fund, a companion fund made up of donations from individuals and businesses, will be distributed after the city gives out money. The fund aspires to raise $3 million and has so far raised $681,000.

Berkeley only released the guidelines for who is eligible and how to apply on Monday but the city and the East Bay Community Law Center, which will be administering the grants for renters, have already been flooded with applications, said Jordan Klein, the director of the office of economic development. His department will be administering grants for non-profits and small businesses and selecting the grantees. The city will establish objective evaluation criteria on which to assess applicants, he said.

The deadline for the first round of small business applications is 5 p.m. Monday, April 6, said Klein. A second round will use the private funds raised by the Berkeley Relief Fund. No deadline date has yet been set for that pot of money yet.

By Tuesday afternoon, 200 businesses and nonprofits had already submitted applications; 78 renters had also applied, he said.

“We want to get the word out so all of the people who are in need of help will apply,” said Klein.

Renters and small businesses can get a maximum of $10,000. Arts organizations are eligible to receive $25,000.

With so many businesses in need, what is a meaningful grant?

The tension in the process is how to balance handing out meaningful grants with the sheer number of people who need assistance, said Klein. Is it better, he said by way of example, to give 1,000 businesses $1,000 each or fewer businesses larger sums?

There are about 5,000 small businesses in Berkeley, he said. To be eligible for a grant, a company must employ between one and 50 employees. Sole business proprietors are not eligible. Businesses also have to show at least a 25% drop in gross receipts because of the coronavirus crisis. The grant must be used to pay payroll, rent, or used for working capital to cover operational expenses, among other requirements.

Equity will help determine who gets grants

When the City Council voted March 17 during an emergency meeting to disperse the $3 million, it directed staff to consider equity when determining how the funding would get distributed, said Klein. For the grants for arts organization, the city is using the criteria equity established its arts and culture plan in 2017, he said. Organizations that are presenting art by underrepresented minorities, predominantly serve marginalized populations, or whose majority of staff are from underrepresented groups will be prioritized, he said. In addition, Berkeley will seek to disperse the grants geographically around the city.

For small businesses, the city will use criteria including the amount and percentage of their revenue loss, the income level of the business owner, whether the business owner is part of a disadvantaged community, and how long the business has been operating in Berkeley

“The council wants to use equity as criteria for the distribution of funds,” said Klein.

This does not mean business or arts organizations that don’t meet those criteria won’t get grants, though, he said.

The UC Theatre it is one of many shuttered arts organizations in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

Nonprofit arts organizations can get $25,000 in relief

Berkeley recently did an audit of its arts organizations. There are about 150, said Klein. The lower number means that it will be easier to give them larger grants. The applications will be considered on a rolling basis until 5 p.m. on April 20,  he said.

“The intention of this Berkeley Relief Fund for Arts Organizations is to provide emergency gap funding to replace some portion of lost earned revenue due to impacts of COVID-19 and to do so using a Cultural Equity lens,” according to the application. “Therefore, all eligible organizations will receive some funding and some organizations will receive a supplemental amount based upon the Cultural Equity criteria.”

Various criteria for grants to renters

Renters who have lost their jobs or are suffering financially because of the COVID-19 crisis — and who are at imminent risk of losing their housing — can apply for housing relief. Eligible households must be at or below 80% of the Area Median Income, which is $69,000 for a single person; $98,550 for household of four.

In addition to a loss of income, grants may go to people who are facing unexpected medical and/or disability expenses paid without credit; are fleeing domestic violence; have a car expense on a car that is required for work, among other criteria.

While Berkeley issued a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions during the city’s state of emergency, landlords who rely on rent for their living expenses can apply for a waiver, said Klein. So there is a possibility that some tenants might face eviction during this time.

Before submitting an application, the East Bay Community Law Center is asking people to call and leave a message with a name, phone number and indication you live in Berkeley and are seeking financial assistance. An EBCLC staff member will call back. The phone number is 510-548-4040, ext. 629.

Klein said the city intends to distribute funds as quickly as it can. He hopes to be sending checks out by the end of April or early May.

Berkeley Relief Fund still seeking tax-deductible donations

This Sunday, Cherilyn Parsons, the founder of the Bay Area Book Festival (which was canceled because of the coronavirus crisis) will be talking on YouTube to local authors about “how poetry and literature can offer solace, adventure and escape in a moment of physical isolation.” She will be appearing as part of the Berkeley Relief Fund’s weekly online gathering to help raise funds for distressed residents. Guests include Adam and Arlie Hochschild, Adam Mansbach, Michael Pollan and other well-known Berkeley writers. Local bookstore owners and children’s book authors will also participate. The Berkeley Relief Fund kicked off its fundraising efforts on March 22 with an online live launch event featuring Mayor Jesse Arreguín and author Michael Lewis.

Donations to the Berkeley Relief Fund are tax-deductible. The money raised will be handed out to the same three categories as those handed out by Berkeley: small businesses, arts nonprofits and renters. The East Bay Community Foundation is acting a the tax-exempt organization collecting the fund; it will collect a 1% fee for processing the money.

Donors so far include Bayer US, which contributed $250,000; Magoosh, which gave $50,000; Wareham Development, which donated $50,000; the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Update, 6:16 p.m., The story originally said the city council set priorities for which kind of distressed businesses should get grants and asked they mirror the quest for cultural equity the city identified while updating its arts and culture plan in 2017. Those criteria will be used to determine arts grants. The council gave staff direction on how to select business grants, not a mandate. Equity will play a role in those grants, too.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...