The Berkeley Relief Fund has distributed about $1 million to landlords whose tenants have suffered financially because of COVID-19. Apartment buildings on Oxford Street. Photo: Pete Rosos

When COVID-19 accelerated its spread in the Bay Area in early March, Mark Robinson decided he had to stop driving for Uber. At 77, he had some underlying health conditions and his doctor recommended that he stay at home as much as possible.

Robinson got a small emergency grant from Uber, but that and his social security still weren’t enough for him to pay rent and get food. Then he saw that Berkeley had created the Berkeley Relief Fund and would be passing out housing grants. He applied, and last month was awarded a grant to pay rent for March, April, May and June. The funds go directly to his landlord.

“That gave me a break,” said Robinson, who asked that Berkeleyside not use his real name. “With this pandemic I can’t work, doing what I normally do. Now I don’t have to scramble around. I don’t have to worry about what to eat next week.”

Robinson is one of 214 households who received housing retention money from the Berkeley Relief Fund. In March, the City Council voted to move $3 million from various funds into the Berkeley Relief Fund. The Berkeley City Council determined that $1 million would go to small businesses, $1 million would go to arts organizations, and $1 million would go to tenants through the existing Housing Retention Program. Priority was given to low-income residents, people and businesses of color, and people and businesses who had been in Berkeley for an extended period of time.

In late April, the city distributed $1.7 million to 354 businesses and 47 arts organizations to help them weather the financial downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Funds raised from the community are also helping out

And this week, in the second round of grants, Berkeley was able to allocate another $702,000 — much of it to the businesses that had applied but did not make the cut in the first round, said Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s economic development manager. That’s because, on top of the $3 million allocated by the city, Berkeley businesses and community members contributed another $1.2 million.

Together, the first and second rounds of funding have distributed more than $1.6M to 705 small businesses.

That allowed Berkeley to inform 351 small businesses that met the city’s criteria and they would be getting $2,000. (The first round of grants ranged from $2,000 t $5,000.) Together, the first and second rounds of funding have distributed more than $1.6 million to 705 small businesses.

No arts organization will get additional funding through the city, said Klein. However, the $45,000 the city had left over after handing out grants to arts organizations in April will go to individual Berkeley artists and arts workers. The city will donate the money to The East Bay/Oakland Relief Fund for Individuals in the Arts, a $625,000 fund established two weeks ago by Oakland and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. The San Francisco-based Center for Cultural Innovation is administering the grants and will award the $45,000 to Berkeley art teachers and nonprofit art workers who have been affected by the pandemic, said Klein.

The rest of the money from the community portion of the Berkeley Relief Fund — $498,000 — will go to help tenants who are at risk of losing their housing. That is on top of the $1 million already allocated. The East Bay Community Law Center and the Eviction Defense Center have been administering those grants.

The demand for rent relief has been high, according to Lisa Warhuus, the director of Health, Housing and Community Services. More than 500 people made inquiries into getting the grants, she said.

Crystal Brown was one of those. A former sex worker, Brown was about to start a new job and was trying to network for a career in the software industry when the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

“When SIP happened just everything froze, got canceled,” said Brown, who asked that her real name not be used. She worked a traditional job part-time in 2019 and applied for unemployment benefits, but was turned down, she said. She did get a $1,200 federal stimulus payment, but could not make her $1,190 rent. So Brown applied for a Berkeley Relief Grant.

At first, the experience was frustrating. She sent in her application but then Berkeley kept asking her to resubmit it. Brown said she sent more than 20 emails and texts to the city.

But the Berkeley Relief Fund finally gave her a grant, which will pay Brown’s rent through June. She is thankful to the city, she said, and is trying to conserve her resources by cutting back spending. She is doing some random online gigs, she said.

The new infusion of money will be able to help more people who are having difficulty paying their rent. Anne Omura, the executive director of the Eviction Defense Center, said there is a waiting list of tenants who are eligible for grants but did not get any in the first round as the $1 million from the city had already been committed.

The citizen and community-driven part of the Berkeley Relief Fund will continue, according to Jacquelyn McCormick, Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s chief of staff and the “convener-in-chief” for the Berkeley Relief Fund. Around 1,600 people contributed to the fund and most of those were small donations, she said. Some of the small donors are sending in a second round of checks.

“People are donating again, which is amazing,” said McCormick. “Every little bit adds up. We’re not stopping. Every little bit helps.”

The Berkeley Relief Fund has been holding a series of special YouTube events to generate excitement for the fund. Michael Lewis, the Berkeley author, kicked off the fund drive on March 22. The Berkeley Symphony did a performance, as did the Shotgun Players. The Bay Area Book Festival held a special author event.

The original goal was to raise $3 million from the community to match the $3 million contributed by the city. So the fund has about $1.8 million to go.

Berkeley has gotten calls from Pasadena and Alameda about how it set up and ran the public portion of the Berkeley Relief Fund, she said.

“It’s exciting to have it be used as a city model in other areas,” said McCormick.

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...