Opinion: In a fragile housing market, paying rent is important

If you withhold rent – and can afford to pay – you can hurt small landlords and undermine Alameda County’s housing market.

In the wake of the economic fallout of COVID-19, the federal government has provided unprecedented help to low-income residents through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). For residents earning less than $98,000 for a family of three, renters or property owners can apply for assistance through Alameda County for unpaid rent due to personal economic fallout.

So far, 4,000+ local low-income renters have received Emergency Rental Assistance, which can cover as much as 12 months of past due rent and three months of future rent.

However, some people are not paying their rent even though they have not been financially impacted by COVID-19. For example, Mrs. S, an 80-year-old Alameda County resident who grew up in Oakland, has been providing rental housing since the 1970s and relies on this income in her retirement. Her units are rent-controlled, often occupied by veterans and other vulnerable residents. But Mrs. S, who in the past had lost almost half her units to non-paying renters, fears it will happen again and she will have to sell the remaining units, losing part of her retirement income and taking them out of the affordable rental stock.

In a fragile housing market, paying rent continues to be important.

Throughout this economic and health crisis, Alameda County has prioritized equity and worked to protect the residents most vulnerable to eviction and displacement. Each application is evaluated and prioritized based on those most at risk of homelessness, including prioritizing small property owners. We are working hard to get this financial support into our communities.

We understand there is a great need in our community. Both renters and rental housing providers, especially small rental housing providers, are hurting. ERAP has approved more than $59 million in rental assistance directly to rental housing providers in Alameda County, including more than $21 million in October and November. We are now asking the federal government for more money as we currently have more requests than funding. Alameda County has also enacted an eviction moratorium that will last until 60 days after the public health crisis has abated. This emergency ordinance provides that all evictions anywhere in the county are prohibited, with few exceptions. 

For those residents who have not been impacted by COVID-19, have not lost income and have not paid rent, the message is clear: your rent is due. The eviction moratorium does not cancel your rent, and your rental housing providers can collect in small claims court. The economic impact of lost rent in our county is significant, and the impact on small rental housing providers is catastrophic. Getting the ERAP funding out the door is critical, as is all renters doing their part.

A vibrant local rental property market is essential to our region’s economic and social justice success. To remain vibrant, renters who can pay rent need to continue to pay rent, or we risk units being removed from the market or lost to foreclosure. At the same time, rental housing providers need to assist renters applying for ERAP funds to move applications quickly to fruition and payment.

Low-income renters who cannot pay their rent, in partnership with their rental housing provider, can still apply for Emergency Rental Assistance. Information is available at www.ac-housingsecure.org or by calling 211 and is in partnership with 42 local organizations providing assistance. Applications are available in English, Spanish and Chinese and forms are available in an additional dozen languages. If you don’t have internet access, call 211 for help to start an application. 

Alameda County’s Housing and Community Development Department has taken unprecedented steps to engage, educate and inform renters and rental housing providers throughout the county. A working collaboration between property owners, government, and renters is essential to help stem the tide of homelessness and displacement. Keeping residents housed is at the core of ERAP. At the same time, residents living on wages above the minimums required to qualify for aid remain accountable for monthly rent.

Michelle Starratt is the Alameda County Housing Director. Derek Barnes is the executive director at East Bay Rental Housing Association. Robert Robledo is the executive director at Rental Housing Association of Southern Alameda County, a nonprofit trade association with over 650 members who own/manage residential real estate, whose members collectively represent over 39,000 units in Southern Alameda County.