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‘Help Them Stay Afloat’: Santa Clara County Fund Throws Lifeline to Thousands of Struggling Renters

Destination: Home Community Engagement Specialist Ingrid Granados (left) and CEO Jennifer Loving at work at the organization’s San Jose office on Jan. 11, 2021. The group manages a fund for Santa Clara County tenants struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Efren Zavala and his wife, Maria Huerta, were high school sweethearts. When they were teens, the two lived in neighboring apartments in San Jose, and would catch glimpses of each other.

After finally meeting and falling in love, Zavala, now 26, moved into the three-bedroom apartment that Huerta, 24, had shared with her mom. The couple is now raising two young children there.

At the beginning of 2020, they were on the cusp of the American dream: finally saving up enough money to buy a home.

But that was before the pandemic. In March, Zavala’s employer, a catering company, told its workers to stay home. The company continued to pay him, but it was unclear how long that would last.

The couple was forced to consider using their savings — which they had reserved as the down payment for their first home — to keep up with rent.

One night, in the early weeks of the pandemic, Zavala and Huerta sat alone in their living room and put on “World War Z,” an apropos Brad Pitt action flick about a lethal virus. Zavala paused the movie. They held hands.

Huerta was nervous about using their savings, but Zavala said he had done the math, and thought it was their best choice to stay housed through the end of the year if he was unable to find new work. Otherwise, they would likely have to leave California and move in with his family in Tijuana.

“We put the movie back on, and there was a silent moment there. We didn’t know it was going to get more rough, you know, than we expected,” Zavala said.

But it did.

Zavala’s employer laid him off in June, and their additional savings — the nest egg — ran out by October.

That’s when the Silicon Valley Strong Fund came in to help.

The fund, a public-private partnership run by the nonprofit groups Destination: Home and Sacred Heart Community Service, has covered rent and other survival funding for some 15,000 other tenants in Santa Clara County since the beginning of the pandemic.

The fund paid 100% of every recipients’ back rent owed from March to August, and 60% from September to January.  Zavala and Huerta, whose rent is $2,600 a month, received that crucial crutch when they needed it most —  from November to January — as well as an additional $2,500 in direct financial assistance to cover food and other bills — enough to keep them housed in their apartment.

CEO Jennifer Loving, Chief Program Officer Chad Bojorquez and Community Engagement Specialist Ingrid Granados, of Destination: Home, at work in their San Jose office on Jan. 11, 2021.

The fund has raised a staggering $43 million since March. About half of that is from the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and the federal government’s first relief package. The other half comes from a small army of prominent Silicon Valley firms like Cisco, Google, Facebook and Qatalyst Partners.

To date, the fund has given out about $31 million in small grants, according to Destination: Home. But that just scratches the surface of the need in the county.

“We had 32,000 families come to us for help in the first (few months) that we had this relief effort open. It was an avalanche like we have never seen before,” said Jennifer Loving, Destination: Home’s CEO.

And those are just the people who knew about the program.

Statewide, more than 750,000 people in California are “not current” on their rent or mortgage, and face eviction or foreclosure “in the next two months,” according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

To help bridge that gap, a growing number of like-minded Bay Area funds have emerged during the pandemic, and most have been similarly inundated with requests. They include San Francisco’s Give2SF, which secured $30 million for small business support, tenant rental assistance and food security — but has already received more applications than it has funding for. Other nonprofit groups, like the Eviction Defense Collaborative and Compass Family Services — both in San Francisco — have created their own smaller funds that have also been quickly depleted.

‘We May Never Be Able to Raise Enough’

Loving said many of the families getting help may not qualify for unemployment or government stimulus aid. These are the Black or brown families working under-the-table jobs, often for cash, or those who are undocumented and wary of government aid for fear of being identified, she said.

One Santa Clara County report from July warns that roughly 40,000 county residents could face eviction when protections expire, greatly increasing the homeless population in what it describes as a potential “eviction time bomb.”

“We already knew why people were becoming homeless: not being able to pay the rent,” Loving said.

As the funding became available, San Jose on March 17 passed city rental protections to keep tenants from being evicted. Mayor Sam Liccardo said the protections and funding work hand in hand.

“Jen came to me really before we saw much of this pandemic in the news, and we both agreed something very bad was going to be happening soon and we needed to do something to get in front of it,” Liccardo told KQED.

“What we know is we may never be able to raise enough money to address the need, but at least for, you know, a few hundred or thousand families, we could do something to help them stay afloat,” he said, noting that the city has contributed to the fund.

The fund has gone into two pots: about two-thirds to direct cash assistance for people on the poverty line who have been hardest hit in the pandemic, and the other third to direct rental relief, paid to landlords of struggling tenants.

That direct rent relief started as a response to AB 3088, authored by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Franciscowhich now requires tenants to pay 25% of back rent through the end of January to be protected from eviction. To ensure that rent got paid, the fund compensated landlords directly, and kept the receipts as proof.

The cash aid component of the fund, by contrast, was more open-ended.

“We can’t say we know that the money that we’re raising is actually going to pay back rent. It could be paying for any of lots of necessities,” Liccardo said, pointing to things like food or medicine.

Mobilizing a Nonprofit Army

In order to reach the people who needed help most, and get money to them as quickly as possible, Destination: Home recruited an army of about 70 nonprofits with ties to the community.

But not all of them had experience with housing, and that presented another challenge. Some, like Latinas Contra Cancer, which is geared toward medical care access, had to quickly get its small staff of five part-timers up to speed on things they knew little about, like housing legalese and the strict regulations for disbursing rental assistance.

“It was a steep learning curve,” said Darcie Green, the group’s CEO. “But when you see this need, it’s not even an option. Like, you’re just like, this is where we have to go. This is what our clients need.”

Darcie Green, CEO of Latinas Contra Cancer, in San Jose on Jan. 11, 2021.

But the learning curve was worth it, Loving said. Those groups know the people who are losing their jobs, they know what they need, and they have their trust.

Latinas Contra Cancer, which normally runs bilingual Spanish-English awareness campaigns for the Latino community and works to increase access to cancer treatment, usually serves about 1,500 people across Santa Clara County, often in its most impoverished areas. The group served far fewer clients in 2020, Green said, but devoted more hours of work per person. That’s partly because many people have needed more help for longer stretches of time due to difficulties brought on by the pandemic.

That’s how they met Irma Rodriguez Garcia, a restaurant worker taking care of her children along with her brother, who has throat cancer.

Rodriguez Garcia, who was laid off from her job during the pandemic, is raising three of her four children on her own in Mountain View. She now commutes to San Jose for a new job with fewer hours.

The group helped arrange to pay Rodriguez Garcia’s October and November rent, allowing her to save up for January’s rent, she said.

“When the pandemic hit, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for rent and how was I going to keep my family together and secure in one place,” she said in Spanish, through a translator. “And with this program, I’m so grateful that at least I’m able to pay my rent, because whatever I was earning without this help was basically just for food.”

While eviction protections alone would have kept her family housed, she would still owe back rent when those protections expired, putting her family in a precarious financial situation.

KQED first interviewed Rodriguez Garcia just before Christmas. In January, she tested positive for COVID-19.

On top of that, her brother with cancer no longer has health insurance. And she’s also concerned that her 24-year-old son, who suffers from schizophrenia, will lose access to his medication.

“I am very sad and worried that I was positive for COVID-19,” she said. “I ask God to give me a lot of strength that all this happened and soon that we are well.”

Garcia Rodriguez said she is able to quarantine at home thanks to the rental assistance from the fund, as well as local and state rental protections.

Those protections, though, are set to expire in February.

Lessons for a Statewide Moratorium

Assemblyman Chiu recently introduced two bills to renew those statewide protections for millions of tenants like Garcia Rodriguez, who have lost full-time work.

Both Liccardo and Loving think the state should also consider pairing eviction protections with funding for renters and landlords, a proposition touched on by Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose recent budget proposal would allow for one-time $600 payments to low-income Californians.

“David Chiu’s bill is very important,” Liccardo said, “and needs to be extended beyond the point this pandemic will take us.”

But the need may surpass the state’s ability to help, he added.

“It’s going to take a much larger solution, likely at the federal level,” Liccardo said. “And until we get that, we’re going to do everything we can just to help folks hang on.”

Learn more about our COVID-19 Response and the Homelessness Prevention System.