The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to drastically increase its emergency funding for renters who are out of work due to the new coronavirus, cobbling together $1.1 million in additional funding for rent relief.
The action, seen as a way to stave off displacement and homelessness, comes after a crush of more than 1,400 households in the city requested financial assistance as of Monday, April 13. At the current rate, the city's initial $500,000 in rent relief will be exhausted before serving even a fifth of those requests.
Since March 17, schools and businesses deemed nonessential have been shuttered in accordance with state and local stay at home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The shutdown triggered immediate, massive job losses, leaving many strapped for cash to pay for April rent. By some measures, nearly one-third of tenants across the U.S. did not pay their monthly rent by April 5.
With May rents due in just two weeks and demand vastly exceeding the available financial assistance elsewhere in the region, City Council members at the April 14 meeting agreed to beef up the city's own rent relief fund using some unusual financial footwork. The $500,000 fund set up last month pulled money out of affordable housing funds, whereas Tuesday's $1.1 million infusion comes from federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. About $350,000 takes cash from future 2020-21 CDBG funding to use for emergency relief.
All told, the city now has $1.6 million available for renter relief, far higher than most other Bay Area cities including Sunnyvale ($250,000), Redwood City ($489,000) and Gilroy ($50,000). San Jose and Santa Clara County have each contributed $2 million for financial assistance, but those cities have much larger populations and aren't nearly as generous per capita, said Councilman John McAlister, who touted Mountain View as a leader in the crisis.
"We are far exceeding any city in comparable size," he said. "You look at the county, $2 million, you look at San Jose -- We are making these people look like they are not really addressing the issue."
On McAlister's recommendation, the council also voted to ask staff to dig up an additional $1 million -- from a yet-to-be-determined source -- that could be earmarked for helping city residents impacted by the coronavirus. Council members balked at the idea of taking money out of the general fund, agreeing that its money is going to be needed in the event of a recession following the immediate crisis.
Councilman Chris Clark cautioned that other priorities are going to come up in the next six to 12 months in the aftermath of the coronavirus monthslong shutdown, and there's always the possibility of another terrible thing happening, like a natural disaster.
"I just want to make sure that we're cognizant that, while we're talking about a very important need in our community, it's not going to be the only need in our community."
For future rounds of funding, council members agreed to consider tailoring the rent relief program to more carefully target the city's neediest residents, including requirements that it serve lower-income families and households that have not received financial assistance elsewhere.
Assistance to date, by the numbers
So who has been getting rent checks with city funds, and how much money are they getting? The latest count shows that 160 households have received help through the rental assistance program as of Monday, according to data collected by the nonprofit Community Services Agency (CSA), which runs the rent relief program.
CSA is able to process the requests in about one week and is mailing between 5 and 15 checks per day, averaging $2,085 in assistance per household. As of this week, $330,000 has been disbursed, amounting to two-thirds of the initial funding to serve just 11% of the requests.
Though the city left the program open to households making up to 120% of the Area Median Income, or $157,700 for a family of four, the checks have largely gone to extremely low-income families. CSA is reporting that 61% of the families who have received help to date make -- at most -- 30% of the AMI, or about $44,000 for a family of four.
Only 2% of the recipients to date have a moderate income between 81% and 120% of the AMI, according to CSA's data. Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said she wondered whether the city needs to impose eligibility requirements on rent relief when, to date, it's been going to the right people.
"We have the experts doing it and the numbers that are showing in the data we have so far, I think, is proving that we are reaching the folks who need this assistance the most," Abe-Koga said. "I think the best thing we can do is allow CSA as much flexibility as possible."
One of the ways that CSA has been able to stretch the funding is by asking renters to pitch in what they can for April rent and let CSA cover the gap, said Tom Myers, executive director of the nonprofit. Councilwoman Alison Hicks suggested the fund could be further stretched if CSA could start urging larger landlords, that aren't strapped for cash but nevertheless are benefiting from the city's rent relief program, to contribute to the fund as well.
"I would not feel that I was safeguarding our taxpayer money or our CDBG funding very well if we didn't make that request in some official way," Hicks said. "We need to extend it as much as possible and have some sort of official ask for our more stable and larger landlords."