Statewide, citywide safety net programs protect Berkeley residents

Photo of homes in Berkeley
Andrew Huang/Staff
The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged state and city governments alike to provide additional support for residents facing housing insecurities.

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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both the state of California and the city of Berkeley have introduced a number of safety net systems to protect residents.

Many of the programs have aimed to address housing insecurities by restricting evictions, protecting tenants’ rights and paying for or extending the deadline for overdue rent.

The California State Assembly originally passed a short-term eviction moratorium requiring landlords to inform tenants of their rights and protecting tenants from eviction if they could prove financial injury due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tenant Relief Act, passed Jan. 29, extended the moratorium until the end of June, and additional protections were provided to tenants and property owners.

Similar to the Tenant Relief Act, Berkeley passed a COVID-19 Emergency Response Ordinance, which gives financially struggling tenants one year from the end of the local state of emergency to pay back their rent. It is currently unclear whether the state or city programs will be extended past June.

In response to the pandemic, California introduced additional emergency benefits for CalFresh — the state’s monthly food program for low-income households.

Furthermore, the Alameda County Community Food Bank has expanded its food distribution by 51% and opened 61 distribution sites in the county’s “most impacted areas” to address growing food insecurity, according to its COVID-19 Response Update.

To curb the virus’s impact, the Alameda County Responsibility to Community Health, or ARCH, program launched Aug. 24, 2020, to provide economic assistance to Alameda residents who test positive for COVID-19.

The ARCH program plans to distribute approximately $10 million to an estimated 7,500 county residents.

“This program will allow COVID-19 positive individuals in our hardest-hit neighborhoods to maintain financial stability while keeping their communities safe from further spread,” said Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan in the press release.

But according to Irene Bloemraad, founding director of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative, a campus research organization that investigates the societal effects of migration, some pandemic relief efforts have been out of reach for people who are undocumented or not legal permanent residents.

Although “blanket policies” such as eviction moratoriums apply to everyone, Bloemraad said this was not the case for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act — the federal stimulus bill passed in March 2020.

“Despite their disproportionate economic vulnerability, undocumented immigrants and those on temporary visas are left out of federal economic relief efforts,” a report published by the initiative reads. “For instance, the CARES Act does not apply to people without a Social Security Number (SSN) or those who are classified as nonresident aliens.”

To fill this federal cash gap, Bloemraad said California increased its efforts to support undocumented residents. In February, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 88, which allowed the state to send one-time stimulus checks for up to $1,200 to eligible Californians, including those who are undocumented.

Bloemraad said, however, this was “nowhere near the level of the need.” She also noted that many immigrants fear using public benefits even when they are eligible to do so.

The Department of Homeland Security changed its definition of a “public charge” in August 2019. Bloemraad said this significantly lowered the threshold for denying someone entry into the United States based on their use of government programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps, which made noncitizens reluctant to use said programs.

It is likely that the “public charge” rule affected the willingness of immigrants to ask for assistance during the pandemic, she added — the department reversed the 2019 policy in March.

Emphasizing the need for large, inclusive relief efforts, Bloemraad said when legislation omits nonpermanent and undocumented residents, people will “fall through the cracks.”

Contact Lianna Leung, Rachel Raps and Tristan Shaughnessy at [email protected].