In a quiet corner of Oakland, Pat McHenry Sullivan agonizes over taking out a life insurance loan to pay off rent debt for her and her husband, who lives with dementia.
A few miles north in Berkeley, Susan Marchionna is in the reverse predicament: She’s debating selling her house of four decades after a drawn-out dispute with a tenant who she says in state filings has not paid rent since the fall.
As a renter and a landlord, McHenry Sullivan and Marchionna are on opposite ends of California’s two-year effort to prevent a pandemic eviction crisis. But both are still waiting for answers to months-old applications for $5.2 billion in statewide rent relief — two of thousands of Bay Area residents unsure where to turn as local eviction battles intensify and a March 31 deadline looms for a final layer of emergency state rental programs.
“I’ve been sitting here since early December with everything in limbo,” said McHenry Sullivan, 79. “It’s heartbreaking, and it’s exhausting.”
The tension playing out in living rooms, city halls and county eviction courts follows an unprecedented expansion of America’s housing safety net. First there were broad local, state and federal eviction bans, most of which expired in California last fall. Then came the multibillion-dollar statewide rent relief effort, designed to accept applications and shield those still waiting for approval from eviction through March 2022.
With that deadline fast approaching and politicians so far unresponsive to tenant advocates’ calls for another extension, renters and small landlords report widespread confusion and fear about falling through the cracks. Only a fraction of relief funds has been paid out, fueling concerns that indebted renters will be pushed out of the region or end up homeless.
The situation is even more complicated in McHenry Sullivan and Marchionna’s home county of Alameda, where stronger local eviction bans haven’t prevented messy eviction disputes.
Now, as landlord and tenant groups battle over the future of renter protections, both sides warn that housing could get harder to find as property owners — fed up with California’s piecemeal approach to rent relief and evictions — take rentals off the market or raise income requirements in a bid to insulate themselves from future tenant disputes.
One thing’s increasingly clear: Even in a swath of the East Bay with some of the nation’s strongest protections for renters, there’s no escaping the turmoil redrawing the map of where people can afford to live.
A renter’s exit plan
Until the fall, McHenry Sullivan thought she would be able to keep paying $1,426 a month for the Glenview two-bedroom that she and her husband, John, 82, have rented since 2006. But then the author and speaker’s extended unemployment benefits ended, and the pandemic didn’t. Medical equipment, taxi fare to doctor’s appointments and the countless hours McHenry Sullivan spends caring for her husband and their home, limiting her ability to pursue outside work, all added financial pressure.
September 2021 was the last month the couple paid rent on time. To cover the rent for October, the final payment they’ve made, McHenry Sullivan said she was forced to dip into a life insurance policy, leaving less money for her or her husband if widowed.
McHenry Sullivan has a master’s degree and is comfortable enough with computers to have run her own business for years, but she was stymied by Oakland’s rent relief website, which she said repeatedly malfunctioned when she tried to apply in the fall. She called politicians and ventured to San Francisco for help from one of the few housing clinics offering in-person assistance, then was told to apply for a state program instead. In December, after months of fruitless calls to check her application status, she was told to reapply to the city program.
She’s still waiting for answers.
“Nobody ever responded,” McHenry Sullivan said. “Nobody.”
Tenant advocates say the odyssey through California’s maze of state and local rent relief programs isn’t uncommon for Bay Area renters looking for help. Cities and counties including Oakland, Marin and Sonoma opted to run their own rent relief programs instead of routing all residents to the bigger state program Housing Is Key. Several local programs have already stopped accepting new applications or run out of money, though more federal funding may become available in the coming months.