City Helps Renters Hold Onto Housing

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Berkeley Housing Retention Program

The Berkeley Housing Retention Program grants money to people at risk of losing their housing.

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Not since her college days when she mismanaged her money was Berkeley resident Mechaka Gardner behind on rent and on the verge of being evicted from her home.

With a three-day eviction notice in hand, Mechaka Gardner, 33, went to the East Bay Community Law Center at the start of February seeking help.

After filing an application and providing documentation, Mechaka Gardner was approved for a grant from Berkeley's Housing Retention Program.

"(The program) was like a life-saver," she said. "It was very good to have a place I could go to and totally get help from."

In order to qualify for the maximum $2,000 in rent assistance that the program offers, residents must provide an eviction notice and documentation that they can support their monthly expenses and rent.

The program awards grants based on the concept that applicants would be able to pay rent if it were not for a temporary financial setback, said Jennifer Vasquez, associate management analyst for the city's housing department.

February marked the program's one-year anniversary of operating in a new form. The program, which was run by only one agency in the past, now has eight administering agencies, including the East Bay Community Law Center and various senior centers.

Between February 2008 and February 2009, the program allocated about $110,000 to 79 households through the city's general fund, Vasquez said.

Vasquez says the need for the program is growing.

"My records absolutely show a spike in need," she said. "(In) January and February, there seems to be an increase in demand as well."

While the program usually awards the grant in a one-time amount, it also gives small sums over a few months with the expectation that the household's income will increase, Vasquez said.

Tracking data on the program shows 87 percent of Berkeley households that received the grants maintained their housing six months afterwards, Vasquez said.

Linda Gardner, housing director for Alameda County's Housing and Community Development, said it is unusual for a city to commit to and administer services like those offered by Berkeley's Housing Retention Program.

Housing assistance around the county was in high demand even before the economic downturn, according to Linda Gardner.

"The housing here has always been expensive and very difficult to obtain," she said. "Housing in the Bay Area is challenging in most circumstances."

The need for housing assistance in Alameda County was a major trend in the second half of 2008, according to Barbara Bernstein, executive director of Eden I&R, a non-profit organization.

The organization runs the Alameda County 2-1-1 service, which provides housing and social service contacts and receives about 6,200 calls per month.

The top four calling needs from July to December 2008 were all housing-related, according to Bernstein.

Another growing trend in the county is callers asking for utility bill assistance, Bernstein said.

Silvana Hackett, community programs manager for 2-1-1, said people can contact utility service providers that often offer assistance to low-income families.

"We recommend people negotiate a payment plan with PG&E and some people can pay in installments," she said.

The Salvation Army's program, which provides up to $200 for electricity and gas bills to low-income homes, is also seeing a spike in callers seeking utility bill assistance, said the program's Executive Director Nancy Udy.

Mechaka Gardner said she is grateful that the Housing Retention Program was there to assist her in her time of need.

"I'm glad that there was money left to even help, because I realize there are a lot of organizations that don't have the funds to provide this service," she said.


Carol Yur covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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