Laura Rubio outside her apartment in East Palo Alto. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Laura Rubio, a 46-year-old single mother who lives in East Palo Alto and works cleaning houses, lost much of her income as a result of COVID-19 and has been unable to pay her rent regularly.  

Fearing that she and her daughter, a college student, could be evicted, she has turned to organizing others in her Latino community who are also at risk of eviction to push for rental relief. She estimates she’s in touch with some 350 families like her own in this small city midway between San Francisco and San Jose where 52 percent of households are renters. 

Many are undocumented, and therefore do not qualify for any federal or state aid. “We still try to make whatever payments we can towards rent, but we need more time and support,” she says. 

Laura Rubio is in touch with 350 renters, many of them undocumented, who fear eviction. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Hector, 38, is a single father of a 12-year-old daughter and a 16 year old son who has lived in East Palo Alto for 20 years. Due to COVID-19, he lost his job of 18 years at a local construction company, ran out of his savings, and is also unable to pay rent regularly. Asking that his last name not be used, he says if he’s evicted, he has no options other than to return to Mexico, leaving his two American-born children behind.

Hector is a single father of two who lost his construction job. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Karla, who also did not want her last name used, has seen her income reduced because of the pandemic and fears eviction for failure to pay rent regularly. She is currently in self-imposed quarantine. 

Karla, in quarantine after a friend was infected, fears eviction. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Rudi lost his construction job due to COVID 19, has been unable to find more work and has had to sell his belongings to pay rent. He has now run out of money and fears being evicted with his family.

Rudi lost his job, sold his belongings and now has no funds left to pay rent. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Last April, East Palo Alto’s City Council allocated $100,000 for rent relief – compared to $500,000 allocated by its wealthier neighbor Mountain View.  The city, “strapped for cash,” according to the San Jose Mercury News, “relies on nonprofits, churches and private companies” for additional assistance. It doubled the deadline to pay back rent from 90 to 180 days and gave renters 30 days to fill out an application for rent relief.  

Laura Rubio and other advocates say there are too many families the government can’t reach.

A tenant ordinarily has five days to respond to an eviction notice in writing to a local court, after which a trial date might be set.  If there’s no response on time, the landlord wins automatically. According to CalMatters, many California cities have expanded the time a renter has to respond to 30 days. But “the mechanics of how to respond are daunting – what is the form, how to fill it out, sign, print and upload to a specific program.”

San Mateo’s Board of Supervisors voted on July 22 to extend a moratorium on residential evictions  from July 28 to Aug. 31.

The temporary moratorium protects renters from eviction if they cannot pay rent due to COVID-19.  At the end of the moratorium, tenants have up to 180 days to pay the owed rent.

CBS SF reported on July 22 that San Mateo’s unemployment rate was 10.8 percent in June compared to 2.2 percent in June 2019. According to a San Mateo County staff report, many county residents are “rent burdened,” spending up to 50 percent of their income on rent.

This is the third time the Board voted to extend the moratorium following Governor Newsom’s executive order on March 18 allowing local counties and cities to impose their own eviction bans if they choose. That executive order now extends through September 30.

52 percent of households in East Palo Alto are renters. Photo: Manuel Ortiz

Hundreds of renters in East Palo Alto who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and can’t make their rental payments are banding together to seek help from local government or nonprofits.  

Editor’s note:  Photojournalist Manuel Ortiz, an award-winning photographer who taught at the University of Mexico and now resides in Redwood City, begins a series of photo-essays to document the experiences of East Palo Alto renters over the coming months as they struggle to pay rent after losing their income in the pandemic.