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Rent relief

Black tenants burdened more than others by high rents, relief program stats show

on November 15, 2021

Charlene Cornelious was seriously considering putting in her 30-day notice.

It was July 2021, and Cornelious, a longtime Richmond resident, was worried she wasn’t going to be able to pull together the $960 she needed to pay her rent.

Her Crohn’s disease had flared up again earlier that month, causing abdominal pain and diarrhea and forcing her to take time off from her job as a nurse’s assistant in San Pablo. But being home meant her only source of income was $368 per month from California’s State Disability Insurance program — less than half her rent.

Cornelious was proud of her decades of spotless rental history. She didn’t want an eviction on her record. If it came to it, she decided, she would rather move out first.

“It was very stressful at that point,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”

That was when Cornelious found out about California’s Housing Is Key emergency rental assistance program — the state effort meant to help people cover housing costs during the pandemic. In August, she submitted her application.

Cornelious is one of about 1,500 Black renters who have applied for rent relief in Richmond, state data shows. They make up close to half of the more than 3,200 Richmond residents applying for state aid — about $47 million in requests. 

In a city that is only 20% Black, that number highlights how the pandemic and California’s housing affordability crisis have created compounding challenges for many of Richmond’s Black residents in particular.

So far, only a third of all applicants have received relief — and the state has only paid out $13 million of the total funds requested.

California’s statewide rent relief program is the main source of government aid for renters in Richmond, which has no local program like the ones in San Francisco, Oakland and other cities.

Black renters across the country were already facing some of the highest levels of housing insecurity before the pandemic. The National Equity Atlas found that almost half of Black renters were considered economically insecure and rent-burdened. Renters are considered “economically insecure” when they make only about $25,000 a year for a single person — not even twice the federal poverty threshold — and “rent burdened” when they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

Those trends have continued during the pandemic. A recent report by Zillow found that Black and Latinx households continue to spend notably more of their income on rent than white and Asian households.

In California, renters of color also reported being unable to keep up with their rent payments at a higher rate than white renters. In September, the California Housing Partnership reported that 19% of Black renters said they had trouble staying current with their rent, followed closely by 17% of Latinx and Asian renters.

Elias Gonzalez, a program coordinator with Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, said most of the Richmond residents the organization has helped apply for rent relief are Black or Latinx. His organization is one of a number hired by the state to help East Bay renters through the rent relief process.

“It makes sense,” Gonzalez said. “Black folks have also suffered disproportionately more during the pandemic than other groups.”

The effects of the pandemic are also colliding with a housing crisis which has displaced thousands of Black residents from Richmond. In 2015, UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute published a report that concluded parts of Richmond were in the “early and middle stages” of gentrification.

At the turn of the century, the report found, Richmond was home to 35,300 Black residents — more than a third of the city’s population. But between 2000 and 2013, that number fell by 12,500 — a 35% decrease. The report called the declining number of Black residents “alarming” but concluded that local political leaders could take action to address displacement.

“In order for Richmond to grow in an equitable way,” the authors wrote, “it is critical that local policymakers and community groups act swiftly to implement local anti-displacement protections and policies to enable residents to stay and benefit from neighborhood change.”

But the number continued to drop.

The state rental assistance program is a temporary solution, but does come with one immediate benefit: Renters who apply are temporarily shielded from eviction, even if they have received an eviction notice. 

“If you apply to the program within 15 days, that eviction will be blocked,” Gonzalez said.

California’s statewide eviction moratorium, the law that blocked landlords from kicking renters out of their homes during the pandemic, ended on Sept. 30. Over 1,000 Richmond residents have applied for rent relief since that law expired.

There is no deadline to apply for rent relief. So far, California has paid out $994 million of its $2.16 billion in federal funds. The state will continue to pay out aid until it runs out of money.

Gonzalez said the state prioritizes applicants based on their income, whether they have received an eviction notice, and other factors. He said wait times have ranged from one to six months.

To qualify for rent relief, your income must be lower than 80% of the local median income in Contra Costa County — $76,750 for a single person.

Gonzalez said it is unclear whether his organization, which is under contract with the state until the end of the month, will continue to assist people with their applications after Nov. 30.

For now, Gonzalez said he and other staff members are available to answer questions, help applicants fill out paperwork and upload documents.

Cornelious was one of the renters who went to Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services for help with her application. At the beginning of October, she got a call: Her application had been approved. 

“I feel it really is a good program,” she said. “It’s a much-needed program at a time with this pandemic going on.”

She is still waiting to hear about when she will receive her funds.

Cornelious has been able to make it to work here and there. But she is still dealing with pain and other symptoms that make it hard to take on the taxing work of helping patients move around.

“I love what I’m doing,” she said, “but I might have to get into something else because of my illness.”

Right now, though, Cornelious is focused on keeping a roof over her head. Until she secures that, it’s hard to make plans.

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