With the COVID-19 pandemic greatly exacerbating housing insecurity in Marin County, Dominican University of California has partnered with the County of Marin and Canal Alliance on an emergency rental assistance program that helps connect local residents with resources and support.
The three partners developed the program in order to improve access for households who may need assistance with the online application.
This is the latest partnership between Dominican and Canal Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports immigrant clients who are challenged by a lack of resources and an unfamiliar environment.
“For many immigrant families, accessing rental assistance has been challenging in part due to digital and language limitations,” says Julia van der Ryn, executive director of Dominican’s Center for Community Engagement. “The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact, both economically and from a public health perspective, on our low-income immigrant communities in San Rafael and across Marin County.”
Employment rates for low-wage earners in Marin County have decreased more than 40% since the beginning of the year, and those that are still employed are experiencing wage stagnation and even declines in income. Many tenants in Marin are facing a rapidly growing burden of rental debt.
Earlier this year, Marin County received rental assistance funding as part of the state’s share of the Federal COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act. However, those most in need of pandemic-related rental assistance, van der Ryn says, often face the most barriers to access a program like this.
This summer a team of bilingual Dominican students – Leslie Bejaran Solorio, Fidel Jacuinde, Angelica Gonzales Almanza, Silvia Gramajo Mazerigos, Karla Aldana, and Jocelyn Castillo – worked at Canal Alliance twice a week to provide in-person rental assistance. In addition, students Fernanda Galo Reyes, Elsy Gramajo, Daniela Salgado provided assistance online. The program continues this fall through Dominican’s Service-Learning program with nine students supporting in-person assistance.
DOMINICAN UNDERGRADUATE MAJORS AND PROGRAMS
Working alongside Canal Alliance staff, the students are conducting in-person screenings to determine the appropriate rental assistance funding application, scanning documents needed for rental assistance applications, staffing both in-person and virtual appointments to complete applications, and referring tenants who aren’t eligible to other social and legal services.
Canal Alliance staff, community leaders, and Dominican students also are conducting outreach to raise awareness of available rental assistance programs. As of August 12, the students had conducted 114 screenings and assisted with 64 completed rental assistance applications.
Of the 114 residents screened, 76 were on the lease and 38 were subletting space. Of the 76 on the lease, 62 had past due rent. The average debt was $4,500 and the total debt was $285,000 among all clients on the lease. Of the 38 sub-renters, 30 had past rent debt. The average debt was $2,280 and the total debt was about $59,300 among the sub-renters.
The students are helping clients with a wide variety of issues. For example, one family that had recently moved to a different address needed help for future rent. Another family had previous rent due that they couldn't pay and also needed assistance with future rent. Other clients sought advice on communicating with landlords about the need to submit applications to the county. A commonality among clients is not being able to work due to getting sick with COVID – and then not being able to find work once they have recovered. In addition, quarantining is extremely difficult as multiple families and people often share apartments in order to afford rent prior to the pandemic.
“The bilingual students have been essential to the implementation of the rental assistance program at Canal Alliance,” van der Ryn says. “The students are eager to support the community members and create more of a sense of belonging for their clients.”
Canal Alliance staff member, Fernando Barreto, financial assistance manager, provides on-site support and oversight for Dominican students and meets with Dominican staff weekly. The county receives and disseminates updates and instructions from the state and provides metrics to state, while also providing training and assistance to Canal Alliance staff and the Dominican students.
Barreto believes that the in-person outreach is a critical component of the program’s success, especially when reaching sublessees who, while not directly eligible for the Rental Assistance program, can encourage their roommates whose names are on a lease to apply.
“Emails and social media posts are not enough. This program needs word of mouth – letting people know they can come here to get assistance,” Barreto says.
Humanities and Cultural Studies major Leslie Bejaran Solorio ’24 is one of the five Dominican students who worked at Canal Alliance this summer with the rental assistance program. The work aligned perfectly with her path of study and her interest in civic engagement.
“I spent my summer working in the community while enjoying the company of people from different backgrounds and getting to learn about them and their different cultures,” Leslie says.
Leslie was led to the rental assistance program by Jocelyn Gómez, Community Engagement Student Initiatives Manager for the Center for Community Engagement with Emily Wu and van der Ryn. Jocelyn was aware that Leslie had a meaningful experience in her first Service-Learning class as a freshman, using her bilingual skills to assist parents in gaining digital literacy skills to support their children in online learning. When the opportunity to support Rental Assistance over the summer came up, Jocelyn recruited her.
Beyond working steadily on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with the Rental Assistance program at Canal Alliance, Leslie also went to Marin Community Clinics’ Health Hub on Wednesdays to support their food pantry and community outreach at the Health and Wellness Campus.
Leslie and other students as well as Service-Learning staff attended Rental Assistance training in June presented by the County, Canal Alliance, and Marin Legal Aid. After a few days of training, Leslie commuted from Santa Rosa to San Rafael for in-person appointments to access clients at the Canal Alliance office.
Being in the Canal and meeting directly with residents gave Leslie a greater perspective and appreciation of how COVID is affecting families in the Canal District.
“I learned that we need to be respectful when approaching touchy subjects, like finances. You need to look around and observe the surroundings and learn what you can do, even if it’s one little step such as researching,” Leslie says.
Leslie has been so inspired by her community work that she plans to add a minor in Community Action and Social Change and this academic year is also a Civic Action Fellow, committing over 400 hours to work with Canal Alliance and Health Hubs. She has discovered that she can combine her passion for engaging with the community with her current career goal of earning a master of science degree in Dominican’s Physician Assistant Studies program.
“Our students have a strong desire to contribute to the betterment of the Canal community: often children of Latino immigrants themselves, they understand the struggles from their lived experience,” van der Ryn says.
Photo above (from left) Dominican students Fidel Jacuninde, Karla Aldana, and Angelica Gonzalez Almanza plus Service-Learning program staff member Jocelyn Gomez