COVID-19 help: $1M donation to give East Palo Alto residents rental assistance

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Antonio Lopez is running for East Palo Alto city council. The 26-year-old is working with high school and college students to do COVID-19 outreach.
"It shows we care," says Lopez, who met with residents on the city's eastern side on Wednesday.

Several city and community groups are taking part in different outreach programs, all trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

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"When I draw back and say 15.4-percent, it's a big number," says Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones.

The 15.4-percent is the COVID-19 positivity rate for East Palo Alto, which is more than three times the average of San Mateo County. But the mayor says it's important to put the numbers into context.

"We are unapologetically a city that supplies this region with essential workers," says the mayor, adding that essential workers are at more risk of exposure.

She also points out that her city has 4.5 individuals per household compared to around two people in neighboring cities. Cramped living spaces can be another factor in spreading the virus.

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It is also a city where 12-percent of residents don't have health insurance. "Which means that when our residents get sick, at least that 12-percent, we don't always have easy solutions to come to their aid," says Wallace-Jones, who has been mayor since December.

The city has identified hot spots through contact tracing, and established curative testing sites in those neighborhoods. Along with testing, volunteers and city staff help educate residents about COVID-19.

The sites operate three times a week, along with a mobile testing site that runs once a week. Some of this has been made possible to due financial assistance from the county. "So we are being proactive about it, as opposed for waiting for people to (get tested)," she explains.

However, another growing concern for the city is possible defaults on rents. The mayor says the city is not just concerned for renters, but small landlords as well.

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"When we look at a city like East Palo Alto, we have a small commerce district. We are mostly housing, which means we are housing a larger percentage of vulnerable residents," says the mayor.
The city set aside a small emergency fund for that cause, around $600,000 in total. But the mayor says she has also gone after wealthy donors to ask for assistance.

Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer at Facebook, and his wife and filmmaker, Visra Vichit-Vadakan, just donated one million dollars to the Samaritan House to help pay rents in East Palo Alto.

Bart Charlow, who is CEO of Samaritan House, says that type of donation is "critical."

"Every time we can help every single family that we can help, hundreds or thousands at a time, to stay in their homes and to be able to survive and not become homeless, that is a triumph," says Charlow.

East Palo Alto residents who want more information about rental assistance can contact Samaritan House.

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