CALIFORNIA, USA — By late December, Maya Brady and her girlfriend owed Sacramento Property Management Services about $4,000. The company sent regular matter-of-fact texts to remind them that they’re late on rent. Brady imagines the same text arrives to many of her mostly working class neighbors in the apartment complex.
As if 21-year-old Brady needed a reminder. Since August, the couple had paid about 25% of the rent — the minimum necessary to stay housed until February when California’s pandemic eviction protections begin to expire.
With each month, the debt grew and so did the worry, clouding Brady’s thoughts. Then, just before the New Year, the clouds blew away.
In a hopeful prelude to coming rental relief that could soon help hundreds of thousands of Californians evade eviction, the city of Sacramento paid off Brady’s debt to her landlord with federal CARES Act dollars. The good news came just as the U.S. Congress was hammering out the new federal spending deal, which includes $25 billion in rental assistance for local and state governments to distribute to more people like Brady.
“I’ve had a lot of good luck,” she said.
In March, the UC Santa Barbara senior knew something was up when her manager at Staples stopped calling her in for shifts. For the first time in her college career, she was jobless. Brady burned through savings and financial aid for the next few months. In June, ushered by a virtual graduation ceremony that she chose to skip, Brady joined the ranks of the country’s four million new college graduates who the pandemic thrust into a shrinking, unpredictable job market.
“Rough timing,” Brady laughed.
Brady and her girlfriend moved to Sacramento. They clinched a one-bedroom in the heart of the capitol’s midtown — a steal at $1,100, as remote-working techies fleeing the Bay Area have driven up the area’s rental prices — not far from the suburbs of Elk Grove where she had grown up Black, mixed and gay with teachers who “didn’t look like me.”
Returning home with a degree in sociology and a minor in history, Brady saw her hometown through different eyes. Now, she had names for the invisible systems that pressed on her childhood. The achievement gap. Educational inequity. The things she wants to change.
It seemed to Brady like the pandemic “brings things more to the surface.” Like the way well-to-do Sacramentans spilling out onto outdoor eating spaces under twinkle light can’t so easily ignore the seemingly ever-growing number of people who sleep in nearby alleyways and doorways, whose faces Brady has come to recognize in her neighborhood. Brady counted her lucky stars she had a roof over her head, filed application after application for jobs in political communications, and waited.
In July, she found work at Pier 1 Imports. But after a COVID outbreak shut down the location and then the manager told employees they needn’t test negative before they came back to work, Brady quit. Risking her life, “really wasn’t worth it for $13.50,” Brady said. She filed more job applications. Her girlfriend began the school year online. California lawmakers passed the new law to hold off eviction. The couple started paying a quarter of the rent.
A stint in September knocking on doors for the Census to make sure her new neighbors got counted felt meaningful and earned Brady the best money she’s ever made — around $25 per hour — but was short lived.
Then, finally, came good news — a potential inflection point. Brady landed a remote internship as a public affairs intern for a prominent national public affairs firm, working on communication campaigns for organized labor and Black voter outreach, among other progressive issues.
“I feel super privileged,” Brady said. “Especially with my past jobs, being out in the open risking myself.”
The internship was temporary, so Brady continued sending job apps. In late October, she filed a particularly cumbersome application, this one for full rent relief from Sacramento’s Housing Authority.
Brady feared, though, that California politicians aren’t as stressed about the looming threat of evictions as they should be or as many renters like her can’t help but be.
“It’s not just a political talking point. Every time they take more weeks and months and go on break, it affects us,” Brady said at the time. “Day to day, I’m worried about getting evicted.”
Then, just days before Christmas and a week before her internship would end, Maya got an email. Sacramento had approved her for $4,000 in rent assistance, wiping away all but $65 of her debt. At first she didn’t believe it. Then huge waves of relief crashed over her.
With a clearer head, a clean slate on rent and a stronger resume, Brady said, she is applying for more jobs and dreaming of a possible upgrade to an apartment with an in-unit washer and dryer.
“(I’m) feeling grateful and optimistic about the new year,” Brady said.
This project is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms
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