As president of a San Mateo County school board, Maybelle Manio had the privilege of making cheerful remarks during her son Jake Cruz’s eighth grade graduation ceremony.
“Today is the party. Today is an accomplishment, ”she said at the ceremony earlier this year. “Today is a good day to ask for money.”
The crowd laughed.
When Manio returned home, she found a piece of white paper labeled “Eviction Notice” stuck to her door. She had 15 days to leave her apartment in Daly City. Manio, who had recently embarked on a new career in commercial real estate, an industry devastated by the pandemic, acknowledged the irony of what she had told the public. Suddenly she was looking at her own financial pit.
While the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic devastated low-income families, middle-class households were not immune. Manio was one of many who turned to the government, her friends and family for help for the first time in their lives, seeking help wherever she could.
Food distribution lines across the state have doubled and requests for rental assistance have surged. Manio is one of the beneficiaries of rental assistance.
The pandemic crowns 40 years of squeezing the middle class in California, where the incomes of the state’s top earners have far exceeded those of the middle class, according to a 2020 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Billionaires in the state have added $ 551.2 billion to their net worth, while more than 25 million Californians have filed for unemployment since March 1, 2020.
When the state closed last spring, Manio was inundated with phone calls as customers cut and run. It was Manio’s first year in commercial real estate, and she didn’t know what to do. She has struggled to keep her business by offering to review the contracts of companies that were trying to terminate leases and has even delivered groceries and drugs to her elderly customers.
At the beginning of April, the offers froze. “I was running on a track,” Manio said, “and then I walked in molasses.”
Like many Californians, Manio’s biggest cost was his monthly rent of $ 3,225. She knew she could move in with her mother to the Central Valley in case of an emergency. But it was a last resort.
Manio, a first-generation Filipina who had spent the last two years of high school in public housing in Los Angeles, had led a nonprofit helping at-risk youth in San Francisco, patented environmentally friendly food packaging. and had already won $ 90,000 in hospital funding. 2019. She moved into commercial real estate in hopes of earning more and helping pay for her son’s school fees.
“I have always been independent and self-sufficient,” she said, and going to see friends with open hands “was a very difficult pill to swallow”.
A few thousand dollars in loans from friends helped her pay her rent, car loan, and business expenses. But with nearly $ 6,000 a month in spending, Manio felt like Alice in Wonderland.
“I’m falling deep into this financial hole,” she said. “I have no idea how I’m going to get back, and I have no idea where it’s going to take me.”
In April 2020, she turned to food stamps, which earned her around $ 200 a month, and then unemployment.
Manio, who had now obtained more than $ 10,000 in loans from friends, began to tap into a college fund his father had left with his son. Expecting the pandemic to subside, she strained her credit cards to attend additional real estate certifications, training and pay her annual license fees. But the blockages lasted.
Earlier this year, she applied to Cornell University’s Commercial Real Estate Certification Program in Commercial Real Estate Development. She paid half the tuition – $ 6,000 which she put on her credit card in installments – and drained her child’s college fund. Manio told his son it would help them bounce back, promising to put everything back in place and then a bit.
By January, a friend’s loans had reached $ 30,000 and her credit cards were filled with $ 40,000 in additional debt. Manio was now only paying 25% rent under the state’s moratorium on evictions, but the rent arrears were growing.
Manio displayed a stoic face at public meetings in March and April as other board members spoke and shed tears over family members lost to COVID-19. She couldn’t bring herself to expose her problems publicly: what if voters thought she was incapable of running a district, town or county, she thought, if she couldn’t get her finances in order. ?
“It was a lot to save face,” she said, and “to have to hide the real me”.
At night, when the public comments were over, her Cornell homework finished, her son fed, and the house cleaned, she lay in bed with her own thoughts and shed tears. The blackouts spread in the morning when she looked at herself in the mirror. “I don’t recognize myself anymore,” she said. Manio’s hair was lightened with stress, clumps were falling in the shower.
With $ 70,000 in debt, she questioned her abilities.
“It’s part of the great American dream and the great American culture,” Charlow said, “the idea that we are fiercely independent, we take care of ourselves. In fact, throughout our history, it is the community that is often needed to care for many of its members.
On the day she received the eviction notice, Manio’s mother had come to help celebrate Jake’s graduation ceremony with balloons, flowers and gifts. But the stress of the eviction was too great. Manio screamed and didn’t speak to anyone that night. She later learned that her son had cried that night.
The following week, Manio’s mother paid the deposit and co-signed a new apartment for Manio and Jake. It offered two months of free rent and Samaritan House provided rental assistance. She also received government relief to help pay off her debt to her former owner. But the move meant she stepped down from her post as school board chair.
Customers started to come back and she made a deal for a gym, with 20% of her commission to reimburse her friends. It’s a slow recovery, and she’s trying to stay positive.
She can’t control the pandemic or the commercial real estate market, “but I can control my own mind,” Manio said. While stuffing clothes into the washing machine, she dances to singing the chorus of Break my Stride by Matthew Wilder.
Nothing will break my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down
Oh no, I have to keep moving
This article is part of California Divide, a newsroom collaboration examining income inequality and economic survival in California.