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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Friday, April 10th.
Well, the world has changed just a bit since you last received this newsletter, hasn’t it?
We are now three weeks into California’s stay-at-home order issued on March 19th. (Doesn’t it feel like forever ago?) And for many households, there’s a growing worry that they won’t be able to stay in their home to keep flattening the curve. A new analysis showed that nearly a third of all Americans didn’t pay April rent. This figure could grow, as people burn through their savings and generous friends or family networks, and as many still lack access to unemployment benefits.
Policymakers at all levels of government have enacted emergency legislation to protect renters and homeowners from being forced out of their homes at least through the summer. Locally, Fresno and Madera have established ordinances going beyond state and federal protections to give renters an extra six months after emergency orders are lifted to pay back any rent due — and in that time, have forbidden any late fees or penalties from accruing for people who can demonstrate a COVID-19-related impact. (I’ve written more on what all of the eviction and foreclosure protections mean here.)
The relief is temporary. Rent and mortgage payments will still be due, leaving many people with potentially thousands of dollars in debt. Even if people are able to return to work — and that’s a huge, uncertain if — many were in precarious situations even before the coronavirus crisis hit. For the 62% of lower-income households in Fresno County that were already paying more than 30% of their income on rent, a few thousand dollars of debt — even spread across six months — may be too much to handle.
What are the solutions?
A coalition of local elected officials from many major cities are calling upon state governors and Congress to cancel rent payments completely (no one from the central San Joaquin Valley is currently on the list).
Many other advocates are pushing for emergency rent funds, at all levels of government. These are typically set up to allow people to apply for relatively small amounts of money — a few hundred dollars at most, usually — to stay in their home. In Fresno, City Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria are assembling a proposal to establish an emergency fund for Fresno consumers and residents which would include emergency rent assistance. The CARES Act, the third federal stimulus bill, included nearly $4.2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for Fresno, which could potentially be used for this type of purpose.
California was already facing a housing shortage before the crisis hit, and one particularly crushing for lower-income households, so people with housing insecurity are going to have a difficult time finding a new place to live at a lower cost, especially if they have poor credit or an eviction on their record. And so for many, a focus remains on just building more housing. “We need a Marshall Plan for building homes,” said Greg Terzakis, a Fresno-based senior vice president at the California Apartment Association, echoing a statement made by Gov. Gavin Newsom at the beginning of his tenure as governor in 2019.
These are incredibly difficult times for local governments to respond to the desperate situations their residents are in. With a large number of businesses shut down, sales tax revenues — about $100 million in revenue for Fresno in its last budget — are likely to be much lower. And if property owners are holding back on paying property taxes — another $140 million in revenue — the effects could be devastating. Luckily, as of last September, Fresno’s rainy day fund hit a high of $34 million — but given the sheer magnitude of the current economic situation, it is hard to tell if it will be enough to weather the coming financial storm.
In the meantime, the people I’ve heard from so far who can’t pay their rent are faced with unbearable choices. “How can I pay my rent and feed my kids at the same time?” a respondent to our anonymous survey said. (You can still fill out the survey here, if you’re a renter.)
(What stories are not being told in our coverage right now? Send tips to me: email@example.com)
And now, the week’s top reads:
(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)
Fresno Amazon worker tests positive for coronavirus, workers wonder why they weren’t notified earlier: Fresno Bee
Lost your job? Here’s how to find new job openings during the coronavirus crisis. Fresno Bee
How can I get coronavirus testing and more reader questions, answered by Marek Warszawski. Fresno Bee
Local immigrant groups urge DACA renewal amidst crisis: Fresno Bee
High speed rail construction continues amidst pandemic: Valley Public Radio
New research links air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates: New York Times
What your landlord thinks about rent right now: Curbed