Jessica Tiberio lost not one, but two jobs in the last few weeks. First, she was let go from a local animal shelter at the end of February, just before the COVID-19 crisis hit.
A few weeks later, she was furloughed from her position as an educator at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, which initially had to close due to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place orders on March 19. Adding insult to injury, her partner, a veteran, lost his job as a career-services recruiter.
They were among the 30% of Americans who didn’t make their April rent payments. Their Fresno apartment costs $1,100 per month, including utilities.
Tiberio and her partner are protected from getting evicted for now, thanks to a complicated patchwork of local, state and federal rules. Fresno’s emergency order passed by the City Council on March 25 prohibits evictions due to nonpayment of rent. The City Council voted Thursday to extend eviction protections through the end of the city’s shelter-in-place order.
Tiberio’s landlord could still sue her to begin the eviction process – although, due to the new California Judicial Council order from April 6, she wouldn’t be served the papers to begin the official eviction process until later this year, or 90 days after Newsom lifts the state of emergency in California.
Tiberio says she has done her homework to understand how she can stay in her home, temporarily. But what about a few months from now, when the back rent – a bill of at least $3,000-$5,000 for her and her partner – comes due? They’ve both applied for unemployment. So far, her partner received $600 in benefits. She doesn’t have an active bank account, so her stimulus check could take several more weeks to arrive. And there are no friends and family to lean on for support, she says.
The zoo has recently been reclassified as essential, so she could potentially get back to work – except that she’s also displaying symptoms similar to COVID-19. She’s been advised to stay at home and self-quarantine unless she gets much worse.
It’s hard to estimate exactly how many central San Joaquin Valley residents are in a similar predicament – although data released in early March shows that Fresno County’s unemployment rate was already trending upward, with 11,000 people out of work from the previous month. If the national and state numbers are any indication, there could be tens of thousands more people out of work since that data was captured. And, with many people still unable to access unemployment benefits, It’s hard for many to know how the rent is going to get paid.
Insecurity before COVID-19
Of course, many people in the region were housing insecure before the crisis hit. In 2018, census data showed that nearly 60% of renters in Fresno County are considered cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent. For lower-income households, over 75% are cost-burdened.
“Housing has always been difficult for millenials like myself,” Tiberio said. If she and her partner end up getting evicted because they can’t pay the rent due from the past few months, “we’ll just live in hotels, I guess. We’ve lived in motels before – we’ve got food, emergency supplies. We know how to prepare.”
Unemployment benefits – even with some receiving an additional $600 – and a one-time stimulus check of $1,200 still leave many people short. Undocumented people, many mixed-immigration status households, and many college students aren’t eligible for the stimulus funds.
“What we’re seeing is that people could be in significant debt, and we might see a huge wave of evictions if we don’t figure out how to stop this. That’s why we’re saying, pay your rent now, if you can,” said Patience Milrod, executive director of Central California Legal Services.
For Tiberio and her partner, with the little funds they had left, they opted to pay their car payment instead – often a lifeline for people needing to get to their jobs.
Rent relief options
There are scarce local options for people to turn to for emergency cash assistance with rent or other bills. The United Way of Fresno and Madera Counties opened a COVID-19 relief fund where residents could apply for $500 cash grants to support rent, food and other necessities. During the week-long application window in early April, they had over 2,800 applicants. They were able to award 100 people with grants. Another application cycle will be opening in the coming weeks – but ultimately, the ability to give money to more people will depend on incoming donations to the fund.
Seeing many people in her networks out of work and unable to access federal resources, Lilia Becceril, a community organizer in southeast Fresno, has used her Facebook page, a popular agglomeration of news and alerts in Spanish, to solicit donations to support undocumented families. In about two weeks, she has matched donors to about 50 families in the Fresno area – contributing anywhere from $50 to a few hundred dollars in direct cash assistance. Grassroots mutual aid funds have started to take hold across the region, with everyone from evangelical churches and socialist organizations all rallying to support their neighbors.
But the scale of the problem is only just starting to emerge, and experts are preparing for a much greater response with the master of all mutual aid, the federal government. Is there a need for direct rental assistance?
Carol Galante, the faculty director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, reflected in a recent blog post about lessons learned from the last recession during her tenure as an administrator at the Federal Housing Administration: “Direct emergency assistance is the only solution that will be effective in keeping people in their homes over the long-term.”
The Fresno City Council voted Thursday to create a $1.5 million fund for renters impacted by COVID-19. Grants will range from $400 for individuals to $1000 for families. Applicants are required to make at or less than 80% of the area median income. For a family of four in Fresno County, that’s an annual income of $55,900 or less, according to HUD income limit data for 2020. Funds will be prioritized for people ineligible for federal assistance.
The CARES Act – the third federal stimulus bill passed in the pandemic crisis – included relief for local governments and quasi-public agencies to support local COVID-19 response through current grant programs.
Much of the coronavirus-related funding coming from the federal government is allowed to be used on emergency rental assistance, either directly to tenants or to landlords. In Fresno County, where nearly $847,000 is coming in federal Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) funding, local officials have focused on increasing shelter capacity for people already homeless. While ESG funding could be used to prevent people from becoming homeless, the top priority is getting people off the streets to be able to shelter in place with a roof over their head, according to Laura Moreno, program manager for the Fresno County Department of Social Services and the current chair of the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care, which leads regional coordination efforts on ending homelessness.
Fresno County also is receiving $1.6 million of Community Development Block Grant funding and will be entering discussions this week with the cities of Reedley, Fowler, Kingsburg, Kerman, Mendota and Selma on how to spend it, according to Glenn Allen, a division manager with the Department of Public Works and Planning. With any remaining funds, county leaders are contemplating using the money for homelessness efforts or expanding COVID-19 testing capacity, Allen said.
For Fresno, the stimulus package included $4.3 million in CDBG funding, along with $2.1 million in emergency funds. City officials have not put forward a spending plan for the CDBG dollars yet, according to communications director Mark Standriff. In addition, the city already received $92 million in stimulus funds for expenses related to COVID-19, including second-order effects of the emergency, such as by providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19-related business closures, according to guidance from the Treasury Department.
Clovis leaders also are working on an approach to ease the rent burden for residents. City officials have been working with the state and the Fresno Housing Authority to reallocate $1 million of federal HOME funds to support rent vouchers for tenants affected by COVID-19, according to Andrew Haussler, community and economic development director. These funds were previously planned to support down payment assistance for lower and moderate income households in Clovis. With their CDBG funding from the CARES Act – a little more than $440,000 – the city may develop a small business support fund, Haussler said.
City leaders in Madera are still working through how to spend their $536,000 allocation of CDBG funding, with support for renters and businesses as potential options, according to city manager Arnoldo Rodriguez.
Many other local governments across the nation have been using their stimulus funds or other resources to establish emergency rent funds. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an emergency rent fund last week, where renters could be eligible for as much as $1,000 per month for up to three months.
Rush for help
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, the Fresno County Department of Social Services along with local advocates were working to pilot an emergency rent loan program for people already getting evicted due to nonpayment. Once word started to get out that funds were available, landlords sent an overwhelming number of people to get assistance, beyond what they had resources for, Moreno said.
After the pilot program, they decided to focus more on case management and eviction protection. “We can usually see the warning signs that someone is going to get evicted several months before it happens,” Moreno explained. But COVID-19, and the economic shutdowns that have occurred as a result is uncharted territory. “If you owe $2,000, that is overwhelming. We’re going to see a lot of people throw in the towel unless we help them manage that. We need to work with them, to ask: Can you set aside $20 from your unemployment each week to offset your rent? Can you negotiate with your landlord?”
Not all landlords are willing to negotiate, let alone follow the rules. Becceril, the community organizer, had a tenant reach out to her last week, saying that her landlord was demanding rent payment immediately or eviction would come in 30 days. “Even though there is a 60-day wait to pay rent, the landlords don’t want to wait. They got the money, but the landlords didn’t respect the law,” she said.
Many landlords are in a difficult predicament — they too have bills to pay, employees to keep on the payroll, and property taxes due. The situation is more difficult for smaller, mom-and-pop landlords, who often operate with less reserves.
Ultimately, the anxiety for all parties is compounding, as the debts start to accrue. “What we really need is solidarity, between tenants and landlords. We all have bills to pay,” Tiberio said. “But after the eviction moratorium is over, people are going to lose their homes no matter what.”