The average cost to rent an apartment in Fresno went up since March, putting even more financial pressure on cash-strapped residents during a pandemic.

It’s a double whammy for tens of thousands of overwhelmed renters who lost work in the last six months and are balancing housing costs with cuts to household income.

As a result of that financial instability, more people are struggling to make ends meet, as witnessed by community organizations providing food and housing help to a broader spectrum of Fresno-area residents.

More families with children are seeking shelter at the Fresno Mission in the last six months, said CEO Matthew Dildine, who added that he has also seen more women with children fleeing from abuse.

People needing help aren’t only those who are chronically homeless or drug addicted. And the margin between who needs a little help with food one month and who needs shelter at the Mission “is razor thin,” Dildine said. At times, he can’t tell the difference between who is a volunteer and who is receiving services.

“We’re seeing a logistical breakdown of peoples’ lives,” Dildine said. “Something happened that might be a little thing in (some) lives — lost a job, had a medical problem, made a mistake… They don’t have anyone pulling them back up out of it.”

For people who are recently displaced or looking for a cheaper housing option, getting into a house or apartment might prove difficult.

Rents in the Fresno area are up by 5.9% since the start of the pandemic in March, according to data analysis by Apartment List. Median rents increased to $942 for a 1-bedroom and $1,173 for a two-bedroom in October.

On top of that, fewer apartments are available. In Fresno, the vacancy rate fell from 4.5% at the beginning of the year to just below 2% in September and October, according to Apartment List.

New renters may be renting after being displaced by the Creek Fire and others may have moved to Fresno from less affordable areas.

Tough times for a long time

Low-income residents were rent-burdened before the pandemic.

In Fresno County, 69% of extremely low-income households were already paying more than half of their income on housing costs, according to the California Housing Partnership.

“So out of already very small incomes, families are paying hugely disproportionate shares to landlords, and cutting back on food, clothing, medical care — let alone internet access, which has become essential for children’s school attendance, seniors’ telehealth, etc.,” said Patience Milrod, executive director of Central California Legal Services.

On top of that, one in five residents in Fresno County had medical debt and/or school debt in collections according to 2018 data in a report by the Urban Institute. That’s higher than the state average and the national average.

The situation is worse for communities of color who are twice as likely to have medical debt in collections than white communities — a divide that is much more severe in Fresno County than in the state or nation.

The pandemic also intensified racial disparities in people’s confidence that they’ll be able to stay housed, according to a California Housing Partnership statewide study of renters released in September.

More than half of Black renters who are behind on rent said it is likely they will be forced to leave their home due to eviction. While legal evictions are limited by legislation meant to protect renters, tenants without representation and who don’t know their rights are bullied into leaving their homes, and evictions are moving forward through courts, according to staff with Central California Legal Services.

The pandemic exacerbates problems and inequalities that already existed in the Fresno area, Dildine and Milrod both told The Bee.

“The outcomes are what we’ve always seen in high-poverty communities: housing insecurity, displacement from community networks and schools, malnutrition, low academic performance, loss of employment and employment options,” Milrod said.

“Only now it’s worse, and it’s happening for more families who have now dropped below the poverty level due to job losses,” she said.

Tens of thousands of Fresno County workers who were furloughed, laid off or lost hours from industries impacted by the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders are still unemployed or are playing financial catch-up.

The height of unemployment during the pandemic was in May when 75,900 Fresno County residents were unemployed, according to Employment Development Department data.

As businesses reopen, more people are being rehired, but the unemployment rate remained more than 10% in September.

That’s 45,900 people in Fresno County’s labor force who were unemployed in September. On top of that, 14,500 people dropped out of the labor force between March and September.

Housing crucial to Fresno’s economic recovery

Economic recovery is slow-coming in California and could be even slower in the Fresno area, if what happened following the 2008 recession is any indication, according to Preston Prince, CEO of Fresno Housing Authority.

“Fresno always lags behind in economic recovery,” Prince said. “We would go deeper into crisis, and then that takes us longer to recover.”

During the recession that began in 2008, “so many people lost their housing and that just really amplified the crisis,” he said. “So, if we’re able to keep housing, I think that means that we’ll actually be able to recover quicker. It’s important to keep people in housing, renters and homeowners.”

Right now, people who haven’t lost housing “are hanging on a knife edge,” said Matt Schwartz, CEO of California Housing Partnership.

He said that without a federal budget and housing policies that recognize the need for help, “things can go from bad to worse pretty quickly.”

The state is working to expand programs like Project Home Key — a program designed to help counties to buy hotels to house people who are housing insecure.

“But it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said, “compared to what we need from the federal level.”

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