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Sonoma County supervisors allocate $5 million to support businesses, renters suffering coronavirus impacts

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voted to set aside $8 million in federal stimulus funding for small business aid, rental assistance, community food programs and outreach to the local Latino community that has suffered the heaviest health and economic impacts in the coronavirus pandemic.

In total, supervisors allocated $1.5 million for local food relief efforts, $1.5 million toward Latino community outreach and $2.5 million each for small business stabilization grants and rental assistance.

County leaders acknowledged the amounts — in any given area — won’t come close to matching the need for a county that’s already facing a $21 million gap in costs associated with its response to the pandemic.

“We’re really seeing hardship in a broad spectrum of our community,” said Chris Godley, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management. “This is not going to go away any time soon.”

The community investments will begin quickly, as local governments are required to spend federal coronavirus relief dollars by the end of the year. Grant applications for businesses will go live next week.

To boost funding for small businesses and struggling renters and landlords, supervisors shifted $2 million that had been eyed to help purchase two hotels to house homeless residents. Instead, the board agreed to split that amount, with an additional $1 million each going to the small business grants and rental assistance programs.

Supervisor David Rabbitt expressed frustration with the process, saying he had always been against using CARES Act funding for the hotel purchases, even if he’s supportive of the program as a whole. The original amount slated to help small businesses — $1.5 million — didn’t come close to fixing the problem, he said.

“It creates the illusion that we’re actually doing something when it’s actually a token amount of dollars,” Rabbitt said.

Toward the end of the discussion, Rabbitt led the effort to delay a decision on funding for the purchase of the Sebastopol Inn and Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa, the two hotels eyed for homeless housing. He sought to put all $2 million allocated for those purchases into grants for small business before Supervisor Lynda Hopkins brokered a compromise that will split the money between small business help and rental assistance.

Supervisors will revisit the funding for hotel purchases next week, when they review spending of one-time money in budget discussions set to kick off Tuesday. Rabbitt said the need in the business community is more immediate than for the hotel purchases, which have yet to be finalized.

“For me, it’s about setting ourselves up for success instead of failure,” Rabbitt said.

As approved, the county’s plan to help businesses is limited to those with fewer than 30 employees and less than $1 million gross receipts. It offers grant amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 and county staff initially estimated the program would provide 200 grants, a number likely to increase after the $1 million boost.

The rental assistance program would make grants of up to $6,000 available to those struggling to pay rent and so-called low-income landlords who rely on rents to make mortgage payments. County officials initially estimated they could serve 350 households. That is a small fraction of the community’s need, where at-risk renters number in the thousands, according to county documents and surveys from three area nonprofits.

County housing officials pledged another $887,000 in community development block grants to continue the program through 2023.

State and local leaders have for months sought to shield renters from evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Sonoma County supervisors providing defense for tenants as early as March.

Gov. Gavin Newsom late Monday codified protections for tenants who did not pay rent between March 1 and Aug. 31, signing Assembly Bill 3088. The bill bans evictions for tenants affected by the pandemic who pay at least 25% of their rent that’s due between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31.

But the legislation would not forgive missed payments, which local nonprofit Generation Housing estimates could total $4.7 million a month just in Sonoma County. It’s a number that could grow to $17 million per month if federal unemployment benefits dry up.

“The overall need is so much more than what we’re putting into emergency rental assistance,” Hopkins said. “I’m extremely worried about the possibility of folks becoming homeless, and losing the ground we’ve gained in the past two years.”

Several tenant and labor rights organizations convened a press conference Tuesday morning outside the Sonoma County courthouse, where they demanded a broader eviction moratorium to protect all renters, as well as relief from fees or certain document requirements outlined in the state and county’s pandemic eviction policies. Eviction courts are scheduled to resume statewide on Wednesday for any lease violations that don’t include nonpayment.

“It’s unconscionable that eviction courts could run virtually in the middle of a public health crisis while medical professionals have said eviction poses a serious public health risk,” said Noa Hughes, a Sonoma County Tenants Union counselor.

The Board of Supervisors also agreed to funnel $1.5 million into community food programs, many of which continue to see unprecedented need.

Barbie Robinson, the health services director, said the county would focus its spending for the Latino community on outreach, including coordination with health providers and aid for residents in accessing community and county resources, as well as county-provided personal protective equipment and financial assistance up to $1,200 per person.

The population has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic both in the disproportionately high rate of cases and the deep economic losses, prompting Supervisor Shirlee Zane to say Tuesday that helping businesses was also the key to helping the Latino population.

“I just feel very strongly that one of the best things we can do for our Latino community is to make sure their businesses stay open,” Zane said.

Staff Writer Yousef Baig contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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