North Bay Q&A: Thousands of Sonoma County renters falling behind due to pandemic
Amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, Ian Velasquez, who works full time as a union official representing public school employees, has struggled to pay monthly rent on the three-bedroom Sebastopol home where he lives with his partner Amy Sprague and their 2-year-old son Neveo.
Paying about half of what he owes each month, he’s accumulated rent debt of $17,000 — a sum that rises $1,600 every month with no end in sight.
“It’s a really heavy weight,” said Velasquez, who is losing sleep to anxiety over his financial predicament.
He worked side jobs even when the rent was shared with two roommates, who moved out in April when their jobs evaporated in the coronavirus shutdown.
Velasquezes are one of California’s 1.1 million renter households behind on an estimated $3.7 billion in rent in December, according to a report by the Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW! California last month
Statewide, the average household rent debt is $3,358, but for some it is painfully higher as the collision between a public health calamity and a severe housing crisis disproportionately hits low-income and nonwhite households.
Local rental debt ’astronomical’
In Sonoma County, 10,545 renter households have amassed rent debt of $36.5 million, equating to $3,460 per household. Households with income below $50,000 account for 60% of the total debt, the report said.
“It’s astronomical,” said Beatrice Camacho, who works with tenants for the North Bay Organizing Project. “The massive accumulation (of rental debt) we’re seeing now is completely new.”
The project, a coalition of more than 22 organizations rooted in the region’s working class and minority communities, launched a tenant hotline in August that has been jammed with calls related to evictions.
“We hear so many tenants fearful of what’s going to happen when all this comes due,” Camacho said.
Sonoma County supervisors last week enacted a strong local prohibition on evictions and there’s a statewide ban on tenant ousters for nonpayment of rent, but there’s no certainty how long any of the protections will last.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Suzanne Dershowitz, Legal Aid of Sonoma County’s housing policy attorney. “The laws keep changing. That’s why our (hotline) call volume is so high.”
The ethnic and economic tilt of rental debt is unmistakable. Nearly one-third of the state’s households earning less than $50,000 are behind on rent, while just 9% of households with larger incomes are in arrears, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas report.
Latino renters hit hard
Eight percent of white households have rent debt, compared with 22% of Black and Asian households and 27% of Latino households.
Nearly 1.4 million California renters — out of 10 million — reported having no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent in the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey covering Jan. 20 to Feb. 1.
More than half — about 790,000 — were Latino, about 280,000 were white and about 196,000 were Black.
Help on the way?
The potential game-changer on the rent debt front is a bill called the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act (Senate Bill 91), rushed through the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom with fanfare late last month.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a news release it was the “boldest action in the nation to protect California renters and support mom and pop landlords,” adding that lawmakers know “we have a lot more work to do.”
“So many people are hurting and until we get to the other side of this pandemic,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, said in an email. “We need to do everything we can to help people and businesses get back on their feet.”
Ratified on a combined legislative vote of 105-1, the bill established the State Rental Assistance Program, allocating $2.6 billion in federal stimulus funds to relief for households unable to pay rent due to COVID-related economic losses.
It allows property owners to recover 80% of unpaid tenants’ rent from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, but only if the landlords agree to forego the remaining 20%, which is no longer owed by the tenant.
If the landlord declines to participate, the tenant — whose household income must be at or below 80% of the area median income — can apply for funding to cover 25% of back rent and avoid eviction.
As early as July 1, landlords will be able to pursue the entire amount of overdue rent in court.
“We are concerned about the significant rent debt burden for renters whose landlords choose to forgo state rental assistance and take them to court instead,” Dershowitz said.
Some lawmakers had reservations over the leverage afforded to landlords, with Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, calling it “a troubling power imbalance” and acknowledging it was “not a perfect deal.”
Ross Liscum, a Santa Rosa real estate broker for more than 40 years, faulted the provision that landlords must absorb a 20% loss of revenue they were entitled to under a contract.
Acknowledging there is “no easy, fluid answer” to the pandemic’s impact on the rental housing market, Liscum said the legislature’s approach “leaves landlords out of the equation.”
“They need to step up and reimburse landlords,” he said.
Debra Carlton, an executive vice president with the 1,300-member California Apartment Association, said the bill didn’t give the group everything it wanted, “but the important provision here is the payment of dollars for rent that is owed.”
Without it, she said “many landlords are at risk of losing their rental units.”
“None of this is fair,” said Camacho, the tenant advocate. Her organization has been pushing for “rent cancellation” during the pandemic, embracing a movement that has inspired protests and rent strikes in major cities and gained support from liberal politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Another concern about the state program is whether $2.6 billion is enough money to offset rent debt, as estimates of the amount vary widely.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia published a national analysis in 2020 that found California renters would accrue $1.7 billion in unpaid rent due to COVID that year.
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office said in a report last month it had tweaked the bank’s analysis and estimated — largely due to the economic boost from unemployment insurance benefits — that 2% of California renters (90,000 households) would account for $400 million in rental arrears.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.