As California’s pandemic eviction moratorium expires, many Mendocino County residents have already slipped through the cracks
Dana Ullman is reporting on health-related stories for The Mendocino Voice with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. This article was produced as a series for the 2021 Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship.
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photo by Dana Ullman / The Mendocino Voice
MENDOCINO Co., 9/30/21 — California’s eviction moratorium, the longest moratorium in the country, meant to assist renters during the pandemic is ending. Through the COVID-19 rent relief program, California has paid more than $584 million dollars to renters and landlords with additional requests for assistance from the state totaling $2.2 billion. Nationally, there has been much ado about the housing crisis throughout the pandemic in urban areas. But meanwhile in rural communities like Mendocino County, the existing crisis in affordable housing is only getting worse, as an urban exodus from places like the Bay Area during the pandemic displaced long-term renters and residents, straining the local economy and community long-term.
In towns like Gualala, essential workers and longtime residents are being displaced at a rate that is alarming communities. Local healthcare providers are concerned, too, about the impact on public health as they see an increase of COVID-19 infections among those moving into shared housing, Those struggling to stay in their homes face other health issues as well as trying to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Guadalupe Pastor has lived on the South Coast of Mendocino County for thirty years. She raised her children in Gualala, and when she isn’t working as a house cleaner, she finds joy in her garden, which she has nurtured for 16 years. Pastor is an essential worker like many who live and work in Gualala, a logging town that now relies economically on tourism and the labor of locals who clean the homes of rental properties, prepare and wash dishes at restaurants and make the beds at hotels for tourists who flock to the coast for its natural beauty and charms.
“All of us are essential workers, the backbone of the community,” says Pastor through an interpreter. “We all take the time to make [the community] the way it needs to be [to be enjoyed]. A friend helps me and I help them. It’s a circle – we think about others.” Everything changed in August this year, when Pastor and her husband were told they had to leave their home of sixteen years in the midst of the pandemic. The home they once had seriously considered buying but could not get financing for was being sold for cash. The proud daughter of a bracero, Pastor always found ways to be resourceful and make the best of her life, but this challenge was insurmountable in a town where rental units are increasingly hard to find. Pastor says she “cannot go on living.”
Their only option in the maxed-out rental market was a small room without a bathroom on one of the properties where her husband works. “I got really stressed out,” she says. “We are living up in the air. I started crying last night from withstanding this pressure. It’s a crazy life playing this game. Supposedly we all have the opportunity to work and live. At least before that was the idea.”
In August, the same month Pastor was moving her belongings to a storage unit in Santa Rosa, a Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury report found a “critical lack of affordable and available housing.” According to the California Association of Realtors, only 40% of Mendocino County households can afford to buy a home, which averages around $560,000. SEIU 1021 member Karen Mattson, spoke to the Board Of Supervisors on Tuesday in response to the report. Mattson shared findings from a community survey SEIU’s Housing Options Committee conducted to understand the impact of the county’s housing shortage on the local workforce.
“In our inquiry we heard many stories of employees living for months in motels and campgrounds while they searched unsuccessfully for a home to rent or buy. Many with stable full time employment are living on the edge unable to find stable living arrangements,” Mattson said. According to the survey, 12% of respondents lived outside the county because they could not find or afford housing. 3% of respondents were homeless while working. “There is distress and anxiety about establishing roots in the community,” Mattson said. “[People] are often in temporary living situations with family or roommates but unable to achieve the independence that they thought permanent employment would provide.”
The South Coast is no exception to a lack of affordable housing, and a rent crisis has persisted for generations of Californians and will likely outlast the pandemic. Not to say the pandemic hasn’t made things more difficult for renters. The sea change in the way people work – more tele-remote and less in-person days – has made affordable housing on the Mendocino Coast a hot and limited commodity to those seeking to move from higher-priced urban areas. This means that lower-income residents are forced out, unable to find housing. In Gualala there are only 45 low-income housing units and a two-year waitlist, according to Javier Chavez, a family advocate with Redwood Coast Medical Services. For middle class families who want to level up and own a home they cannot compete in the current market.
Housing as a public health crisis, Latinos and BIPOC are disproportionately impacted
COVID-19 cases and deaths have surged across the country, hitting Mendocino County especially hard. Despite this, on August 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions, which cited evictions “could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”
“Families are coming to my office seeking help because they suddenly have no place to live,” Chavez says. Chavez adds that he is seeing an increase in COVID-19 positive families due to overcrowded housing that can spread the virus and the threat of eviction and displacement from home during the pandemic has exacerbated anxiety and stress causing other health issues for the individuals he works with.
While Chavez says the displacement is affecting people of all backgrounds, he is seeing a particular impact on the Latino community. The Bay Area Equity Atlas found that, in California, 77% of people at-risk for eviction are people of color. Many are essential workers earning less than $50,000 per year.
In an article published in the journal Health Affairs, Gracie Himmelstein and Matthew Desmond write, “the COVID-19 pandemic may further compound eviction’s contribution to health disparities.” Black and Latino people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, dying at higher rates and experiencing more rent-related financial stress and higher eviction rates during the pandemic compared to whites.
According to a county-by-county analysis by Surgo Ventures from August this year, there are 1,673 households behind on rent in Mendocino County. The total rent debt is estimated to be $6,181,399 or $3,694 per household. Data from the National Equity Atlas rent debt dashboard finds that in California, people of color make up 81% of households who experienced job and income loss during the pandemic.
Micheline White Kirby, executive director for Mendonoma Health Alliance (MHA), a health clinic that serves Gualala and surrounding towns on the South Coast, has seen an uptick in clients during the pandemic seeking home-related financial assistance, 33% of whom are Latino. Through grants and community fundraising, MHA has provided financial assistance for rent, cell phone bills, car insurance, utilities and Internet support. White Kirby says this built trust with clients to further assess health needs. But it isn’t a long-term solution.
‘’People would come in for financial assistance, and we would do an assessment to see what else was going on, often health-related. 73% of our care coordination patients received financial assistance during the pandemic,” White Kirby says. “I don’t think [temporary financial assistance is] going to solve or eradicate the problem. It just helped people temporarily. Having to worry about what you’re going to have to pay for – whether it’s hot water or electricity – it’s not only about the [immediate] situation. [It’s] about the mental health stress that puts on somebody. Especially if you have children.”
For Pastor and others, like Edizabeth Rivas, they weren’t behind on rent. That puts them in a gray area despite AB-832, the COVID-19 rent relief bill intended to protect renters from eviction. Many renters aren’t aware of the resources available or their rights if a house is put up for sale. And the required 90-days notice to tenants living in a house for sale doesn’t change the fact the housing is hard to find.
Some renters don’t know there are resources until it’s too late
Rivas works in record management at the Redwood Coast Medical Services and has lived in Gualala almost all her life, only leaving for one year to work in Yuba City. When she and her family moved back to Gualala five years ago they noticed a change in the housing market. “This last year it seems like house prices went up,” says Rivas.
Three months ago, Rivas and Pastor say they started hearing friends and colleagues say they had to find a new home because the owner was selling the house. “And then another person and then another person and then another person,” says Rivas. “I’m like, oh my God, okay, and then after the fourth person, I was like, okay, well, hopefully I’m okay. I’ll be fine here. I didn’t think I was going to be impacted, to be honest. I thought I was pretty stable where I was. And then I received the call. It was pretty hard. If it was just me and my husband we could sleep in a car or find a hotel or whatever, but I have three kids. Three kids. I have to try to find a home, and finding the house was super, super hard. It’s been really rough.”
Rivas and her husband work full-time in Gualala and have three daughters, one with autism. “A move like this for her is such a setback. I need to find something stable for her. I can’t [have her moving] from one house to another.”
Rivas and her family are currently moving into a trailer on a former colleague’s property while they wait for a long-term solution. Rivas spoke to the Mendocino Voice while packing the last of her families’ belongings. “I’m literally going to go into a blank spot right now. I had to throw all my stuff away from my couch to my cable TV, everything,” she says. “I took almost everything to the dump. I’m only taking our mattresses to our friend who has a garage but she has a lot of stuff in there, too. I don’t have space for it.”
Rivas says she was not aware there were any resources for renters. When in crisis, self-advocating can be difficult. “I didn’t even think about it. I just went into panic mode and I just needed to find something. It’s so much to plan, and you have your life. You have to go to work. You have your kids. I had to think about school coming and trying to get [the children] ready. It just didn’t even cross my mind.” But Rivas pointed out that if she had known about renter resources and protections she would only have been able to delay the inevitable.
“People need help with housing out here,” Rivas says. “There are too many people who have lived here their whole life and are struggling to find something stable. A lot of people they’re just looking for a stable home. Same as the job, [a lot of people here think] if you have a stable job, you’re fine. But then if you [don’t have a home], what’s the point of having a stable job?”
Solutions may be in our own backyard
Long-term solutions are needed, and there are some promising initiatives happening in neighboring counties and across the country. ROC USA, is creating resident-owned community cooperatives in mobile home parks, such as this one in Little River. In Detroit, Michigan, Century Partners preserves affordable housing that builds on existing communities, actually hiring neighborhood residents to rehab and construct homes. The Casita Coalition is currently working in Napa and Sonoma County to innovate California housing policy and build accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
On Tuesday, as the eviction moratorium ticks closer, Governor Newsom signed a flurry of new legislation (including a bill to assist financing ADUs) to increase affordable housing and address a housing crisis that has only been intensified during the pandemic. Currently, ADUs in the coastal area are prohibited in some areas outside Mendocino and Gualala town plans but on September 9, the California Coastal Commission approved amending ADU regulation on the coast to expand ADU permitting. In some ways the proposal encourages these units to serve long-term renters. “Transient guests for compensation or profit (e.g., use as a vacation home rental) would be prohibited,” the commission’s report states. A final decision is pending.
But long-term change will take time and commitment. For now, Pastor is considering returning to her hometown of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico where she had planned to retire. “I would like to have worked two to three more years and then go back to Mexico, but it was not the plan,” says Pastor, who is a US citizen. I will never leave this,” Lupe says of her home and family and community. “It’s my home. And now I have no home.” She begins to cry.
Pastor is struggling with the strain on her family since losing her home. Her son is visiting less with her grandchild. A move to Mexico would only further distance the family. Though Pastor was born in Mexico, her community is in Gualala. “You belong to a place, but not the community,” she says of being born in Mexico.
Pastor wants to see Gualala thrive and grow. “We want to do the same here. We want to prosper, too. We want good things for our families, to raise our kids here. We have the right to prosper. [And] they forget about us.”
For the latest information on getting financial help with housing in California:
For those impacted financially by the pandemic click here for resources in Mendocino County:
In Gualala, Mendonoma Health Alliance can help with housing assistance:
Phone: (707) 412-3176 x102
The Housing Action Team North Coast Mendocino County (HAT) is currently conducting a housing-impact survey for communities, business owners and public agencies. You can take the survey in English and Spanish on HAT’s website here until October 31st.
Tenants Defense has information on tenant’s rights here
Dana Ullman reports on health-related stories for The Mendocino Voice with the support of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism This article was produced as a series for the 2021 California Center for Health Journalism Fellowship.
[This article was originally published by The Mendocino Voice.]