Councilman wants to create a SLO County renters’ rights program – using COVID money
This story is part of a larger project, "Standard of Living," by Lindsey Holden, a participant in the 2019 Data Fellowship. The project focuses on the experiences of low-income renters living in poorly maintained housing in San Luis Obispo County.
Other stories in this series include:
“Paying the Rent: Q&A on Safe, Equitable Housing” will explore how conditions can be improved, what tenants should know about their rights, and more. By Slo Tribune
San Luis Obispo County tenants are facing a “housing crisis point” as they struggle to find safe, affordable rentals and hold onto their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and local advocates, attorneys and elected representatives are trying to find ways to help.
One idea from an Arroyo Grande councilman would collect a small portion of the federal COVID-19 relief money coming to the county and its seven cities to fund a regional renter education program that would empower tenants with the information and resources they need to demand better housing opportunities.
That was among the suggestions that emerged from “Paying the Rent: Q&A on Safe, Equitable Housing,” the forum hosted by The Tribune and the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism on Thursday.
The virtual roundtable assembled a group of local advocates, attorneys and elected representatives to discuss ways to improve conditions for tenants who live in poor rental housing and struggle to find places for their families to live.
“San Luis Obispo County is a beautiful, wonderful place to live, but it can also be a really scary place to live as a renter,” said Stephanie Barclay, SLOLAF legal director. “The very low vacancy rates combined with the high rents make tenants very vulnerable and at the mercy of their landlord to put up with uninhabitable conditions like we saw at Grand View, to put up with illegal rent increases because they don’t feel like they have any leverage and they’re scared of losing their housing.”
A Tribune investigation into substandard rentals in Spanish-speaking, working-class neighborhoods — spurred by the case of the rundown Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles — showed many residents cope with poor housing conditions for years because they struggle with housing costs, credit checks, application fees and other barriers.
Hispanic and Latino residents — especially undocumented immigrants — struggle disproportionately to find safe, affordable housing, said Paulina Erdman of the Promotores Collaborative, an organization of volunteer health educators who share resources with SLO County’s Hispanic community.
“A lot of them don’t have a credit history — they come to this country without any credit background,” Erdman said. “Because of that, they find rentals in deplorable conditions.
“Some Mixteco families live in trailers that need a lot of maintenance and repairs,” she added. “But they are afraid to talk to those owners to fix those problems because they might raise the rent or they might be asked to leave the property. Also, the language is a huge barrier for them, and farmworkers are the most vulnerable and the most essential part of our community.”
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS MADE THE RENTAL HOUSING SITUATION WORSE
Arroyo Grande Councilman Jimmy Paulding said the county is at a housing “crisis point” right now, which has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This conversation isn’t just around how can we look at habitable living conditions,” Paulding said. “It’s how can we address the affordable housing crisis that’s been completely exacerbated by the pandemic. And we have accessibility issues, habitability issues, and eventually probably an upcoming eviction tsunami coming our way when the moratorium is lifted at the state level.”
SLO County is receiving $17 million in state and federal funds for COVID-19 rent relief, but it may not be enough to help all the renters and landlords struggling with pandemic-related financial hardships.
Housing advocates estimate at least 7,300 SLO County households owe a combined $24 million to $43 million in rent debt accrued during the pandemic.
“Just the education around this topic about people’s contract rights and then legal remedies … is absolutely paramount,” Paulding said. “We need to kind of focus on education and outreach to fully explain the complexity around all of the laws in this area.”
“We’ve got eviction moratoriums, there are relief programs with complicated eligibility requirements,” he added. “Rent control under the Tenant Protection Act, local ordinances that apply based on each jurisdiction, in some cases, regarding rent control.”
Paso Robles Councilwoman Maria Garcia also said short-term rentals leased to tourists make the housing situation more challenging for tenants, a situation she’s been trying to figure out how to balance.
“We in Paso are a big hospitality and tourism community,” Garcia said. “This is one of the reasons that I ran for City Council — because of the housing situation for our low-income residents here.”
Garcia, a Walmart pharmacist, said residents share their housing challenges with her when they see her at work.
“Residents come up to me at the pharmacy and say, ‘Maria, we’re doing fine financially, but we just can’t find a house, our own place. We’re having to get apartments with other couples, and we just can’t find enough housing.’”
ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES, ADVOCATES PUSH TO FUND RENTER EDUCATION
Rental housing solutions must come allow tenants to empower themselves, said Dona Hare Price of Rent and Mortgage Relief SLO County, Bend the Arc and the SLO County Democratic Party.
“Real protection and real change starts when we acknowledge that safe and affordable housing is a racial justice issue,” Price said. “Until we center policy organizations and systems and racial equity, we will not have real protections. And the way we can do this, the shift we can make, is by focusing on people-centered, grassroots models to create renter protections and programs that move renters into power, and (make them) agents of their own change.”
Paulding suggested the county and its seven cities make use of American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus relief funds to create a regional renter education program that could help tenants throughout the county. He also proposed forming a regional task force to look into barriers tenants face when looking for housing.
“The city of (Arroyo Grande), for example, is receiving $3.4 million,” Paulding said. “What if each jurisdiction in SLO County — out of the seven cities and the county — earmarked 2 to 3% of those funds to go toward a regional education and outreach program to educate tenants of their rights? And could it include a bilingual paid community organizer that would conduct neighborhood and local organization level community organizing? Could it include expanded legal representation building on all the good work that SLOLAF and CRLA provides?”
SLO County is set to receive about $85 million in relief funds. If all seven cities and the county provided about 2% of their funds, they would have about $1.69 million to put toward a regional renter education program.
Price agreed with the need to invest in tenant education and organizing, saying such strategies also help reduce homelessness and save taxpayer dollars. She also emphasized the importance of working with small landlords.
“The way to do this is ... investing in tenant education and organizing tenant associations, unions,” Price said. “And organizing groups can share resources and connect tenants with vital information and legal resources to help them avoid evictions. Other cities have invested in tenant education and organizing, because it saves taxpayers dollars and it protects families, our community, and the economy. And more importantly, it reduces homelessness. We know that 50% of people who are homeless cite eviction as one of those key indicators on why they’re homeless.”
[This story was originally published by The Tribune.]
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