by  | Jun 30, 2021 | Housing

EMS provides research, writing and translation services to Ethnic Media on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

From left to right: Kristina Rosales, Housing Team, Western Center; Sara Kimberlin, Senior Policy Analyst, California Budget and Policy Center; Francisco Dueñas, Executive Director, Housing Now!; Larry Halstead, activist, political scientist, and Paradise Camp Fire survivor; Leslie Layton, Editor, ChicoSol

By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

Responding to new data on California’s growing housing shortage, a panel of housing policy experts convened by Ethnic Media Services on June 24 documented how dire the situation has become – with rural California now on the front lines.

The presenters also offered good news: Both the federal government and the state of California were extending their eviction moratoriums for people behind on rent due to COVID-19-related income losses.

Those moratoriums and rent subsidies have been life-savers during the pandemic. In California, the eviction moratorium has forestalled thousands of evictions, according to Tina Rosales of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Another speaker, Francisco Duenas, executive director of the Housing Now coalition, shared data crediting those measures with preventing 186,000 COVID cases and 6,000 deaths in California.

In states where eviction moratoriums have expired, Rosales said, the homeless population has grown 200%.

But the moratorium could be more effective.

The federal government has provided California $5.2 billion to spend helping tenants and landlords cover rental payments. “Not a lot of that has gone out,” Rosales said.

Critics have blamed a cumbersome, lengthy application process, via the Housing Is Key program, as one of the causes for the backlog.

In response, the application has been streamlined and more languages have been added.  The state moratorium has been extended by three months, to Sept. 30, and California is increasing the percentage of unpaid rent it will cover, from 80% to 100%, provided the tenant has paid at least 25% of the amount due.

Rosales emphasized that the state needs 1.2 million more very-low-income – less than half of the area median income (AMI) — housing units, and it needs to ensure that development does not displace people and meets environmental guidelines.

Unprecedented natural disasters are leading to a rapid rise in homelessness in rural areas – even more than in urban areas, Rosales added.  She said that one of the best ways to prevent homelessness is to expand legal service providers for people who need them, especially in rural areas.  Currently the ratio statewide is 5,500 to 1.  Legal help will be in high demand when eviction moratoriums do expire, she noted.

Sara Kimberlin, of the nonpartisan California Budget and Policy Center, shared some of her organization’s findings about the demographics of the housing crisis,

“Something  that’s really striking about housing affordability in California is just how widespread the problem really is,” she said.

“Everyone thinks about urban areas with really high rental costs. But in parts of the state where rents are lower, income tends to be lower. So there is a major mismatch between how much people are making and how much they’re paying towards rent.”

About 44% — 17 million — of the state’s residents are renters, Kimberlin said. Even before COVID, more than half were paying over 30% of their total income in rent – a level deemed unaffordable — and 25% were paying more than 50%. This is particularly true for black and Latinx households, who also had a disproportionate share of job losses in the pandemic.

Duenas, of the Housing Now coalition of more than 100 organizations, also had some data on the extent of the housing crisis and who’s being affected.

At least a million people, he said, in 730,000 households, are behind on their rent in California, by an average of $4,400. Of those, he said, 78% are people of color, 77% are low-income, and 57% are unemployed.

The pressure to pay rent exacerbated the pandemic with people crowding together, enabling the spread of COVID-19, he said, and 64% cut back on essentials such as food and medicine.

Also on the panel were Leslie Layton, reporter for Chico Sol, and Larry Halstead who, along with many neighbors, was burned out of his home by the 2018 Creek Fire and has spent two years trying to find permanent housing. The strain eventually broke up his family.

”We really feel we’re on the front lines up here in terms of climate change,” Layton said. She and Halstead described how homelessness was already a problem in the area when the fire hit, and the increased demand for housing, combined in some cases with the money available from insurance payouts some people received, had pushed housing costs higher.

“People don’t realize how simple it can be to become homeless,” Halstead said.