From Napa Valley Register: An eviction crisis, stymied only by philanthropy and a temporary eviction ban, simmers in Napa County

November 7, 2020 by Sarah Klearman

Despite eviction moratoriums at the local, state and federal levels, financial hardship born out of the pandemic and the recent wildfires continues to threaten the housing security of many of Napa County’s renters.

Experts and advocates alike warned the economic fallout in the wake of pandemic-prompted shutdowns could impact renters and homeowners nationwide. In March, a handful of the nation’s largest banks agreed to allow mortgage payment deferrals for California homeowners impacted by the pandemic — but no such stabilization existed for renters, many at the mercy of the circumstances and their landlords.

The federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act included a 120-day moratorium on eviction for tenants receiving federal housing assistance. That protection, which did not extend to renters independent of assistance, expired in late July; a new order issued at the beginning of September by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) extended and even expanded those protections.

“In the absence of state and local protections, as many as 30-40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction,” the order reads. “A wave of evictions on that scale would be unprecedented in modern times.”

In September, California passed Assembly Bill 3088, which extended an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March placing a moratorium on evictions statewide. Renters in Napa County remain protected by that state order, which expires Jan. 31, 2021. A county-level ordinance banning pandemic-related evictions expired at the end of September.

Even so, existing provisions granted by AB 3088 are something of a band-aid atop a wound gashed only deeper by extended and variable shutdown orders — and now, at the local level, by the wildfires, which have greatly reduced available work for employees of the county’s largest sectors: hospitality and agriculture.

“The worry is — are we just kicking the can down the road and off of a cliff?” Terence Mulligan, CEO of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, said of the temporary pause in evictions.

Tenants who have fallen months behind on rent payments could easily find themselves facing eviction as soon as the moratorium ends, Mulligan said — not to mention thousands of dollars in debt to their landlords.

Napa County’s nonprofit sector has strained in recent months, attempting to ensure vulnerable tenants remain housed. Nonprofits throughout the pandemic have had to adapt to the changing needs of their clientele, and emergency financial assistance for rent payment has been a top — if not the top — demand, nonprofit leaders say.

In partnership with UpValley Family Centers and On the Move, two local nonprofits, the Community Foundation has provided rental assistance to as many as 1,400 households in Napa County, according to Mulligan. “The bulk” of the $4 million in coronavirus relief the Community Foundation has distributed county-wide has gone toward that assistance, Mulligan said. He expects to distribute at least $2 million more in coming weeks to workers whose income has been impacted by wildfires.

A roster of other nonprofits, including Puertas Abiertas, are involved with the effort, nonprofit leaders have said. That includes organizations whose missions do not directly involve housing, like NEWS, which works with victims of domestic violence in Napa County. Since the onset of the pandemic, NEWS has had to pivot to address housing insecurity among its clientele, according to Executive Director Tracy Lamb.

“The requests for rental assistance went up by over 400%,” Lamb said. “Those were from not only clients who recently needed our services, but clients who we’d helped in the past, who had been very stable, working and doing well, until COVID and the fires hit.”

Housing insecurity often renders survivors more vulnerable to abuse, Lamb explained. Since April, NEWS has dispersed $310,000 in rental assistance to 300 households, Financial Director Mandy DeBord confirmed in an email.

The size of the problem

As of July, more than a third of all renter-occupied households in Napa County — around 7,000 unique households — had requested some sort of rental assistance, according to Fair Housing Napa Valley Executive Director Pablo Zatarain. There may be additional need Fair Housing Napa Valley is not aware of, Zatarain said, adding that almost a third of recorded requests were for more than a month’s worth of rent.

The wildfires in August and September have only exacerbated things, Zatarain said. A harvest cut short by smoke has been a devastating blow to the region’s farmworkers, many of whom depend heavily on overtime pay from long hours worked picking grapes to last them through the slow winter season. Complicating things further, he said, is that the statewide eviction moratorium does not technically protect renters impacted by wildfires.

“Now there is a whole subsection of families at risk due to loss of work having nothing to do with the pandemic,” Zatarain said. He expressed hope the state legislature would address the expiration of AB 3088 when it reconvenes in early January.

“I think the idea behind the expiration date of AB 3088 was that by then there would be … a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the actual virus,” he added, noting that additional shutdowns could feasibly compound the existing pressure on families unable to make rent. “If anything, it appears things will get worse over the winter.”

Landlords feel the pinch

Since early summer, tenants in around 150 households of the 2,500 units Crown Realty Property Management oversees in Napa and Solano counties have repetitively failed to pay rent, according to owner Randy Gularte. About 60 of those households are in Napa County, he said, and though his staff have attempted on multiple occasions to make contact with those renters, they have not reached “close to 90% of them,” Gularte said.

His landlords have been frustrated by the moratorium on evictions, he said, in part because many of them rely on rental property income to make ends meet themselves.

“I’m going to be blunt — (landlords) are expecting a return on (their) investment,” he said. “Therefore, if you can’t pay, I’m going to get someone who can. Our vacancy rate is less than 1% in this town. We know there are a lot of tenants looking for places to rent.”

He expects to have to start processing evictions through small claims court soon as the moratorium expires on Jan. 31, Gularte said.

A tenant explains her family’s plight

Maria, a tenant of one of the properties managed by Crown Realty in the city of Napa, has not paid rent in “three to four months,” she said in Spanish, asking that she be identified by first name only because she is undocumented.

“(My worst fear is) that they’ll evict me,” she said, speaking in Spanish outside the one-bedroom apartment where she, her husband and her 17-year-old son live. Their rent is around $1,200 a month, according to Maria.

Both she and her husband have lost their jobs in recent months — Maria as a housekeeper because of the pandemic, her husband as a farmworker in the wake of a harvest cut short by wildfires.

The pair have not yet been in touch with the property management company, Maria said Wednesday, though she said she intended to reach out and explain the circumstances sometime this week. She confirmed that Crown Realty had attempted to make contact with them — the company had sent a letter asking tenants who had not paid rent in full to pay what they could afford each month — but she had balked at that, knowing what money she did have would have to go toward necessities like food and utilities.

“I had to borrow money because my son needs internet (to attend school),” she said.

Maria did receive some money — she did not specify how much — as part of California’s disaster relief assistance program for undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for federal aid nor unemployment insurance. (Payments ranged from $500 to a maximum of $1,000 per household.)

With that money, she was able to repay the loan she’d taken out for the internet bill, Maria said, and use the rest for other necessities like groceries.

“It was supposed to help me pay the rent,” she said, of the payment. “But it just wasn’t enough.”

The last few months have been overwhelming for Maria: she’s suffering from depression, has chronic headaches and has lost weight as her appetite has disappeared, she said. She cries sometimes and is constantly exhausted by the uncertainty and stress.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “It’s been made worse by the fact that we can’t find work.”

Asked if Napa County may indeed see a “wave” of evictions like the one referenced by the CDC order, FHNV’s Zatarain paused.

“It is absolutely possible, but as of now we have enough controls in place to where the evictions may not occur to the scope feared,” he said. “It is very much still in play for anyone that cannot pay rent after January. (Especially if) the state or local authorities have not implemented some sort of protection by then.”

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