Napa Valley Register: 12 Days of Giving: Fair Housing Napa Valley helps handle Napa’s on the ground housing issues

December 20, 2021 by Edward Booth

Fair Housing Napa Valley staffers have had their hands full during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with other nonprofits On the Move, UpValley Family Centers and Bay Area Legal Aid, FHNV has been helping Napa’s landlords and tenants fill out lengthy state rental relief applications to reimburse back rent that went unpaid earlier in the pandemic.

That’s because the state enacted a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent so people wouldn’t lose their homes — and potentially amplify the pandemic — after they lost jobs and income.

Under the moratorium, however, back rent still accrued. So, to prevent a wave of evictions once the moratorium expired on Oct. 1, the state aimed to pay off 100% of back rent for tenants who make below 80% of the area median income.

But since the state reimbursement program had a low application and payout rate months after it was established, FHNV and the other organizations have been helping Napa’s landlords and tenants apply for that aid through a program that started up in July. The application rate for the state program has since picked up considerably in Napa and throughout the state, though the payout rate is still lagging.

Many of the applicants most in need of financial assistance face language and technology barriers that make it more difficult for them to complete the necessary forms or to learn about the relief program in the first place, said Pablo Zatarain, executive director of FHNV.

In that sense, typical work the organization has continued to carry out falls directly in line with the tasks they’ve taken on during the pandemic. FHNV largely focuses on Fair Housing work — which essentially means investigating discrimination in housing — and landlord/tenant disputes, Zatarain said.

“In housing, you have fair housing: dealing with discrimination, segregation, equality, civil rights,” Zatarain said. “And you have landlord-tenant issues, which is dealing with the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords alike and ensuring compliance. They can often overlap.”

The organization also helps with mobile home-related disputes, and disaster relief and support as well, said Pattie James, program manager for FHNV.

“We’re trying to level the playing field any way that we can,” Zatarain said.

Many housing issues can easily be considered fair housing issues if they connect to civil rights in some way, Zatarain said. He said a simple example is a landlord evicting a tenant on the basis of their race.

Another example would be a landlord attempting to restrict pit bulls from their property when one of their tenants has a pit bull that’s an emotional support animal, according to James.

“They’d pay a lot of money to get legal advice if they’d hired a lawyer,” James said. “Whereas I can just quote them part of the Fair Housing Act and explain that it would be disability discrimination, you can’t restrict a breed.”

Fair housing also extends into broader contexts, such as discriminatory lending practices, according to Zatarain. That includes looking into events like Hurricane Katrina, which highlighted housing inequality in New Orleans because the areas that were hit the hardest were predominately the segregated Black communities, he said.

“This agency and a lot of fair housing agencies have adapted over time to not only continue to address ongoing issues with housing discrimination — which has unfortunately continued — but really the context in which they’re occurring,” Zatarain said.

Zatarain said that, before joining FHNV in 2013, he worked for the National Fair Housing Alliance. He traveled around the country and, with the help of local fair housing groups, investigated real estate-owned properties — properties banks had foreclosed on and now owned — and how they were being maintained depending on what neighborhood they were in.

“We found a huge pattern of discriminatory banking, if you can call it that, based on the way that a number of very big lenders were maintaining their portfolios,” Zatarain said.

Fair Housing Napa Valley is somewhat unique among fair housing agencies in that it also works to resolve general landlord-tenant conflicts. That’s a big deal, James said, because about 75% of cases the organization takes on end up being landlord-tenant issues.

That could include habitability issues with an apartment, a tenant not being able to pay rent or needing rental relief, or landlords and tenants wanting to know responsibilities and rights with pandemic-era protections, among much else, she said.

Staffers at FHNV help people understand relevant housing laws and bring them to other agencies — like Bay Area Legal Aid — if tenants or landlords need specific legal or financial assistance, James said.

“There’s a huge number of landlord-tenant issues,” James said. “When COVID hit, I think every renter in Napa called us. You can read what these protections do or what they’re supposed to protect but understanding them and applying them to your situation is a whole different story.”

Napa’s housing issues have much crossover with the Bay Area’s housing crisis at large, Zatarain said. Rental prices are high, the supply of housing is low and demand continues to rise. Everything that happens related to housing in Napa, he said, needs to be considered with the context of low housing stock.

Julia DeNatale, the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s vice president of community impact, said the foundation sees housing as the primary driver of poverty in Napa County.

“What I would say impacts Napa the most is, because it’s isolated geographically, you really feel the shortage of housing stock,” Zatarain said. “And so everything that occurs with that as an underlying factor, knowing that this isn’t a larger city where you can say: ‘I’m sorry you had to vacate but there’s another property available for you.’ That’s just not the case here.”

FHNV currently employees seven full-time staffers, Zatarain added. Most of the employees act primarily as case managers, handling issues that come forward day-to-day, providing support when clients call.

“Access is as much a part of our jobs as knowing legal rights and knowing what the protections are,” Zatarain said. “If we’re doing something to promote access then we are supporting a vulnerable community in a more specific way than just education. Not that education isn’t valuable, you need education, but sometimes you also need that advocacy to get you over the hump of where you’re trying to go and we’re very grateful to be a part of that.”

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