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Guest Opinion: And the rent goes on

by Reese Aaron Isbell

A sign advertises an apartment for rent last spring on Church Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter
A sign advertises an apartment for rent last spring on Church Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

As we recognize the anniversary of the first shutdown, I want to share with you an update on rental housing dynamics during Year I of the COVID-19 pandemic and where we are heading into Year II. Given everyone's initial collective hope for our "new normal" to be temporary, many early legislative efforts included long-ago sunset clauses or were date-specific. Hence, more recent work by our elected officials has been to extend and/or update early emergency measures, although with some consideration for wholesale reviews of responses given time and accumulating impact.

At the beginning of the shutdown a year ago, San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered a citywide moratorium on residential evictions related to any financial impacts caused by COVID-19. This temporary eviction moratorium was then extended monthly as the pandemic continued, along with additional protections and provisions by the mayor and Board of Supervisors throughout the last year. Emergency legislation for a temporary rent freeze also prohibited some rent increases between the months of April and October 2020. Contact the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development, your district supervisor, or one of the many local housing rights organizations for more specific details on the city's legislative response.

At the state level, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, emergency legislation to further extend into June statewide eviction protections passed in 2020 for Californians. It also establishes the California Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which will allocate rental assistance to both tenants and property owners. There are many intricate details in the language of this complex legislation and more information on it can be retrieved by contacting one of the members of San Francisco's state legislative delegation — gay Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymen Phil Ting and David Chiu.

Federally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a temporary halt of evictions nationwide last year, which has similarly been extended on an ongoing basis. However, recently a federal judge in Texas — appointed by former President Donald Trump — ruled that this effort by the CDC was unconstitutional. This led to an appeal by the Justice Department under President Joe Biden, a total 180 from the support the lawsuit had been given from the Trump Justice Department.

Another reason elections matter, Biden has not been wasting time and his COVID-19 relief legislation passed both houses of Congress, with another vote needed in the House to approve changes made in the Senate. This will provide money and support to people throughout the country trying to stay in their homes, as well as the cities and state governments working to provide assistance. The National Low Income Housing Coalition provides excellent information on the intricacies of this aptly-named American Rescue Plan on its website. It also hosts a running update for any local, state, and national actions being taken. Wherever you may be located, check in with local housing-rights groups in your area for relevant details pertaining to your locality and direct situation.

Back in San Francisco, through a roundtable I organized with Mayor Breed and our local HIV/AIDS community services, we have seen an augmentation of an initial $1 million budget allocation to help people living with HIV pay their monthly rent into a larger assistance program. Now another $4 million in rental subsidies and support will be provided to both those living with HIV and Transgender San Franciscans throughout the City. Visit the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) website for more information on the city's housing developments and policies.

Another major focus of mine has been upgrading the Rent Board's technological capacities. Given these discussions, and with a silver lining nod to social distancing requirements, I am pleased to say that over the last year this push was put on the fast track. New technical innovations and initiatives are beginning to be incorporated into meeting the current needs of the public. We have also been deliberating budget priorities while implementing new programs and directives from City Hall.

I want to thank the department staff who have been instrumental in seamlessly continuing support for both landlords and tenants, just as it has for the last 40 years, while meeting these challenging times. If you would like more information on any of the above matters or other landlord/tenant issues generally, you can find many answers, along with direct ways to contact staff for assistance, on the Rent Board's website.

Rent Board personnel, your elected officials, and housing-rights organizations have all been working diligently during Year I of the pandemic. They continue that service into Year II. For the majority of San Franciscans, paying a monthly rent is part of the cost of simply continuing to live in the city they call home. And while the rent does go on and on, there are many agencies and personnel laboring steadfastly to keep everyone in their homes. If you are confronted with difficulties in your own specific housing situation, know that you are not alone and that it is OK to reach out to any and all of these above government and community resources.

Reese Aaron Isbell is an unemployed tenant living with his husband in the Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and serves as a commissioner on the San Francisco Rent Board.


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