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Rent a struggle for workers impacted by coronavirus

Assistant Editor

For rent signs are evident in the Castro as properties become available during the COVID crisis. Photo: Rick Gerharter
For rent signs are evident in the Castro as properties become available during the COVID crisis. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

In March, Dino Medardo Rosso was employed as a foreign language teacher at the San Francisco Waldorf School. He was also running a successful business tutoring adults who wanted to speak French or Spanish and overseas students in China looking to learn English.

Then the coronavirus outbreak upended his life. The private school informed him it was ending his teaching contract as it prepared for a drop in enrollment due to the health crisis. His local private clients, whether restaurants offering language classes to their staffs or vacationers prepping for trips abroad, also dried up in light of people canceling their international travel and eateries being forced to close due to the virus.

"My business tanked. As soon as they closed, I lost 90% of my business," said Rosso, 42, a gay man who lives alone in an apartment in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district.

To stretch what income he is making, Rosso informed his landlord in April he would not be paying rent, which is more than $2,000 a month. He is taking advantage of an eviction moratorium city leaders imposed to assist those who have lost income due to the coronavirus.

It was recently extended until September 30, and it allows renters to defer their rent payments until January 31, 2021. In a recent interview, Rosso told the Bay Area Reporter he doesn't foresee being able to pay his rent through the rest of the year and is preparing to move out of his apartment early next year.

His goal is to refurbish a vehicle into a mobile classroom he has dubbed the Little Blue School Bus and drive it to vineyards, farms, and other businesses throughout California that want to hire him as a language tutor for their non-English speaking staff. He launched an online fundraiser in late May at https://www.gofundme.com/f/20rjwcnws0 and has netted close to $9,300 toward a goal of $50,000.

"I don't have an extra $12,000 lying around to throw at this apartment I don't even own. I am not interested in spending thousands of dollars on bricks and sticks I don't own," said Rosso, who is in the process of applying for rental assistance as well as unemployment benefits.

Rosso is not alone in missing rent payments. According to survey data collected by Apartment List, 32% of Americans were unable to make a full on-time housing payment in July, up from 24% in April. And survey results found the share of renters who are either "very" or "extremely" concerned about being evicted rose from 18% in June to more than 21% in July.

"People on the margins are the ones being impacted the most," said Q Foundation Executive Director Brian Basinger, a gay man whose nonprofit assists San Francisco residents who are struggling to make their housing payments.

Most of the nonprofit's funding comes from its annual allocation from the city's general fund and direct donations. In June alone the agency awarded more than $1 million in emergency rent assistance to clients, breaking its previous one-month record last May when it handed out $340,000 in rental subsidies.

"We have subsidies that are still in the neighborhood of $500 on average," Basinger said of the typical grant amounts awarded to renters.

It is one of five agencies in the city working with the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development to provide housing assistance to people who have lost income due to the health crisis through the city's Give2SF COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. As of June 30 $28.4 million had been donated to the fund, with close to $6.3 million devoted to keeping people housed.

Eligible households can receive up to $3,000 for rent, mortgage, utility, and other housing costs per application period, with an assistance cap of $10,000 per household. The five agencies so far have each been allotted $1,257,000 to distribute.

According to the most recent report about the fund, dated July 13, 5,825 applications had been received requesting financial assistance for housing payments totaling $20.7 million. To date, the city is in the process of processing 1,000 of those applications for a combined $3 million in assistance.

'Holding pattern'
People can still apply for rent or mortgage payment assistance through the Give2SF fund. But the Q Foundation is not taking any new clients at the moment for its other subsidy programs, said Basinger, since the city has yet to finalize a budget for the new fiscal year that began July 1. (The process has been delayed due to the health crisis.)

"Nobody knows what the budget is going to be like, so we are in a holding pattern," he said. "We are hopeful that we can continue to expand and help more people. But for our subsidy programs, they are full until we hear otherwise."

The agency's financial assistance pays about 80% of Eli "Slyde" Kind's $1,800 monthly rent for a studio apartment on the boundary of the city's Hayes Valley and Mission neighborhoods. After couch surfing and sleeping in the city's Mission Dolores Park some nights after moving back to town in August 2017, Kind applied with the Q Foundation and moved into their unit in November 2018.

"Thanks to Brian and the Q Foundation I haven't had to skip any rent payments. The challenge right now is the power bills that are adding up," said Kind.

Normally able to pick up various nightlife gigs and occasional food prep jobs to pay his bills, Kind told the B.A.R. they have worked just 12 hours since the coronavirus outbreak led to the closure of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants in March.

Kind, 43, who is transgender and nonbinary, receives weekly groceries via a program at LGBTQ senior services provider Openhouse that is also open to people with disabilities. At times Kind uses a cane when walking after being severely injured in 2001 when they were living in Sacramento and attacked by an assailant armed with a baseball bat.

The two agencies "are huge saviors," said Kind, who lives with their service dog Scribble, a Labrador mix. They have yet to apply for financial help via a special fund set up for nightlife workers in the city impacted by the health crisis. Instead, Kind is hopeful upcoming virtual work will be enough to make ends meet until venues can reopen.

"I am really crossing my fingers and hoping the digital nightlife and go-going gigs will pay the rest of it," said Kind of his various bills not covered by the subsidies they receive.

New wave of renters
Housing activists and elected leaders are bracing to see a new wave of renters and homeowners in need of support as their unemployment benefits, including an additional $600 a week from the federal government, begin running out next week. Congress, which returned to work Monday, has yet to strike a deal to extend the emergency assistance for those who have lost income during the health crisis.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47% of households in the San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley metro region reported a loss of income 10 weeks into the health crisis. Various counties and cities in the Bay Area have adopted rent hike and eviction moratoriums to deal with the pending problem, and myriad funds have been created to keep people housed.

For instance, residents in the nine Bay Area counties at risk of losing their homes can apply for help via the United Way Bay Area Rental Relief Fund, which was seeded with a $750,000 donation from Wells Fargo and expected to assist 300 families. The agency is aiming to raise an additional $2.5 million through the end of the year and created a special website for the program at http://www.uwba.org/rentalrelief.

"The COVID-19 health crisis has further revealed the housing challenges and disparities across our region," stated Kevin Zwick, the agency's chief executive officer.

People living with HIV or AIDS who have lost income during the pandemic and are unable to pay their rent can seek legal assistance from the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. The agency provides legal representation to tenants facing eviction if they are HIV-positive and living in San Francisco.

"We are specifically helping tenants who are seeking financial support for back rent from various organizations," said Jeff Dulgar, a supervising attorney with the nonprofit. "We are also drafting letters and communicating with landlords when a tenant has had a change in income due to COVID."

The amount of calls from people seeking help has decreased since the first business closure instructions were implemented in March, said Dulgar. At the same time, landlords seem to be more willing to work out rent reductions for their tenants the longer the health crisis goes on, he said.

"I would say with landlords, they are still aggressive in their demands for rent. But when we have asserted our clients' rights, some landlords are more understanding," said Dulgar. "They are fearful of losing rental income altogether because people are leaving the city. For the first time, it feels like a renters' market."

Despite the softening of landlords' stances over rent prices, Dulgar said ALRP and other legal service organizations are expecting to see "a flood of evictions" in the coming months stemming from COVID-related job losses as the courts began to process eviction proceedings again in mid-June.

"We are hoping the city provides more rental assistance. We don't think this is the end of income losses or job losses for tenants," he said. "In particular, when the mayor's guidance expires and tenants don't have the right to delay their obligation to pay rent because of a job loss, that is the time when we expect to see more evictions. As well as closer to December when this delay in the obligation to pay back rent is also set to expire."


State Senator Scott Wiener and state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder. Photos: Rick Gerharter  

'Cancel rent'
Landlord and real estate industry groups are suing San Francisco to overturn its COVID-19 Tenant Protection Ordinance, as they oppose its prohibition on evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, tenants advocates want elected officials to "cancel rent" in order to assist tenants who have had to defer their rental payments.

Jackie Fielder, a queer educator running against gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), has made mortgage and rent cancellation for commercial and residential properties a part of her COVID Recovery Platform. Doing so, she argues, could be paid for by increasing taxes on the state's wealthiest individuals and corporations.

"This is the time we need to be hitting the reset button on the big elephant in the state: income inequality," said Fielder.

It is unreasonable for state leaders to demand people to shelter in place and not work in order to halt the spread of the virus and not compensate them for their lost wages, contends Fielder.

"The state has unreasonably expected these people to continue paying for their home and shelter in place," she said. "People shouldn't have to go into bankruptcy or face eviction or foreclosure for simply responding to the needs of public health."

As for Wiener, he called for a federal response to assist renters during a virtual news conference he held in May to discuss a bill he co-authored that would have placed a moratorium on commercial and nonprofit evictions and allow small businesses impacted by the pandemic to seek rent reductions.

"All of us would like to see Congress step forward to help people make rent so renters will be stable and not fall behind on rent," said Wiener, whose legislation died in committee last month.

He also signed on as a principal co-author to Assembly Bill 828, introduced in March by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), that would impose a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on residents whose incomes have been diminished because of the coronavirus. It is awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A similar bill that would provide help to tenants is AB 1436, co-authored by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). It would prevent the eviction of renters unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 emergency period, defined as ending on either April 1, 2021 or the length of a state or local state of emergency order plus 90 days, whichever happens first.

Renters would be given an additional 12 months from the COVID period before a landlord could seek a civil action to collect rent owed from the COVID period, but those civil remedies would not include eviction under the legislation. Any government subsidies that a landlord receives from a rental assistance program would be deducted from the amount the tenant owes the landlord.

"We must act to prevent a wave of mass evictions and increased homelessness in California," stated Chiu earlier this month. "This is a commonsense proposal to keep tenants in their homes, while still giving landlords the certainty and ability to collect rent that is owed."

National action needed
While state remedies are welcome, a national solution will be needed, argued the Q Foundation's Basinger.

"What absolutely must happen is there has to be a massive federal investment in housing stabilization," said Basinger. "The federal government has got to step in. This is way too big for cities, counties, and states even to do on their own because they can't print money."

Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) last week introduced the Rent Emergencies Leave Impacts on Evicted Families (RELIEF) Act in the Senate. It would ban evictions and foreclosures for a year and allow tenants up to 18 months to pay the rent they owe. It also would prohibit landlords from raising tenants' rents and prevents landlords and mortgage servicers from reporting unpaid rent to credit reporting agencies.

"Too many families were already fighting to keep a roof over their heads before the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now on the brink of a housing and homelessness crisis, but this administration has failed to address the financial hardship Americans are facing," stated Harris. "Housing is a human right, and that's why we need this comprehensive plan to help keep Americans safe and in their homes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic."

The bill's chances of passage are questionable, however, in the Republican-held Senate. Negotiations are underway between GOP and Democratic leaders in Congress and the Trump administration, but the parties are at odds on what the next round of stimulus funding to deal with the impacts from the health crisis should contain.

Basinger expressed support for a federal program aimed at landlords who would use the fiscal help to cover the rent their tenants have been unable to pay. But he stressed such a program needed to have strict oversight so that property owners didn't misuse it. There should also be benefits to taxpayers, he added, so the government gains an equity stake in the properties owned by the landlords receiving federal help.

"There can be an administrative argument to also include a bailout for landlords. There are fewer landlords than tenants, so it is easier to manage," he said. "But we don't want a situation where their bookkeeping isn't sufficient and they are collecting the rents and also applying for assistance saying the rent hasn't been paid when it has."

Queers disproportionately impacted
If something isn't done to address the amount of back rent people are going to owe and it leads to mass evictions, the economic consequences will be "at a scale almost unfathomable," predicted Basinger. He fears it could lead to a "hollowing out" of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco.

"The queer community is disproportionately impacted. Everything fabulous in this town our community created," he said. "So all of the industries we are over represented in are the ones that had the biggest hit and the wound is going to take the longest to heal. Then what happens to the queer people in San Francisco when our jobs are going to take the longest to recover?"

No matter what governmental assistance he qualifies for in the coming months, Rosso told the B.A.R. that he is 100% certain he will be moving out of San Francisco next year.

"COVID-19 helped me reframe and refocus," he said. "I already knew I was tired of paying exorbitant rent and working seven days a week to pay that exorbitant rent."

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