A new report advocating rent cancellation and other government-led housing measures in the Central Valley warns that economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic could result in evictions for 20,000 households across Kern County.
The report by a group called Faith in the Valley cautions that a "wave of evictions" looms once local courts allow unlawful-detainer cases to proceed. It proposes new housing protections for people suffering financially because of the crisis, including a rent and mortgage relief program and longer-term reforms such as expanded legal representation for tenants.
Public and private housing officials in Kern rejected the report's calls for broad reform. They agreed more housing is needed and the government has a role in helping prevent evictions but said tenants falling behind on rent are better off working out a deal directly with their landlords.
The report's release has come as Bakersfield's City Council prepares to vote Wednesday on a proposal to spend $5 million in federal recovery money on temporary subsidies intended to help renters in the city stay current on their leases.
Also, on Monday the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced two awards totaling $762,677 for housing vouchers to be administered by Kern County's Housing Authority. The federal money was part of $472 million set aside for housing vouchers nationwide.
Evictions have become a contentious political topic during the pandemic as local, state and federal governments weigh options for averting greater homelessness amid unprecedented joblessness. While evictions have remained on hold in California since March, sticking points on longer-term solutions include taxpayer costs and how much of the financial burden should be placed on landlords.
Faith in the Valley, which describes itself as a faith-based community organization with offices in five Central Valley counties including Kern, called for enactment of a fully funded emergency rent and mortgage relief program. It also urged passage of state legislation that would give families hurt by the crisis up to 12 months to pay off back rent with no harm to their credit ratings.
The report says more than 40 percent of Kern residents and 42 percent of people living in Bakersfield are renters. Many pay a disproportionate share of their income toward housing, it said, adding that the county's waiting list for Section 8 low-income housing topped 7,000 in January and that an additional 17,822 people are in line for public housing for the poor.
Besides increasing the area's inventory of subsidized housing, it said, local government should do more to ensure tenants have access to legal resources and address apparent housing segregation patterns.
"Without swift and decisive action," the report states, "this pandemic risks entrenching and compounding the housing crisis in the Central Valley and deepening existing inequities in housing opportunity, possibly for years to come, while also further exacerbating the pandemic itself."
Stephen Pelz, executive director of Kern's Housing Authority, disputed the report's estimate that as many as 20,000 households in the county may face eviction. But he said it's true there are thousands of households in the county struggling to pay rent because of an affordable housing shortage.
MAKE A DEAL
As enhanced unemployment benefits and other government assistance gradually runs out, Pelz said, households at risk of eviction should reach out to negotiate with their landlords.
"Most landlords want to work with you and avoid an eviction," he said by email.
Bakersfield real estate agent Jeanne Radsick, president of the California Association of Realtors, said deferring rent is impractical because tenants won't be in a better position later to make up overdue rent.
Building more single- and multifamily housing would help, she said, but a lasting moratorium on evictions could backfire.
"Why would anyone want to build rental housing and not be able to charge fair market rents?" she asked in an email.
The president of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors, Ronda Newport, noted that California's evictions moratorium has not been accompanied by comparable assistance to landlords who must continue paying their mortgages.
The most appropriate government action, she said, is to put emergency federal money toward rental assistance, not intervene on behalf of tenants whose best option is to work with their landlords.
A spokesman for the city of Bakersfield said the $5 million proposal going before council members Wednesday would have city officials working closely with the county Housing Authority.
Spokesman Joseph Conroy asserted the measure would help both parties in leasing arrangements.
"A rent subsidy approach such as this will have the dual benefit of preventing renters from being further impacted by back-logged rent and allowing property owners to receive payments needed to maintain ownership of their property," he wrote in an email Monday.