For the past four months, Taft resident Norma Arias has watched helplessly as the bills piled up on a small shelf next to a couch in her living room.
A stroke left her partially paralyzed and unable to work in 2013, and ever since she has depended on her son for help paying the mortgage. But when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the United States earlier this year, she says her son, who is a fieldworker, suddenly found work sporadic to nonexistent.
“My son says don’t worry, but I can’t help it,” Arias said in her home on Friday, noting she experiences panic attacks and constant stress over about $4,000 in unpaid mortgage payments. Every month, an additional $1,400 becomes due.
She’s taken to ignoring the calls and letters from the bank as she hopes for a change in her situation, turning to GoFundMe in an attempt to make up what she owes. Even though she wants to pay, she says she is not able. And although her son has returned to a mostly normal schedule, Arias has not been able to make up what she owes.
“I can’t afford to get sick because who is going to take care of me?” she said, ruminating on the risks she and her son are forced to take during the pandemic. “I’m afraid my son is going to get sick.”
Yet, someone needs to earn money to keep up with those bills even as the family falls behind on others.
The Arias household finds itself in a situation shared by millions of people throughout California. As the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed work, many who have been safely employed for years have found themselves filing jobless claims.
And that has taken a toll on the housing market. One study by The Aspen Institute found up to 5.4 million people throughout the state were at risk of being evicted. That translates to 20,000 households in Kern, according to another study by Faith in the Valley.
A moratorium on evictions is set to expire on Tuesday, potentially sending a wave of evictions and homelessness rolling across the state.
Racing against the tight deadline, lawmakers have scrambled to pass a stopgap measure that would prevent those who have lost work due to COVID-19 from becoming homeless, while helping to keep landlords and property owners afloat.
On Friday, state legislators abruptly shifted support from Assembly Bill 1436 favored by tenant advocates to AB 3088, which is considered more palatable to landlords and property owners.
In a statement announcing the bill, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the bill immediate protection for millions of struggling Californians.
Yet some tenant advocates were wishing for more.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s also not going to protect the people that we need to protect,” said Daulton Jones, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley. “There’s too many loopholes.”
While AB 1436 would have prohibited evictions for three months after the state’s COVID-19 emergency ordinance ends or April 1 (whichever came first), AB 3088 allows some evictions and tightens certain requirements for renters.
Under AB 3088, tenants must pay 25 percent of their rent, continuing through Jan. 31. The remainder, and also unpaid rent from March 1 through Aug. 31, will be treated as civil debt. Although landlords will be able to sue to reclaim the civil debt, they will not be able to evict tenants for nonpayment.
Also, AB 3088 would force tenants to swear under penalty of perjury they are enduring a hardship related to COVID-19. Those earning 130 percent or more of an area’s median income will have to provide proof their hardship relates to the pandemic.
Landlords and property owners have been more favorable of AB 3088 than its predecessor.
“The bottom line is it provides more protections, especially for small property owners, which is the majority of our membership in Kern,” said Ian Sharples, director of public affairs for the Income Property Association of Kern.
The bill also prevents local jurisdictions from passing their own eviction moratoriums, although those that are already in place will be grandfathered in.
Sharples said monetary relief from the federal government is still needed to help both renters and property owners. Right now, the association is urging landlords to work out their potential issues with tenants. Unpaid rent must still be paid at some point, and landlords have been negotiating special deals with those tenants that have been struggling.
“Obviously a wave of evictions is bad for everyone involved,” Sharples said. “We’re all humans. We all recognize what’s going on. We’re all doing everything we can to prevent a really bad situation.”
Still, unless more federal aid is made available, the issue of mass evictions may just be delayed rather than solved. In several months, renters, landlords and lawmakers may be right back where they started.
A state Senate vote for AB 3088 is likely going to take place on Monday, the last day of the legislative session. Evictions could start Wednesday if no action is taken.