Bramson: California’s rent relief measure puts power in the wrong place
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pictured in this file photo.

Not too long ago, in a Silicon Valley very, very close by, tens of thousands of hardworking people could be heard asking themselves: “How am I going to pay the rent this month?” This was before the pandemic wiped away their jobs, emptied their bank accounts and left them with a mountain of debt and despair.

These families, largely from communities of color, were barely holding on before and now they are at the edge of a cliff with pretty much no rope left.

But, thankfully, in the past few weeks, folks were finally, seemingly cut a little slack. The new 2021 federal stimulus package contained $25 billion in rent relief. California passed legislation that extended the eviction moratorium protections. And plans were formulated to offer options to support both tenants and landlords, with the acknowledgement that we are all struggling to pay the bills in these hard times.

For many groups, what emerged from this work at the state seemed like an acceptable compromise. Willing landlords can take a haircut on their rents, but still receive 80% of what they were owed, if they forgive the remaining renter debt. For those owners not interested, low-income tenants (earning less than 80% of the area median income) have the option of applying for 25% of their rents being paid, which keeps them from being evicted through June and moves the money not paid to civil debt. Under the state’s plan, the entire operation will have a backbone financial institution to process applications, track data and provide payment.

Bottom line is that this will create a new system that doesn’t target the poorest people and won’t solve any of the larger issues permanently, but also pushes to make sure those served get to walk away a little better off than they started. The problem is that if you are really without means, this emergency relief might not even show up at your door at all.

Over the past year, we’ve served more than 14,000 households in Santa Clara County, distributing over $31 million in private and public money to extremely low-income people. But for these families, nearly 40% couldn’t connect with their landlords to receive a direct rental payment. And over a quarter of them weren’t able to even access an online payment system to get the help they so desperately needed. Without the dedication of 70 nonprofit partners working tirelessly to help their clients figure out the steps needed to get assistance, we know that quite simply many of these people wouldn’t have been served.

Beyond the issues of access, there’s also something not quite right with the state’s approach.

If a landlord refuses to accept 80 percent of rent debt, the tenant’s only other option is to receive 25 percent of the funds. In times when equity should be at the front of every discussion and decision we make, you have to ask why should the property owner be in the driver’s seat when deciding to be made nearly whole, while the renter gets only a fraction of what is due and still walks out the other side with the threats of civil litigation, wage garnishment and homelessness hanging over their heads. This framework leaves the most power in the wrong place, which seems to always lead to the worst consequences for the most vulnerable.

The good news is that many of our local leaders and government officials already see all of this and are working to do something better. This week at San Jose City Council and the Board of Supervisors, staff will begin thoughtful discussions with elected officials, bringing the voices of the community to the forefront. Listening sessions have already been convened, leaders consulted and the needs of our neighbors in crisis are rising to the top of every discussion.

In all of this work, the grassroots partners serving the community on the ground have actually finally had a chance to be true stakeholders at the table and lead the conversation. It makes sense and should be the rule, not the exception, in all of the recovery work we doing going forward.

As a result of this collaborative effort, we have the opportunity to continue to chart our own path. From the work accomplished so far, we know the unique challenges our residents face and have the tools necessary to get live-saving assistance to them now.

It’s critical that our elected bodies keep supporting this effective local work that puts the hardest hit among us first in line for help. Because without that leadership now, all we’ll be doing is letting more people fall off the cliff.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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