The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to create a $500,000 renter assistance program to stave off evictions amid mounting wage losses and economic hardship caused by the new coronavirus.
The emergency funding is seen by council members as a fast and effective way to keep struggling families housed as local health officials escalate the response to the virus, which causes COVID-19. Schools, entertainment venues and local businesses have temporarily shut down, leaving many residents without work and spurring fears that a wave of evictions may be imminent.
While council members were quick to approve the funds, they were reluctant to pursue a local moratorium on evictions -- at least not yet. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Monday granting local agencies the ability to temporarily halt evictions through the end of May, but council members worried it would be difficult to quickly craft a comprehensive ordinance that protects all affected renters.
The council voted unanimously for staff to draft a memo weighing options for an eviction moratorium, but no future meeting has yet been called to discuss the topic.
The $500,000 relief fund was the first opportunity by the council to flex its new emergency powers, citing exigent circumstances in order to deliberate and vote on a topic that didn't appear on the March 17 agenda. The money will be repurposed from the city's affordable housing fund and will be available for renters who cannot afford to pay rent due to the public health crisis.
City Manager Kimbra McCarthy, just minutes after being sworn into office, told council members that a stream of residents have contacted the city with fears that they won't be able to pay rent due to income losses because of the coronavirus. Not only does it affect tenants who may lose their home, she said, but it also means smaller landlords face uncertainty if rent payments suddenly dry up.
The renter assistance is expected to operate through the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos (CSA), which has a short-term rental relief program intended to prevent people from falling into homelessness due to an emergency -- such as a layoff, a medical issue or an expensive car repair. The city already partially funds the program, and injecting $500,000 into an already established program was seen as a swift way to respond to the crisis.
"This is the right thing to do immediately," said Councilman Chris Clark said. "If you don't pay rent, the eviction process can proceed pretty quickly and we have an existing partner and infrastructure set up to distribute these funds."
How far the funds will go, and whether it will be enough to help all needy residents, remains a mystery. The Santa Clara County Public Health Department ordered all county residents and businesses to shelter in place and only leave home for "essential" activities and services at least through April 10, but it's unclear whether school and business closures will continue into May and June. Early estimates by the city suggest the program could potentially serve between 50 and 100 households, according to Assistant City Manager Audrey Seymour Ramberg.
The question that dominated the council's discussion was whether a similar relief fund should be set up for homeowners struggling to keep up with mortgage payments and small businesses at risk of shuttering -- either because of dwindling customers or a forced shutdown by the county. Even prior to the shelter-in-place order, Mountain View businesses reported steep losses in foot traffic and purchases, in some cases prompting temporary closures.
The $500,000 in housing funds may not have the flexibility to be used for other purposes, but general fund money could be available for such programs, McCarthy said.
Councilwoman Alison Hicks said that she believes setting up a fund will pay off in the long run.
"If we start losing small businesses, it's hard to set them up again," Hicks said. "They are employers, they are taxpayers. It's the kind of thing where if we help them now, then later down the road we are all fiscally healthier."
Councilman Chris Clark said he worried that including more recipients runs the risk of drying up the funds much quicker, and that homeowners and businesses are likely paying far more money for rent and mortgages than apartment tenants. He said there will also likely be state or federal programs available to keep commercial renters afloat during the economic downturn, giving them alternatives to a city-run assistance fund.
Council members voted unanimously to have staff explore ways to extend emergency renter relief for mortgage payments and small businesses.
Mountain View city staff could not immediately answer questions about how residents can apply for renter relief, which will eventually be available to families making up to 120% of the Area Median Income -- or $157,700 for a family of four. Updates will be available at mountainview.gov/covid.
Over the last week, several Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, have sought to halt evictions as the extraordinary measures taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus have left many workers without pay. The sheriff's offices of San Francisco and Alameda counties have since announced that they will postpone any evictions until further notice.
For Councilman Lucas Ramirez, it makes sense for Mountain View to follow suit. The city needs to take immediately action to slow the spread of the virus, he said, and rolling out the emergency rental assistance program may not be quick enough to save families from being removed from their homes. Homeless residents are among the must vulnerable, he said, and are in a position to spread the virus.
Ramirez suggested an emergency measure such as a 30-day suspension on evictions of tenants unable to pay rent, which he described as "buying time" for the city to get rental assistance to needy tenants.
"An urgency ordinance temporarily suspending evictions for nonpayment could go a long way in providing the financial security that folks need while we ramp up these programs," he said.
Other council members were more reluctant. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said the $500,000 in renter relief funds was faster and simpler than an eviction moratorium, and could solve the problem. She also worried it would become a drain on staff resources.
Councilman John McAlister said halting evictions may help renters but doesn't do anything for landlords, while cutting checks to pay for rent satisfies both parties.
"If we have a moratorium, how is that going to help the person who owns the property if they are deprived of their funds?" McAlister asked. "By doing what we're doing now, everyone is taken care of. The moratorium is not a high priority because everyone is getting their funding."
Hicks said she believes the memo from staff will give council members the information they need to decide whether a moratorium is the right path forward, and that having the option available will be valuable in the event that conditions worsen or the shelter-in-place order goes on into June or July. She said it's clear to her, in talking to family members in Italy under a total lockdown due to coronavirus, that it's important to have a "Plan B."
"In Italy a lot of people are thinking about things that they wish they had done in the past, and to me a memo ... it's not that difficult to do," she said. "I would hate that we look back at this moment and say we wish we had done it."