Antioch: An eviction capital of California and a source of hope

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

August 29th, 2022

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Michael Tubbs brought his statewide “poverty listening tour” to Antioch the other day and the economic adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Stockton mayor got an earful in a city he described as “one of the eviction capitals” of California.

One message came through loud and clear to Tubbs, someone who has the ear of Newsom and top legislators: California may be spending billions to help the homeless and renters, but the system is failing to ensure that the money being approved in Sacramento and Washington is helping the people who are about to lose their homes.

“Yesterday, there were 18 evictions happening,” at one apartment complex in the city, community organizer Jose Cordon told Tubbs, who was seated in a circle of three dozen community organizers and tenants.

“Eighteen?” Tubbs responded. “Do you know where those 18 people are at now?”

The tenant tried to use funds from a state rent relief program to cover part of the payment on the amount due, Cordon told me. The tenant was going to receive help from other people and organizations to make up the difference. But the apartment complex’s manager wanted the payment in full, “all together,” Cordon said.

Heads nodded around the circle as Cordon explained the eviction situation alternately in Spanish and English at Tubbs’ meeting. It helped Tubbs to understand why there are 800 renters in the eviction pipeline in the east Contra Costa County area where Antioch is located, according a county administrator’s report this month.

“They’re not accepting (renters’) money any more because they want to raise the rent,” Carmen Sierra, a preschool teacher who lives in Antioch, told Tubbs. “If they’re still there, they can’t do that. So they just want them outside.”

Then Tubbs asked whether there were any programs designed to help the housing-insecure that were actually working.

“Anything that seems to be working that should be doubled down upon or scaled up that the governor or folks should know about?” Tubbs asked.

LaShonda Figg, an automotive worker who lives in Pittsburg, shook her head.

“Everything is messed up,” Figg said. “It’s no help when you call. You call one organization for help, and they give you the other organization’s number. Then they, ‘There’s no funds.’ Then the other one says, ‘There’s no funds.’”

And if you happen to find an organization that can help you, Figg said, “they’ll tell you it could take three or four weeks (to get help). By that time you’re evicted.”

Heads nod in agreement in the circle.

“Then you have to deal with attorneys and you got to pay attorney’s fees,” Figg said.

Few facing eviction can afford a lawyer. Housing advocates monitoring eviction legal proceedings in Contra Costa County say that from May to July, only 3% of tenants in local eviction courts had access to a lawyer, compared with 87% of landlords who had legal representation. This month, Contra Costa County officials recommended allocating $70,000 more for legal services to address the eviction boom in the Antioch region.

Housing advocates say that’s a step in the right direction, but much more legal help is needed. Advocates want the county to spend $1.8 million a year on legal services to help stem the eviction wave.

“I don’t understand where the disconnect is with our elected leaders to not see that this is a crisis and it’s going to grow the homeless population,” said Debra Ballinger, a senior adviser to Monument Impact.

Antioch’s eviction crisis may foreshadow what is coming elsewhere in California. Roughly 1 in 6 renters with incomes less than $50,000 reported being late on rent from March to June 2022, according to a study from the California Budget and Policy Center. More than 1 in 4 Black renters said reported being late making rent, more than three times the number of white renters, according to the study.

The federal and state government has spent billions to address the issue. California received $4.1 billion through federal COVID relief funding passed in 2020 and 2021 to provide emergency rental assistance for renters with low incomes who were struggling to cover rent because of pandemic-related hardship, according to Sara Kimberlin, a senior policy analyst with the California Budget and Policy Center.

The current state budget included $1.95 billion to help make sure that all eligible renters who applied for help before the end of March 2022 — when the application period for rental assistance closed — will receive assistance, Kimberlin said.

But, as Tubbs heard, the need is much greater. There is a disconnect between government funds designed to help — and people on the brink of homelessness actually being helped.

“We have to do a better job of communicating” between state and local governments and institutions, Tubbs told me after the meeting. “And we also have to be realistic that (the amount of government money being spent) sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket and money is no substitute for good policy. So we have a lot of money, but we also need the policy framework that goes with to make those dollars go farther.”

Tubbs has heard similar stories in other parts of California during the handful of other stops he’s made as part of the listening tour he’s conducting to inform the organization he’s heading called End Poverty in California. His goal is that by the end of the decade, “if poverty has not ended in California, we should have made a significant dent. We should have a clear path for how we’re significantly reducing the number of people in poverty in California so that we’ll get to zero.” He regularly reports his progress to Newsom and the governor’s staff and will make more policy recommendations after his tour.

“We are in a housing and homelessness and poverty crisis in this state, and it needs more urgency,” Tubbs told me. “It just feels like those who are making policies aren’t doing this (listening to people in local communities). They don’t understand how severe, real and mainstream this is.”

After he listened to the Antioch group for more than an hour, his message was simple: Get more involved in the process. He didn’t say that lightly. As someone who grew up in poverty, he understands how difficult it can be to spend time lobbying local government while working two and three jobs and raising a family. He and other advocates pointed to an upcoming Antioch City Council meeting where a rent cap would be considered.

His appeal may have sunk in. Days after Tubbs’ appearance, the Antioch City Council approved an ordinance that would cap rent increases to 3% or 60% of the Consumer Price Index in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area (currently 6.8%), whichever is less.

Ballinger, the advocate at Monument Impact, called it “a win,” the work of months of advocacy.

“The real win was the sheer number of tenants who showed up,” Ballinger told me. More than 115 people attended, she said, with more than 40 tenants commenting. That’s “a hardship,” she said, especially because many were working multiple jobs. “But they did so anyway because this is so important.”

Because one thing that will make government work better to address the housing crisis is if those in power feel the pressure from their constituents to make change.