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California after COVID: Recovery is not good enough

By Senator Steven Bradford, Special to CalMatters and California Black Media Partners

State Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat of Gardena, represents the 35th Senate District

The coronavirus crisis is testing most households and businesses in California, pushing some to the very brink of what they can bear before falling off a cliff.

But for some, clinging to the edge is nothing new.

If you are Black or Brown, you are more likely to be an essential or front-line worker. You are more likely to contract COVID-19 and to die from it. You are more likely to lose your home in a foreclosure or be evicted from your rental.

But to add insult to injury, if you are Black or Brown you are still less likely to benefit from existing relief programs that could protect your home or your business. You are less likely to be counted in our testing and infection data. You are less likely to be supported, despite being in need just like many others. 

Congress may have included $377 billion in small business assistance in the CARES Act. But who benefited? Many large businesses. Who often missed out? Small businesses, especially businesses with minority, women, disabled veterans, and LGBT owners. It took the intervention of the Congressional Black Caucus and others to change this in the subsequent round of funding.

California’s economy was flawed before COVID-19. The gross domestic product numbers looked good, sure. But beneath that surface of prosperity was a dangerous current that forced countless people into multiple jobs, pushed home prices to unaffordable levels and made well-paying careers a fantasy for many.

Our objective cannot simply be to return to the way things were. We need to do better. Our response to this crisis must be founded on equitable programs that recognize, rather than ignore, the past.

The California Senate has put forth a proposal informed by the painful lessons of the Great Recession of a decade ago. In that crisis, we did not do enough to keep people housed. Foreclosures surged, even for people who – with the right forbearances or loan modifications – could have kept their homes. Personal wealth was wiped out. We created new protections for borrowers, but for many, it was too late.

Even now, Black families who are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage can rely on one-tenth the wealth of what a typical white family has accrued. 

In this crisis, we must do better. We propose to protect renters from being evicted because they cannot afford their rent. Likewise, we propose to protect landlords from foreclosure because their tenants cannot afford their rent. We know the only people who win in a foreclosure are speculators.

The State needs to step in to protect the most vulnerable, providing what amounts to a no-interest loan to tenants that they will have 10 years to repay, along with transferable tax credits to landlords to compensate for lost rent. There will be a hardship exemption for tenants who continue to struggle.

I wish we could simply write relief checks to every person struggling to stay housed right now. But there are just too many in need and not enough state funds available. UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimated in April that approximately 2.3 million renter households in California have been impacted by COVID-19. Our proposal is intended to help as many as possible, despite the State’s budget problem.

There will be additional proposals to help Californians during this crisis, including several bills I am authoring. One helps tenants in subsidized housing build their credit, Senate Bill 1157, and another extends homeowner protections against foreclosures to tenant-occupied properties, Senate Bill 1447.

The coronavirus crisis is far from over. There will be those who say that proposals like this are too much, and others who will say that they are not enough.

But during this period of uncertainty, I think of the wisdom of the late Congressman and civil rights leader, Elijah Cummings. “The cost of doing nothing isn’t nothing,” especially for those who started off miles behind others. All our responses to this crisis, including this proposal, must recognize that. Otherwise, we will simply “recover” the same inequitable economy we had before.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat of Gardena, represents the 35th Senate District, Senator.Bradford@senate.ca.gov. He is chair of the Senate Banking & Financial Institutions Committee and vice-chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters and California Black Media.

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