Gloria Soto: Lack of action on eviction protection is dangerous to our local public health
Guest Commentary

Gloria Soto: Lack of action on eviction protection is dangerous to our local public health

Gloria Soto

Soto

Over the last month, I’ve become deeply concerned that city government in Santa Maria is not doing all it can to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Santa Marians reaching out to me demand answers and action.

COVID-19 is not a seasonal flu; it is a dangerous and often lethal virus that has spurred countries, states, counties, and cities to use unprecedented measures to “flatten the curve” and protect public health. The United States has now surpassed all other countries in its number of COVID-19 cases, and this week, Santa Maria saw its first death caused by the virus. Santa Maria has the most confirmed cases of any city in Santa Barbara County.

Throughout March, the city of Santa Maria was slow to implement policies to minimize exposure to COVID-19. For too long, our city practiced “business as usual” while cities and counties around the state were moving swiftly to mandate social distancing, close non-essential businesses, and begin planning to turn their economies toward an emergency footing.

During a crisis, we look to our leaders. Over the last two weeks, the voices of hundreds of concerned residents and small business owners have grown louder. They are speaking up on how COVID-19 is affecting their families through emails, voicemail, and e-petitions. Their experiences and concerns are all similar: layoffs, reduced hours, lost jobs, and very real fears about losing their homes or businesses. The simple fact of the matter is we can no longer afford to be complacent.

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The economic crisis that the pandemic is bringing us will last longer than the pandemic itself, and our city must elevate its efforts to protect our residents and small business owners, for they will be key to our long-term economic recovery. Protecting public health must be the priority of leaders during this crisis, and our work shouldn’t stop there. We must consider our future and envision our economic recovery. What is our strategy? How can we help Santa Marians weather the economic pain of this crisis in order to promote long-term stability?

First, we should immediately implement an eviction moratorium for homeowners, residential renters, and small business tenants in Santa Maria. Gov. Newsom has already moved in this direction with his most recent executive orders, but county and city governments can implement their own moratorium policies -- indeed, the governor encourages us to do so, saying that “People shouldn’t lose or be forced out of their homes because of the spread of COVID-19.”

As City Council elected officials, we have the responsibility to pass policies that will facilitate our constituencies’ public health and safety. Simply telling people to stay home if they are sick is not enough. An eviction moratorium --with reasonable rules and timelines outlining manageable payback plans --could ease the burden that workers and small-business owners face in our current economy disruption caused by the pandemic. If people are concerned about paying rent to avoid eviction, they may understandably fail to shelter in place or attempt to continue to work. Depending upon their job, a resident who fears eviction might put your health -- the health of your loved ones, or first responders -- at risk, even if they appear asymptomatic.

As someone who has experienced housing insecurity, I understand the fears Santa Marians are experiencing around the threat of eviction. Nearly 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and about 40% of them don’t have the savings to meet a $400 emergency -- much less a national economic disruption. Knowing this and after hearing the concerns of Santa Marians, I believe we as a council must act, put politics aside, and prioritize public health.