FAIRFIELD — Jose Soto laid tile for a living – and he made a good living.
Then his knees and legs forced him into disability, and his income level dropped significantly.
“I had money in the bank, but the bank wasn’t giving me anything, so I decided to buy that property,” said Soto, 59, referring to a single-family home on Fifth Street in Fairfield. He purchased it in December 2008.
He also rented part of his primary residence on Utah Street, and combined, the rental income brought his overall income back up to where he needed it to be.
“I was doing pretty good . . . until Covid-19 because I was collecting rent from (the Fifth Street property) and here,” said Soto, who has lived in Fairfield with his wife since 2000. His daughter and granddaughter have occasionally lived there, too. “Then they stopped paying rent.”
Soto said that the woman living in his primary residence did lose her job because of the pandemic shutdown. She apparently did not apply for the rental assistance program, but she was receiving government assistance to help for her two children: a daughter who has mental health issues and a son who had been shot and was bound to a wheelchair.
The son also had income coming in from a cannabis operation, though Soto cannot say if it was legal or not.
Still, the rent payments to Soto stopped.
It also took months before the state determined his tenant on Fifth Street did not qualify for rental assistance because her income was too high. She was getting her late-husband’s union pension and her Social Security.
But there was nothing Soto could do in either case. Even his own attorney would not take up the case.
“My lawyer said that even if they can pay, they don’t have to pay . . . . They are protected by the governor,” Soto said.
And that is where Soto’s frustration and anger is pointed – at Gavin Newsom, the state and a policy decision he said has failed property owners who depended on the rental income for their own livelihood.
“It was a super bad decision,” Soto said.
It is ironic, then, that the state eviction protection was lifted as of June 30, but Solano County’s remains in place because it is tied directly to the state of emergency.
“The county’s protections will remain in effect as long as the governor’s state of emergency continues, and for 90 days after it terminates. The state of emergency currently remains in effect with no scheduled termination date,” the county said in a statement released last week.
“The regulation, adopted by the Board of Supervisors on April 28, 2020, provides that a landlord may not file an unlawful detainer, an important step in starting the eviction process, for nonpayment of rent and/or late fees that became due during the state of emergency and for a period of 90 days after the state of emergency ends if the tenant was unable to pay the rent because of a substantial reduction in household income or a substantial increase in expenses resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the county statement reads.
In the meantime, Soto is out $28,400 in rent, it has cost him $2,000 or more for legal costs and he had to work out an agreement with his bank to extend paying his mortgages on both properties so he has enough time to sell the house on Fifth Street, which needed a lot of repair after the tenant upped and left.
“I don’t want to sell. That’s my bread and butter, and if I don’t have that income, what am I going to do?” Soto said. “If I didn’t have money in the bank, I probably would be homeless.”
Moreover, the rental income also allowed Soto to help family members.
“(Losing the income) has kept me from doing a lot. I have family in Mexico who need me. I have two grandchildren who need me. But I can’t do anything,” Soto said.
“I called the state and said, ‘So you helped them, so what can you do for me?’ ” Soto said.
The answer came back, nothing, in large part because the Emergency Rental Assistance Program – at the county level and at the state level – was to provide funding directly to landlords whose tenants qualified.
In other words, people who lost their jobs or income because of Covid-19, or more accurately, the government shutdown response to the pandemic, could qualify for rent relief, with those funds going directly to the landlords. However, the property owners could not make the tenants apply for the program, nor did they have any input on the program.
Ann Putney, a principal management analyst for the county administration, said the program had issues from the outset.
She said the program lacked sufficient guidance at the beginning, and proved to be much larger and complex than anticipated. Processing applications could be delayed for extended periods of time.
“I know it was difficult for us, and I’ve heard it was difficult for the state, to get all the documents needed,” Putney said.
The county no longer has a renters assistance program, except for 50 to 100 applications under appeal or for document review.
Solano had more than 3,000 applications in all, and paid out on about 1,200 of them, with the payments going directly to the landlords. The remaining 1,200 applications were sent on to the state.
Putney said she is not aware of any program that is designed to help landlords directly.
Moreover, with Covid-19 cases still on the rise in California, it is unclear when the state will lift its emergency declaration. Until that happens, the county’s state of emergency also remains in place.