This report is informed by the results of the “El Tecolote Survey 2021: Rent, Stress and the Pandemic in the Latinx immigrant community of San Francisco.” The survey was developed and gathered by El Tecolote with the support of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2020 Impact Fund, and in collaboration with Mujeres Hacia El Conocimiento in alliance with Excelsior Works. This is the second report in a series based on El Tecolote Survey 2021.
The true cost of rent
It’s worrisome enough that Latinx immigrants could not shelter-in-place due to the cost of the shelter itself, but as the City inches towards economic recovery, there is no plan to support the economic recovery of Latinx workers, the most impacted population in the pandemic, who depleted their health and wealth to pay the rent.
The results of El Tecolote Survey 2021 show that in the extended lockdown of 2020, the majority of Latinx immigrant tenants not only risked their health working, but depleted their wealth by using their savings and taking on intra-family debt to pay rent and household bills. A near 80 percent of survey respondents who were tenants “used or depleted their savings” and 60 percent “asked friends and family for loans,” in the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 to March 2021) to cover these stressful expenses. A third of respondents accumulated credit card debt. A few had access to bank loans.
On June 25th, Governor Newsom and state legislators extended the COVID-19 California eviction moratorium through Sep. 30. Undoubtedly, the eviction moratorium extension will benefit many, but it probably won’t help low income Latinx immigrant tenants or, for that matter, any low earning immigrants in the State, who cannot risk their housing and economic futures by becoming formally indebted to landlords.
Introduced by a state bill that took effect in August 2020, the eviction moratorium, then and now, only promises a stay on evictions for tenants experiencing COVID-19 related financial hardships, if they can pay 25 percent of the rent owed before a certain date. The stay on eviction also only works, if the landlord does not sue the tenant later for the other cumulative 75 percent back rent once the moratorium is lifted. In the new extension, tenants have until October 1st, 2021 to pay 25 percent of any back rent owed between September 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021.
The problem is that by extending the moratorium in the exact same terms, lawmakers and policymakers failed to account for the stressful housing insecurity of low income Latinx immigrants that drove them to work in the pandemic, in the first place. The lesson taught by the pandemic is that Latinx immigrants cannot afford to accumulate formal debt that puts them at risk of eviction, lawsuits or in an unending cycle of debt.
For those Latinx immigrants, who risked health and wealth during the pandemic to stay up to date with rent and household bills, lawmakers and policymakers at the City and State level should instead be thinking of ways to deliver direct restorative emergency financial aid, and in lieu of that, simply cancelling rent instead of offering a delay on evictions.
Ivonne Ramos: Nominated for certain death
Ivonne Estela Ramos arrived 11 years ago from El Salvador to San Francisco with her children, to distance them from the crime in her country and ensure her children’s education. In 2017, she was diagnosed with a serious heart and blood disorder that made her susceptible to high blood pressure and strokes. When the pandemic arrived in San Francisco, Ivonne’s doctor warned her that it was imperative that she stay sheltered-in-place, since her pre-existing condition, if compounded with the effects of COVID-19, could be lethal.
“It was terrifying to hear your doctor say, ‘Be careful. You’re one of the candidates.’ Candidate for what? For death?” said Ivonne. “I had a psychosis. In moments of despair, my pastor would say, ‘we must have trust in the Lord, and if it’s our time, well, the Lord has decided so.’ But the Lord is great and he still has a plan for us and so we move forth."
Back in El Salvador, Ivonne was a human resources director, but in San Francisco, at the start of the pandemic, she was a Lyft driver; a job that vanished overnight with the lockdown. "Well to begin with, this pandemic caught us off guard," said Ivonne. “Even though we had a little bit of savings, it wasn't much. As Latinos, we live paycheck to paycheck. Our greatest expense is rent and there was no work. I drive for Lyft, and at that time there was no one to pick up."
Given the risks to her health, her children and siblings asked Ivonne to stay at home and not look for any other work. Her 19-year-old daughter, Allison, with whom she lives in a two room studio in the Bayview, quit her restaurant job to protect her mother’s health as well. Ivonne asked her landlords for a reprieve on the rent, and they granted her “maximum” a three-month deferral on payments.
At first, they stayed sheltered-in-place, hopeful that the situation would not last beyond two or three months. Like everyone else at the start of the shelter-in-place order, Ivonne and Allison worried about hygiene and stayed isolated from the disease, but Ivonne soon ran through her savings to cover the most basic costs of those early pandemic months.
“The little savings we had began diminishing during those first three months. And the time to pay those three months of rent arrived,” said Ivonne. “That’s when the anguish really began. The thought that they were going to evict us, and where would we go? My son used to tell me, ‘Don't worry, you can come with me.’ But after being...even though our place is small, it’s an independence for me and my daughter. Each one of us has our space, and to go with him, shutting ourselves in to who knows where, a room and living together. Well, that wasn't the solution."
With no end in sight for the lockdown, mother and daughter started worrying about the end of their rent deferral. Allison would lay awake at night thinking about the rent. “They gave us the opportunity to pay the rent, but it wasn't like they were going to gift it to us either. So there she was, very calm and trusting in God, and there I was in my room, unable to sleep because I knew we owed the rent, and many nights 4 or 5 in the morning would come around, and I couldn’t sleep from the stress."
Ivonne and her daughter were not the only ones stressing about rent. As previously reported, El Tecolote Survey 2021 shows that rent and basic household bills were the expenses that most generated high to extreme stress in the community. For those Latinx immigrants with families back in their countries of origin, dependent on them to get through the pandemic, sending remittances was another high stress financial obligation. Despite the risks to their health in the pandemic, most respondents worked at least one job—with many working more than one—to cover these worrisome expenses.
Ivonne asked a nephew for a loan to see her through her various expenses. Among Latinx working class immigrants, intrafamily and friend loans are debts of honor that must be covered on time to maintain good relationships and good credit. In addition, Ivonne took out a personal loan from an online financial company, and she already had a past credit card debt related to medical bills she absorbed for her father months earlier.
“When it started, I asked my nephew for a loan. I said to him, ‘Hey son, lend me money. I'll pay you,’ .... I was embarrassed because whenever I ask anyone for something, I always pay back the exact amount. But the pandemic was unexpected. I knew that he also needed that money. I was in such anguish that my son told me, 'Don't worry. He knows. He’ll give you time.’ But I’m old school. When you ask a favor, people will be there to get you out of trouble. But you also have to be grateful and keep your word. And it was killing me that I wasn’t fulfilling my word. And I had debts from when my dad got sick and was going to have an operation. He came here and they also treated him in the hospital. So I took care of that debt and paid it with my credit card,” said Ivonne. “So I was about $ 8,000 [in debt] and then later, when I saw that I could no longer pay that, I was more concerned about interest. I wasn’t even paying the loan that we had talked about, I couldn’t keep asking other family members because each of us had our problems and no one was working."
Having spent her savings, having borrowed money from family, fearful of losing her home, anguished by accumulating unpayable debts, Ivonne put her life at risk and took a job to pay her back rent. Tipped off by a friend, she applied for a morning shift as a janitor in the wealthy South Beach area. Her daughter, Allison accompanied her to the interview, and both were hired on the spot to clean the common areas of three interconnected residential condo buildings. They found the hard labor demoralizing, mostly because of the humiliating treatment they received from supervisors.
“We both worked there and it was difficult, because we both drove for Lyft, where you're your own boss,” Allison said. “But there we had supervisors and people who, even with the situation of the pandemic, tried to put us down...And that wasn’t for us. It was not a good working environment.”
Soon they learned that the reason they had found work there at all was because the previous troop of workers had all fallen ill, cannon fodder to the novel coronavirus.
“We were working when they told us afterwards, 'Oh yeah, we hired people because all the employees came down with COVID because a lot of people in the building had COVID.’ We were supposed to be sheltering in place and there we were working to pay our debts, and we did it by force. We prayed to God and took care of ourselves.”
Ivonne added: “It was somewhat shocking, but what we earned served as a cushion for the rent. Everything we earned was used for that.”
For a month, Ivonne and Allison entered their shift at 7am and left at 4pm. Then, they parked their car in the Embarcadero, switched on the Doordash app, and dozed while they waited for the first orders to come in about an hour later. The pair would work until 11pm delivering food around the City.
"And that’s how it went," Allison said. "Thank God, that’s how we were able to pay the three months of rent."
Like Ivonne and her daughter, the majority of the respondents of El Tecolote Survey 2021 were tenants (382 out of 391) who strove to pay their rent during the pandemic: 54 percent stayed up to date with their rent payments during the first year of the pandemic, and by the time of the survey in May 2021, an additional 9 percent had caught up with their rent payments.
Up to date on their rent, mother and daughter left their janitorial work to carry on as a Doordash team—dressing the part of a Hazmat crew with goggles, double masks, gloves and anti-bacterial Clorox wipes. Ivonne looks at her daughter. “She would tell me: ‘Wash with bleach. Use the wipes. Put on gloves. Put on your mask, put on your hat, put on your glasses.’ And I would respond: ‘Oh no. Looking like this, they will think we are doing something wrong.’”
But Allison would counter: “It's that you have to cover yourself well."
Ivonne was fortunate not to fall ill to COVID-19, but she understood well the grave risk she took. By April 2020, it was known that essential Latinx workers were bearing the brunt of the contagion in the City of San Francisco. 84 percent of all people hospitalized in the San Francisco General Hospital with the novel coronavirus were Latinx. In June of last year, around the time Ivonne started working, testing numbers showed that 61 percent of all positive COVID-19 tests were among Latinx people, where this group represents only 15 percent of San Francisco’s population. At this stage, City data shows that Latinx people account for 40 percent of all cumulative COVID-19 cases since March 2020, still making them the most impacted group of the pandemic. This is the same across California.
Ivonne has a theory as to why.
“Who was most affected? Latinos, they say. But why Latinos? Because we were forced to go out and work. It didn't matter if we were sick. If we were risking our lives. What nobody wanted was to be kicked out on the street. To be left without a roof for our children. Yes, we had food. But it didn’t cover all of our food. We had to supplement what food we got and it wasn’t a luxury,” said Ivonne. “We persevered, but sometimes what consumes our income the most is rent and we’re always helping family members back home. This is the position we’re all in.”
Where she lives, Ivonne pays $2,123 dollars rent. It’s not for lack of trying that Ivonne does not live in cheaper housing. But, when she last applied for the San Francisco affordable housing lottery she was told she had to earn “less”to qualify for available units. Ivonne found the requirement laughable, since earning less meant she would not be able to afford her current cost of living, while she waited for an uncertain housing lottery outcome. “But they told me, you have to earn so much. I said: ‘But you want me to earn this little. Perhaps I can get by with that once I have the housing, but at the moment my expenses are high, and if meanwhile I earn as little as you want me to, I won’t be able to cover my expenses."
Ivonne is also aware of the rent relief programs that rolled out at a state and city level in late Spring in 2021, but since she has no rent debt, she does not qualify for assistance either: “We took on overwhelming debt to pay the landlord, but there’s no help to ease that new debt. So basically the only choice is to work to climb out of those debts."
In short, there is no City or State program to help those Latinx essential workers, the most impacted population in the pandemic, who depleted their savings or took on intra-family debt or other debt to keep up with the rent and bills.
As Doordashers, mother and daughter worked at the beck and call of those who could afford to shelter-in-place and feast on door-delivered groceries and restaurant meals. Ivonne and Allison were treated with a mix of fear and gratitude by their random employers.
"We saw many things," Ivonne said. “There were people perhaps so scared, terrified. And there were people so grateful that we came to help them, because we brought them groceries, not just ready-made food. And it felt nice that, despite being in this new situation, we were helping."
Over the following months, Ivonne continued to play whack-a-mole with her expenses: paying rent and household bills, credit card interests, hoping to honor family loans soon, and sending remittances back home to her parents. Throughout the pandemic, she tag-teamed with her siblings to cover the family remittance, telling her parents, ‘You know that I can only send you so much. I'm going to send you this much, because I can't right now. But it's going to help you some.’ And they would say: ‘No daughter, don’t worry. Only if you can. If you can’t, you can’t.’”
But it always came back to paying the rent, as the main stressor. “What we wanted the most to gather was for rent,” Ivonne said. “Because I figured, 'Where do I go if I can't pay rent? Where else am I going to go rent if they are going to ask me for more than what I have to pay right now?’"
To make ends meet, when not Doordashing, Ivonne and Allison stood at their other post: the three hour line at a food bank in a nearby school to pick up her free box of food. At first, Ivonne was embarrassed to be in such need. Used to being self-sufficient, she eventually overcame her pride realizing that everyone else in the food line was in the same situation. “Although there was support for food, as Latinos, I felt embarrassed because I figured, ‘There are other people who need the help more.’ You never think that you’re the one that’s going to be impacted by this.”
I ask Ivonne and Allison what it was like to be Doordashing food, while depending on the free food box.
“Before the pandemic, ordering food was a luxury for me," Allison said. “I think of all the time I’ve been here, I haven’t ordered food not even 10 times...it was always very expensive and it seemed crazy to me how people would order three meals a day, and that's good for us because it provided work, but I couldn't do that. I had to be at my hobby of waiting three hours for my box of food."
Allison laughs recalling how good the food smelled sometimes and the time they caved in to make an order. “That’s the thing about delivering food. I was like, ‘Oh, how delicious.’ Because that’s what happens when you deliver. You’re smelling the food and you think ‘what was the restaurant?’, ‘what did they order?’, or ‘I’m going to go back’. And we did it once. Man, we ordered two or three things, $50. And it wasn’t anything that was going to fill you up...It was very expensive.”
COVID-19 was the wealth stripping event of the century for the Latinx community of San Francisco
COVID-19 is “the largest wealth-stripping event that we’ve ever seen. And likely ever will see,” says Ernesto Martinez, Director of Asset Building Programs at the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA).
MEDA is an organization that for over 40 years has been dedicated to building up wealth, place and power among San Francisco’s Latinx community: “A community where immigrants can come, newcomers can come and find themselves, build stability and then build their wealth long term,” says Martinez. Specifically, MEDA supports immigrants to develop financial stability, preserve and develop affordable housing, spaces and businesses, and organize for an equitable future.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 devastated the wealth of many Latinx families. At the moment, “... it's a conversation of how do we stop the bleeding in terms of wealth-stripping in our community, and then [support] an equitable recovery. The key focus is how do we rebuild that lost wealth that we know Latinos and communities have suffered the most. We’re in the midst of one of the biggest economic recessions that we’ll probably ever be in. “
MEDA is a partner in State and City rent relief programs, but like many other organizations involved in these programs, it bumped into giant bureaucratic hurdles to make rent relief available to the Latinx community. Immigrants especially, many undocumented, cannot produce the documents required by the process.
“One of the biggest issues that we see is being able to collect all of the documents,” Martinez said. “Our community, the system is not built for us. They think of, ‘Oh you need a W9, you need a formal lease...a lot of our families don’t have leases, they’re subtenants. A lot of our families don’t necessarily email their landlords. They talk over the phone or in person. But in general, you just have a lot of documentation needed that is a challenge. It’s been a challenge for the last 16 months.”
In announcing the eviction moratorium extension, the State of California also announced helpful, if small, adjustments to the state rent relief program to reduce hurdles to apply, but its remains to be seen if these programs are culturally appropriate for undocumented immigrant populations in the State, who despite being in need of rent relief, are loathe to accumulate back rent, unless aid is guaranteed.
And for those Latinx immigrants, like Ivonne, without rent debt, the question still looms large about what will be done to address their economic devastation. Martinez knows that the same approaches and tenets for wealth building that MEDA has relied on in the past may not work this time.
“I would say the biggest challenge for MEDA is a little bit of thinking outside of our own box. [...] we understand we can't come into the same services that we had previously post-pandemic and expect there to be an increased wealth building, because we’re really starting from a much lower place of community wealth.”
Currently, direct economic relief and wealth rebuilding programs for immigrants are not being discussed at State or City level. It is time for policymakers to account for the essential role Latinx immigrants in San Francisco and the State played in sustaining the economy in the pandemic, and take their opinions into consideration for designing culturally-appropriate economic recovery plans:.
“...Latinos and immigrants have been the ones who have been able to make it on an average income of like $30,000 in the most expensive city in the country,” Martinez said. “That takes some massive financial skills to do so. And massive budgeting skills to do so.”
There are already readily available lessons to glean from El Tecolote Survey 2021 that could inform such an economic recovery program for Latinx immigrants. Results from the survey would indicate that if during the peak of the pandemic, the State and City governments had wished to support Latinx immigrants to remain sheltered-in-place and protective of their existing wealth, then they would have simply canceled rent. That didn’t happen.
Now, in the economic recovery period, if the State cannot provide Latinx immigrants with easy access economic stabilization aid or cash funds, then the most direct way to support this population to recover its wealth is again simply to cancel rent.
Under this alternative program, the landlords can apply for rent relief, showing COVID-19 financial hardship, and comply with the paperwork.
Allison now has a new job as a dentist’s assistant. She wants to return to her biology studies, and become a surgeon one day. Mother and daughter already look back with nostalgia upon those days, when filled with terror of the virus, they worked as essential workers of the City of San Francisco delivering food and cleaning for the wealthy in the peak of the pandemic. “The truth is, this made us grow closer. We became better companions and we value everything we have now.”
Another upside of this experience is that it's got Ivonne thinking about how she may continue her own education and improve her quality of life. “My children are grown now, and now I can start setting aside time for me. I can start learning new things. And here I am, studying again. I have more time to learn English. I have more ‘me time.’ To take care of myself a little more. And if God wills it, I can watch my grandchildren grow and become adults.”