A Home Depot employee in the garden section during the height of the pandemic. Courtesy Home Depot

While the worst thing to happen to some of us during the pandemic was not being able to gather in public places or not seeing friends and family, for many others it was much worse. 

Although the outlook for recovery is trending in the right direction, the record-high unemployment rates of 2020 brought extreme financial hardship to many people who are still trying to piece their lives back together as things get “back to normal.” 

Many San Diegans are experiencing homelessness for the first time or re-entering homelessness. In fact, recent data from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless shows that first-time homelessness nearly doubled in 2020.

While the job market is recovering much quicker than after the Great Recession, the  levels of unemployment and underemployment are alarming. Unemployment levels spiked exorbitantly — the highest levels on record — early in the pandemic. In San Diego County, the unemployment rate reached 16%.

Even after 11 months of almost uninterrupted decline, at 6.9% it remains twice as high as the pre-pandemic rate. Moreover, unemployment is concentrated among low-wage and hourly workers who were already economically at higher risk to experience insecure housing.

To make matters even more concerning, these unemployment rates compound the effects of high costs of housing. The median home cost in San Diego, which skyrocketed in the last year, reached a new all-time record, keeping on trend with the median home prices statewide. Additionally, rent prices continue to increase in San Diego, averaging at $1,940 a month, a 5% increase from last year.

Fortunately, state and local governments enacted eviction moratoriums to protect tenants and business owners. However, these moratoriums didn’t eliminate the unpaid rent debt accumulated by residential tenants and business owners, nor did they protect landlords from the loss of revenue. 

California’s moratorium is in effect until June 30, and the City of San Diego has enacted an eviction ban that will begin the day after the state’s moratorium expires and remain in effect until 60 days after the end of the City’s COVID-19 State of Emergency declaration.

Since California already faces an increase in homelessness and a severe lack of affordable housing, it’s time for local, state and federal governments to find solutions for the ensuing debt crisis, and ensure all of our communities can equitably recover  from the pandemic. Rental assistance programs in San Diego are useful to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic, but it’s time to do more to protect the people who are facing financial hardships and prevent a spike in homelessness.

While these measures are helpful, people need to be protected from the debt that they’ve accumulated in unpaid rents due to the devastating impact of the pandemic. If they cannot enter into a repayment agreement with landlords, which will be up to the landlord’s discretion, they’re most likely facing eviction and risking ending up on the streets. Moreover, landlords cannot continue to sustain their businesses on promises of unpaid rent. Housing options and workforce solutions are critical to our region’s recovery.

We need to look at a range of preventative solutions, including: 

  • Making increased rental assistance funding more accessible in order to get it into the hands of the people who desperately need it.
  • Continue monitoring the financial needs of the community, and the amount of rental debt accumulated by business and residential tenants, to determine if additional funding is needed to ensure community members are not saddled with crushing debt.
  • More funding for workforce programs that offer training for new skills and to connect job seekers to local employers.
  • Incentivize the workforce to return to work safely.
  • Free or low-cost upskilling or credentialing programs that help people change careers into more stable and in-demand jobs.
  • More funding for programs that specialize in helping people experiencing homelessness, many of whom are facing complex barriers to employment with liveable wages.
  • More education and support for employers to expand their workforce to include often overlooked populations like seniors, women with children and those exiting the criminal justice system.

These efforts need to be invested in immediately and holistically, and remain in place until the unemployment rate returns to pre-pandemic levels.

We thank our region’s policymakers for their leadership and proactive action that has enabled us to advance this far in our recovery. We support new and sustained efforts to advance more solutions that prioritize building economic stability in the region, developing a skilled and resilient  workforce, and keeping people housed amid an impending risk of local homelessness levels spiking.

We all benefit when we keep people housed, employed and valued in our region. 

Jim Vargas is president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. Peter Callstrom is president and CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

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