TURNABOUT’S FAIR PLAY: The One-Percenters are getting a bad rap. Yes, they’re an easy target for the Starbucks revolutionary set, and yes, many did make out like bandits by selling home loan packages that all but had the word “radioactive” printed at the top. But if it weren’t for the millions of poor people who applied for home loans they knew they could never afford (didn’t their mothers teach them anything?), there would have been no economic crash. Instead, we’d all be sitting pretty right now, not caring a whit whether some quasi-obscure fourth-rung nation like Greece — which hasn’t done squat since giving birth to democracy 2,000 years ago — went ass-up. As we’ve been made painfully aware, state and local governments that invested heavily in banks that invested heavily in toxic loans are now going broke. Given that poor people got us into this mess, there’s cruel justice in the fact that governors, like our very own Jerry Brown, are tossing women and orphans overboard like it’s a brand-new cardiovascular workout. If Brown has emerged as the de facto undertaker for the American Dream and California Dream combined, he has at least proved government can, in fact, be run like a business. While the bankers at J.P. Morgan just lost $2 billion — literally, they do not know where the money went — on investment schemes not even they can explain, Brown one-upped them big-time, “discovering” this week that California’s budget deficit inexplicably turned out to be $7 billion bigger than he said it would be just months ago.
Shit, as they say, runs downhill. As a result, hospitals, nursing homes, and day-care centers will take the ax in the back. Judges — always a hysterical bunch — are freaking en masse about cuts to the court system, and we should all be doing likewise about the carnage contemplated for the community college and UC systems. By contrast, the City of Santa Barbara seems to be doing reasonably well. Thanks to a fortuitous bump in the tourist trade — and all the taxes thus generated — Santa Barbara’s projected budget shortfall turned out to be $2 million smaller than initially billed. Still, there remains an $800,000 deficit and no shortage of painful choices.
On the chopping block once again is the Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, a modest but meaningful programmatic gesture made by City Hall for the past 36 years to help lubricate the inevitable tensions arising between the city’s landlords and tenants. Over the years, the Task Force — with one full-time employee, three part-timers, and 15 volunteer (free-of-charge) mediators — has been funded with federal dollars funneled through the Community Development Block Grant program. Last year, those dollars were drastically reduced; this year, they’ve been eliminated outright. In response, City Administrator Jim Armstrong has proposed giving the Task Force barely enough money to maintain basic life-support functions, but nothing else. Under his proposal, the Task Force director would be allowed to answer phone calls — albeit only half as many as usual — but to do no mediation. Technically, that qualifies as an evisceration rather than outright decapitation, but in either case, what’s the point? To keep the Task Force functioning, the council needs to find $65,000, which even in these challenged times, qualifies as couch change. If the council wants to find it, they can.
But I admit I’m really biased. In the last year, it appeared my daughter was about to get stiffed for about $750 by the people from whom she was subleasing a room. They, it turned out, were in the process of getting evicted when we signed on the dotted line. Somehow, this detail was not mentioned at the time. But when it came time for them to go, my daughter likewise got the heave-ho. What about the rent for which we already paid? Or the security deposit? When I called the Task Force, I was looking for info, not action. I wound up getting both. Andrea Bifano — the person behind the Task Force — started working the phones on my daughter’s behalf. Using her status as an agent of City Hall, Bifano got the landlord to hold off on the evictions for a couple months. In exchange, the couple from whom my daughter subleased came across with the money they owed. I was spared the hassle — and futility — of initiating a small-claims action. That qualifies as a mediated settlement, and the Task Force does about 25 to 30 of these a year. Maybe three times a year, it gets more formal, with a team of the volunteer mediators sitting down face-to-face with landlords and tenants to hash out compromises they can’t reach themselves. Sometimes, one mediation can involve a whole lot of renters. Mostly, the Task Force buys tenants just enough time to find someplace else to move. A number of Task Force clients, it turns out, are already on the ledge; most have absolutely no money, and many are struggling with mental illness. The $65,000 the council needs to spend to keep the Task Force functional should not be seen as some fuzzy, feel-good, politically correct gesture. It’s a really smart investment. If only three mentally ill people were to fall through the cracks because the Task Force were gutted, it would cost local government far more than $65,000 to deal with the collateral fallout. Push-come-to-shove conflicts between landlords and tenants are inevitable. But the new cuts proposed by Governor Brown will make matters worse. It’s worth noting that Brown is snatching the $5 million City Hall now has in its piggy bank for developing new affordable housing. He’s also killed the city program that ensures that existing affordable housing units are not occupied by the slippery and the slimy taking unfair advantage.
Like I said, I’m biased. No doubt that’s clouded my judgment. If I were thinking straight, no doubt, I’d say screw the poor. After all, it’s all their fault.