A group of Planada residents demonstrated at the foot of the County Administration Building on Tuesday morning, raising signs calling for a halt to evictions and demanding the attention of County leaders who they feel have been absent in the community since the floods swept through the agricultural town in early January.
They eventually took their signs into the County Supervisors chambers where a board meeting was being held, and one after another they told stories of the devastation that wreaked havoc on the community when nearby Miles Creek overran its banks in early January.
Even though much of the region has recovered from the flooding, emotions are still raw in the town where flood water came in waves, crashing through living rooms and endangering the lives of children and old people. In a tense moment, Planada resident Daniela Ceja-Arceo refused to stop speaking after her allotted time in a public comment period was up. When supervisors realized she wasn’t going to comply, they simply announced a five minute recess and all but Rodrigo Espinoza, the supervisor representing Planada, walked out of the room. The livestream of the meeting also went dead as sheriffs urged everyone out and into the lobby.
Among their demands, which don’t appear to have been addressed since residents brought them up at a town hall meeting at the beginning of February, are a temporary moratorium on evictions, halting rental payments and stabilizing rent prices in the town to prevent opportunistic price hikes by landowners.
“You that have the power, we want you to stop the rent,” said one man, a Planada resident who sells ice cream.
Housing has become the big issue facing Planada in the aftermath of the flood. Around 90 families in Planada were made homeless due to flood damage, and many cannot afford repairs despite claims by federal disaster officials that aid is available. Some renters who can’t return to their homes due to flood damage are still being charged rent, and some are being handed eviction notices.
“I think this is about tenants in general. The flood recovery really showed us that in moments of disaster and emergencies sometimes there are people that will take advantage,” said a local organizer named Blanca. “We need to hold these landlords accountable.”
Around 42 homeless families are currently residing at the Felix Torres Migrant Camp just north of Planada on Plainsburg Road. That camp is operated by the Merced Housing Authority on behalf of the federal government and the Department of Agriculture.
Some of those families face the prospect of becoming homeless for a second time on March 15, when the camp will be closed while units are prepared for the spring and an influx of migrant workers.
“I’ve walked the streets there,” said Supervisor Espinoza. “Some homes are still gutted. They won’t be able to be out by the 15th of March.”
Some residents also claimed they witnessed County inspectors declare their homes habitable despite obvious flood damage and the presence of mold.
“The inspector who handled my case simply went in, went out, signed and that was it,” one resident said.
“There are serious public health concerns with people returning to homes that are not habitable and have been wrongfully deemed habitable,” said Madeline Harris, a regional policy manager for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Fresno-based nonprofit that has worked on the ground in Planada since the flooding began.
Harris has also spoken out at recent Merced City Council meetings, advocating for city leaders to include the topics of rent control, a rental registry, and rental inspections as part of their regular budget priority planning going forward.
The Leadership Counsel is one of a handful of organizations that have canvassed the Planada community over the last two months, but they say the problems that persist in the unincorporated area require direct intervention from County officials.
“We’re doing what we can but it’s a band-aid,” said Claudia Corchado of Cultiva la Salud. “We need to see you. We need to see the County on the ground.”
As part of Tuesday’s scheduled meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted to extend last month’s emergency declaration that lets the County receive disaster funding, but stopped short of addressing the specific proposals advanced by the residents for eviction moratoriums and rent control.
Instead, County leaders walked a tightrope between their constituents and the federal government, claiming that County staff were aware of the problems but couldn’t do anything other than connect residents to state and federal aid.
“We’re doing our best… working with federal and state government to ensure that the resources and the assistance that’s available to the residents is there,” said County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez.
“I know that people are frustrated. When it affects you personally, the help is never fast enough,” said Supervisor Scott Silveira. “But I can tell you… we are constantly advocating at the higher levels of government for any and every bit of assistance not only that we need but that we deserve.”
“I don’t think people understand the advocacy we’re doing on this board. We’re reaching out to personal cell phone numbers in these departments in Washington D.C. and Sacramento asking for help,” said Supervisor Daron McDaniel.
California law does allow local governments to enact their own rent control and eviction policies and, according to Harris, nothing is preventing Merced County officials from doing so.
“The County has the power to address these problems,” Harris told Supervisors. “These are things the County can do.”