Pop-up testing, insurance-free nurse hotlines, expanded rent relief, and financial help for residents and businesses are among Santa Ana’s beefed-up coronavirus response initiatives under a City Council-approved spending plan for $28.6 million in federal assistance the city recently scored.

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Santa Ana was among a coalition of cities that lobbied California for additional federal money the state received that wouldn’t first pass through the county.

That money will now roll into new and expanded programs set to launch over the next few months, with Santa Ana facing a tight deadline to spend the funds before the year’s end. The federal cash was passed on to the city from the state, on top of the $3 million it already received from Orange County.

Meanwhile, as part of a special Tuesday meeting vote, council members and staff also put $7 million of that new money on hold — despite federal restrictions on how the city can use it — to potentially backfill this fiscal year’s projected $18 million budget shortfall. 

Whether or not the city can do that is pending federal legislation. Current federal guidelines on the money’s uses do not allow it. 

The council also authorized City Manager Kristine Ridge to make adjustments to the spending as needed, if some programs are more popular than others. 

Below is the city’s full breakdown of its proposed spending plan for now: 

Residents, meanwhile, called for more of those dollars to go into rent relief programs and aid for residents facing eviction cases in court, on top of what the city has planned.

Nathaniel Greensides called the proposed $2.75 million additional allocation of the money to the city’s rental assistance fund “an injustice to residents.”

“Tenants were struggling before the pandemic, and will continue to struggle long after,” Greensides said, adding that more money for tenant relief would “not only ensure tenant stability now and for the longer term” but also for smaller, mom-and-pop landlords in Santa Ana and potentially relieve the pressure facing renters.

Ridge said not included in Tuesday’s breakdown of the federal money —  approved at the congressional level under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — was the $7 million the city has already put into the rental assistance fund this year. 

Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“We’re approaching $10 million (total) in programming for rental assistance,” she said during her presentation to the council, responding to Greensides’ comment.

The city also plans to pay 80% of some Santa Ana renters’ owed back-rent accumulated since April 1 in exchange for landlords forgiving the remaining 20% balance. Tenants were given protections this year under a municipal evictions ban and rent freeze.

In return for the overdue rent payments, city staff said, landlords would agree not to evict the resident for a period of six months from the date of the agreement. 

Staff have also set aside $250,000 of the federal money for childcare assistance.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento before the unanimous vote suggested staff also look into funding legal services for residents hit with eviction notices and facing ensuing court battles. 

He pointed to the city’s current legal defense fund for undocumented residents facing deportation as a “very good model” to emulate. 

When residents go into court to plead their eviction case alone, Sarmiento said, usually “they lose.” 

If the city were to manage to keep tenants in their homes, he added “we have people who will continue to do commerce here in our city” and keep neighborhoods stable.

Otherwise, he said, “we destabilize our neighborhoods and we destabilize our city.”

Sarmiento also voiced support for getting more aggressive with enforcing face coverings and masks to curb the transmission of the virus, adding not doing so can be “very dangerous thing in a city like ours.” Santa Ana’s zip codes have chalked up some of the highest case numbers in the county.  

“I think we do need to look at enforcement,” he said, adding perhaps funds from those measures, like tickets and fines, “get pumped right back into” the city’s coronavirus response spending.

His suggestion came amid complaints by residents on social media over “hipsters” roaming downtown without masking up.

Among the city’s efforts will be the deployment of outreach workers to highest-risk areas, as well as free pop-up testing without any need for an appointment, and a 24-hour trilingual nurse hotline for residents without any health insurance requirements. Councilman Phil Bacerra said outreach workers should consist of the part-time employees the city has laid off this year. 

Council members like Juan Villegas and David Penaloza also suggested staff find ways to route some of the federal assistance money to businesses for the costs of expanding their operations outdoors. 

Under the current plan, Santa Ana businesses and nonprofits would be eligible to recoup up to $10,000 each for expenses that include rent, utilities, payroll, marketing, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, inventory and technology for employees to work remotely.

Penaloza also warned staff against making internet service bills ineligible for the city’s planned utility payment assistance program for qualifying households — also funded with the federal money — which would receive up to $500 in assistance payments each.

With distance learning health measures in place for schools and students in Santa Ana depending on internet access now more than ever for class, Penaloza said “we gotta remember, there are thousands of kids who are now at home and … in 2020, if you don’t have internet you might as well not try to do anything.”

He said the same goes for residents who might need to make appointments or speak with their doctors online.

Mayor Miguel Pulido agreed with the suggestions made by his colleagues but added the city’s first priority should be getting the virus under control or else “we’re going to be here a year from now and nobody’s going to save us.”

He said the county should improve its data collection efforts to get more specific — beyond zip codes, to voting precincts — on where the virus case numbers are highest. 

Pulido and council members like Sarmiento criticized the county’s overall response to the pandemic, with Sarmiento calling the situation “a sinking ship” with “such poor leadership.”

Yet the real enemy here, Pulido later added, is the virus itself. 

“The future of the city really is at stake,” he said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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