County struggles to help homeowners in crisis

February 2, 2009 6:39:25 PM PST
The recession is hitting especially hard in eastern Contra Costa County -- ground zero for the Bay Area mortgage meltdown. As more people lose their homes to foreclosure, they're turning to the county for help. However, it's a county that clearly can't keep up with the demand.

In Contra Costa County, the safety net for residents in crisis is itself unraveling, especially in cities like Pittsburg and Antioch where tens of thousands of families have lost their homes to foreclosure.

"Because of what is going on within the economy here in Contra Costa County, we're going to see a number of services that fall by the wayside," said Federal Glover, a Contra Costa County supervisor.

In a normal month in Contra Costa, 16,000 families apply for some type of public assistance, including Medi-Cal, food stamps and the like.

"In the month of January alone, our applications jumped 60 percent over what they had been in previous months, and a lot of the people now coming into our offices to apply for food or medical assistance, are people who have never been to a social service office before," said Joe Valentine, executive director of Employment & Human Services.

The demand comes as the county's making dramatic budget cuts due to shrinking property tax revenues and dwindling income from the state.

In December, supervisors approved $18 million in cuts, eliminating more than 100 jobs, mostly in social services.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in applications," said Joseph Villarreal with the Contra Costa County Housing Authority.

Requests for Section 8 vouchers -- a federal subsidy that allows low-income families to rent in the private market -- have skyrocketed.

"We had 40,000 families apply, not individuals, families. And right now we only have 350 available slots," said Villareal.

Those who can't get Section 8 vouchers in east Contra Costa County also won't get into public housing. The units that exist are full and many are falling apart.

In short, as more families lose their homes in east Contra Costa, increasingly there will be no place for them to go.

"Many of these families will be homeless. They'll have to bounce among relatives or friends if anything's available," said Villareal.

Contra Costa supervisors must cut another $56 million from their budget in the next 15 months.