Efforts to launch a guaranteed basic income pilot program are underway in Fresno.

On Saturday morning, a group of 30 El Dorado community members came out to share their ideas about what a guaranteed basic income program should look like in Fresno.

The listening session was organized by members of the newly formed Center for Community Voices based at Fresno State University, who were joined by Heather Brown, chief administrative officer of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, and the El Dorado Park Community Development Corporation.

The local coalition said they are building a plan to develop a guaranteed income pilot program that will select 200 urban and rural families to receive $500 a month for 12 to 18 months.

But, first, the group said they wanted community input to take to potential funders of the pilot.

“Historically, the way that we confront problems is not by letting the community lead,” said Amber Crowell, professor of sociology at Fresno State and co-director of Center for Community Voices, the group that’s developing the guaranteed basic income pilot.

“Our goal is to bring residents into the conversation,” said Crowell.

Most of the attendees stressed that paying rent was their biggest concern.

A Guaranteed Basic Income pilot is coming to Fresno

Guaranteed basic income is an anti-poverty program where selected residents receive monthly, unrestricted cash payments to spend as they see fit.

“It won’t solve all the issues,” said Crowell. “But it will definitely help families get a little more stable.”

Crowell, Andy Levine, and Matthew Jendian are directors of the Center for Community Voices and Fresno State faculty. The priority for the group is to develop a guaranteed basic income program in Fresno in partnership with other community and philanthropic organizations such as Fresno EOC and the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.

Fresno’s coalition is drawing upon the reported success of the initial guaranteed income pilot led by former Mayor Michael Tubbs in Stockton. California has set aside $35 million to fund local guaranteed basic income pilots across the state. The pilot found that most people spent the money on basic necessities such as rent, food, and transportation.

Levine said that different welfare programs and social assistance programs have “way too many requirements to jump through and even limitations in terms of how to access it.” He said this is why the rental assistance dollars have been so hard to distribute. “People don’t know how to get to it and don’t know how to jump through all the hoops,” said Levine.

The group plans to apply for the state funding to support the pilot, which they estimate will cost between $1.8 to $2.4 million for the direct checks. They’re also looking for private funding from philanthropic sources.

“We’re not just kind of waiting around to see you know if we get this $2 million (from the state) to be able to do this particular project,” said Brown in a September editorial meeting with The Bee.

Brown also said that Fresno EOC is looking at other ways to insert guaranteed basic income into other programming. They’re including guaranteed basic income elements into their grant applications for ongoing programs, such as a Head Start program in Huron.

Residents concerned about rising rents across Fresno

During Saturday morning’s listening session, residents asked questions on how such a program would work, who would be prioritized, and if it would impact their current benefits. They also made suggestions to the group, such as considerations for the elderly and disabled.

Most residents that came out on Saturday said that the biggest issue on their minds was rent.

Fresno has seen one of the largest increases in rent prices over the past year. As of August 2020, the Fresno area’s year-over-year rise of more than 19% in median rent — the point at which half of the units cost more and half cost less — is the largest percentage increase among 16 California metro areas.

El Dorado neighborhood resident LaToya Rowe came out to the listening session because of “the idea that somebody cares about our community and wants to gather information to possibly make a change.”

The widow and mother said that she lost her customer service job during the pandemic. She said she’s concerned about when and how the local declaration of emergency will be lifted early next year, especially since she’s already started seeing her neighbors get evicted.

While she’s been able to access rental assistance, she said she’d had a hard time finding a job despite having applied to over 60-70 positions. She said she’s worried she will eventually get evicted, too.

“I’m not one of these people staying at home waiting for a check,” said Rowe. “I’ve worked all my life.”

For now, she’s working part-time as a volunteer receptionist at the Wesley United Methodist Church.

Levine said that almost everyone he surveyed on Saturday said that their priority was paying for rent. The residents also said that a $500 per month payment would cover either “most” or “all” of their gap between monthly income versus monthly expenses.

The Center for Community Voices plans to hold upcoming listening sessions in southwest Fresno, southeast Fresno, and a rural part of the county. They hope to launch the pilot project in early 2022.

Want to share your thoughts?

Fresnans that are interested to share their thoughts on a guaranteed basic income program can reach out to the Center for Community Voices team directly to provide ideas and feedback:

Amber Crowell

Andy Levine

Matthew Jendian

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.


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