This past May, residents of the 64-unit Strawberry Hill complex in Vallejo came home to find a troubling notice on their doors. Beginning in June, their rent was going to nearly double. The new owners of the apartment complex, San Francisco-based The Reliant Group, had plans to renovate the building.
Tenants, panicked over losing their homes, and the Vallejo Housing Justice Coalition went to Mayor Bob Sampayan and the City Council, which passed an emergency ordinance July 16 to provide eviction protection, a rent rollback and a ban on rent increases above 10 percent a year.
The ordinance was meant to give the tenants and Reliant more time to negotiate upcoming changes and renovations. It also sent a powerful message to property owners about how cities can and should respond to the current housing crisis in the Bay Area, according to Melissa Jones, executive director of the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII).
“You can’t come in here and destabilize a hundred families at a time,” said Jones, whose group, a coalition of eleven public health departments in the Bay Area, studies new ways to advance health equity in the region.
The shifting housing market in Vallejo is one example among many showing how families in the Bay Area struggle to cover housing costs. The Bay Area as a region is not building fast enough to meet the growing need for affordable housing and even the existing stock of available units are becoming out of reach for families, she said.
Between 2000 and 2015, the percent of renters burdened by the cost of housing increased from 41 percent to 50 percent in the nine counties that make up the Bay Area, according to data collected by the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink, the San Francisco Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.
The indicator measuring the housing burden is based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition, which is a household that is spending more than 30 percent of its total income on housing needs such as rent, utilities or mortgage payments.
“Looking at this data, it shows that the housing affordability crisis is affecting everyone and affecting women of color the most,” said Sarah Treuhaft, managing director at PolicyLink and Equity Atlas project lead.
Some cities have felt this crisis more acutely than others. In Antioch, 62 percent of renters are burdened by housing costs while in Oakland, it’s 55 percent of renters. In San Francisco, 44 percent of renters are struggling. Treuhaft warns that this lower percentage also reflects the higher income of San Francisco residents and doesn’t necessarily mean that San Francisco is less afflicted by the housing crisis.
Overall among renters, black and Latinx women are among the most affected by this trend. In 2015, 66 percent of black women, 62 percent of Latinas and 60 percent of Native American women in the Bay Area were rent burdened. In contrast, white and Asian or Pacific Islander men were the least burdened with 40 and 39 percent of them in the nine counties living with rent burden, respectively.
The reasons for these inequities are clear to housing advocates like Jones who have been watching the demographic and economic shifts in the region.
“We as a region have failed to meet the demand of creating housing for almost every income level except the highest,” Jones said.
As housing costs in the Bay Area rise, wages have been slow to keep up and systems are not in place to deal with the structural imbalances. According to the Equity Atlas report on the housing burden, “there is a dire shortage of affordable homes and a lack of financing to build them.”
It’s a problem that affects nearly every sector, not just low-income communities. Trends in the data show that this burden is growing among middle-income families as well, a phenomenon that’s pronounced in the Bay Area. Even families and renters who have seemingly higher wages are still struggling to manage housing costs.
“You’re seeing it creep up the income spectrum,” Treuhaft said. “When you compare the Bay Area to California, you see a larger share of households that are middle income households are paying too much for rent than in the state as a whole.”
Among women of color, this trend is particularly striking and indicative of larger inequities. They are taking on more debt and face lower wages than their male and white counterparts, according to Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which researches and tries to address the systemic causes behind economic and racial inequity. Price and her team developed a “Family Needs Calculator” to examine the true cost of living in California.
The calculator breaks down costs based on how many people live in a home according to age. To use it, a person can plug in the county they live in, how many adults — along with infants, preschoolers, school-age kids and teenagers — live in the house and get a breakdown of how much they can expect to spend on everything from housing to health care to transportation.
It also calculates the hourly, monthly and annual wages a person needs in order to cover all the costs and still have some savings.
For example, a family in Alameda County made up of two adults, one infant and one teenager would need to bring in $42.46 an hour, per adult, in order to afford $2,322 in housing, $1,842 in child care, $504 in health care, among other costs.
Price says the current federal poverty line is based on outdated measures and is no longer a good indicator of who’s struggling and who isn’t.
“It was based on a household budget that just doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “We haven’t done enough to update that to reflect how people live.”
This can have a huge effect on how people view their own living situations. The outdated measures, she says, are based on the old idea of “self-sufficiency,” reaching a certain income level where a person doesn’t need any outside help to cover their expenses. For Price, the idea of “self-sufficiency” leaves out people who are just above the federal poverty line but are still struggling and need help.
“We want to talk about how people are just trying to do the very basic things like pay their rent and keep their lights on, keep their kids fed,” Price said. “Self-sufficiency doesn’t get us there.”
The old model of self-sufficiency also has the effect of stigmatizing those who needed help or are struggling to cover their living expenses. Price and her team made sure that their calculator included only the bare bones of living costs in California in order to best help people and families understand the reality of living in the state.
“When they see what it really costs to live in a place, then they start to understand what’s happening,” she said. “This is a way to help us understand how income isn’t really keeping up with housing costs.”
As housing costs rise and wages stagnate, families, especially those led by women of color, face harder choices when choosing where to live. Eventually, it starts to impact their health and that of their families, said BARHII’s Jones, whose work looks at the effects of housing on health. Jones often sees families tolerate dangerous living conditions like mold and lack of hot water. They often avoid calling the landlord due to fear of eviction. These families are also more likely to live in crowded homes that can lead to higher stress and anxiety levels.
Her research has shown that people who can afford their housing are able to spend a third more on food and five times more on managing chronic medical conditions than those who are burdened by housing costs.
“You can get your prescriptions. You’re not delaying your medical care. You can afford to pay for those things throughout the year,” she said.
The effects of this housing stress can ripple out to their kids. If a family is evicted or needs to move around often to find affordable housing, the mental health and academic achievements of their children suffer. According to BARHII’s 2018 report of housing stability and family health, these kids are have lower grades and are less likely to graduate. They are also at a higher risk for depression and behavioral and emotional problems.
“The problem is affordability,” Jones said. “It squeezes everybody.”
The solutions, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas report and Price’s work, have to be multi-pronged in order to really tackle the problems of housing affordability. Most importantly, increasing wages and building and maintaining affordable housing are key.
“We just can’t keep up with the cost of housing, childcare and other costs. What do we do with that mismatch?” Price said. “We can’t take our eyes off of this.”