Housing Trouble: Supply, Demand, and the Wage Gap


When the trailer I’d been renting in a crime-infested park became too unsafe to stay in, I left Mendocino County, Calif., for a brief return to bucolic Sonoma County, where I grew up. My plan was a simple one: Rent a room and hit the ground running in a search for affordable housing, wherever it might be. Three months into this experiment, with my time in the room rapidly evaporating and nothing on the horizon, I decided to apply for the local low-income housing organization’s waiting list as a sort of Hail Mary bid for a long term place to stay. I knew it was pointless, but it still came as a shock when the reply came.

“Your income is below the minimum level to qualify.” Yes, that’s right. My income has been deemed too low. Not even to qualify for housing, mind you, but for a place on an unwieldy waiting list (my aunt has been on it for two years now with no word from on high about an apartment).

According to a Burbank Housing Management Corporation employee who oversees the complex I’d applied to, this is common practice. They require a verifiable income of two times the rent in the unit in order to qualify. It doesn’t matter that I’ve consistently paid rent on time and in full despite never in my life earning double what it cost. She went on to offer me a series of mixed messages about the likelihood of my finding a place, pointing out that I’ll be a senior citizen in eleven more years (yay?), implying that if I had a qualifying disability I’d get priority, then washing her hands of the question by simply saying, “To get in you just have to be persistent.” As if that really makes a difference.

This is not my first time on the Sonoma County housing-go-round. My father and I were homeless here from 2004 to 2005, finally washing up in the aforementioned trailer park. When we were desperate to find a place before, it never failed to shock me that a Korean War veteran and his de facto caregiver gained no traction whatsoever when trying to avoid what became our fate: Bouncing from campground to campground in Bodega Bay in a pair of matching $20 tents from Kmart, then occasionally sleeping on the floor at this sister’s house so he could shower and shave before VA doctor’s appointments.

Though it’s no comfort to hear it, at least I’m not imagining things. “We’re (doing) damage control right now,” Cynthia Meiswinkel tells me. The Senior Office Support Supervisor at the Sonoma County Housing Authority (SCHA) says demand for Section 8 vouchers is currently so high the waiting list stretches 4 to 6 years, after which tenants may face landlords reluctant to take them on. The vouchers carry some stigma, but they also ensure units will be inspected for basic health and safety concerns, and priority often goes to an unaffiliated tenant willing to look the other way where minor but needed repairs are concerned.

And of course the problem is hardly confined to the tony wine country of northern California. The National Low Income Housing Coalition makes this plain with a metric they’ve developed called the Housing Wage. That’s the hourly wage a full-time employee needs to be earning to afford a two-bedroom home. Of course, it’s got to be rented at HUD-estimated Fair Market rates, and the employee can’t spend more than 30% of their income on the rent. It should not surprise you to learn that the report containing this data is titled Out of Reach.

Here’s the crux of their report for this year: “In the United States, the 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.”

Hang on, it gets worse. Sonoma County currently has 3,000 people living outdoors, according to Georgia Berland, Executive Officer at the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless. The shelters are booked beyond capacity on a daily basis, with demand consistently trumping available supply. The Task Force is in the unenviable position of having financial aid and a small quantity of Section 8 vouchers available for homeless persons (veterans would get priority), but Berland informs me there’s “almost no actual housing available” on which to use them. This may change in California with the release of some funds from the State budget in 2015, but that’s quite literally cold comfort to anyone sleeping outdoors in increasingly extreme weather. I well remember lying in my tent and watching as it slowly took on rain one night, and dearly hope never to repeat that experience again, particularly given the vague travel itinerary of the Polar Vortex.

So what’s a middle-aged freelance writer to do? When I ask Meiswinkel what she recommends for someone in a situation like mine, she sighs. “That’s the question of the ... it’s coming up a lot.” The SCHA and Community Development Commission, lacking Section 8 vouchers at the ready, are referring people to Burbank Housing, they of the aforementioned 4 to 6 year wait. For those even closer to the edge, a handy flier will direct you to Catholic Charities, the Task Force on the Homeless, or other advocacy organizations. The pamphlet contains program information along with an entreaty Meiswinkel echoes: They want anyone affected by this crisis to “Contact the higher-ups (in office) and advocate with us,” lobbying for more funding, more access, more possibility. It’s surprising and disheartening that the only actionable advice I’ve received from anyone by way of an answer to my question is simply this: “Vote.” Not so easy with no permanent address.

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer currently couch-surfing in Santa Rosa. Want to Kickstarter a tiny house for her? Email hlsegg@hotmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2014


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