Erika D. Smith

Can’t afford an apartment in California? The rest of America isn’t much better

A house on M Street south of Yosemite Avenue in Merced is for rent on Nov. 9, 2017. Almost half of Merced County's renters were "cost-burdened," spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent, according to a report from Apartment List. Nearly a quarter spent half of their income on rent.
A house on M Street south of Yosemite Avenue in Merced is for rent on Nov. 9, 2017. Almost half of Merced County's renters were "cost-burdened," spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent, according to a report from Apartment List. Nearly a quarter spent half of their income on rent. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Just about everyone in California knows the housing crisis is bad. Otherwise we wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of a rent control ballot measure this November that could very easily blow up in our faces.

But a pair of studies released this month make clear just how bad things are — both here and across the country.

This upshot? There is nowhere in the United States where someone working a minimum wage job full time can afford to rent a “decent” — read, up to code and not infested with mold and vermin — two-bedroom apartment.

You read that right. Nowhere.

Not Arkansas. Not Montana. Not Ohio. Not West Virginia. Not Idaho.

Certainly not California, where you have to make an average of $32.68 an hour. Not Sacramento County, where you’d have to earn $27 an hour to meet the median rent of $1,400 for a two-bedroom apartment. And, as everyone knows, not San Francisco, where a renter would have to work a minimum wage job for 171.5 hours per week just to afford a market rate apartment.

This is all according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which compiles a study every year based on the standard budgeting concept of not spending more than 30 percent of one's income on housing.

A second data set from the latest UCLA Anderson Forecast found — and this should be obvious — that the higher the housing costs, the higher the rate of homelessness in a state. Topping the list were California; Hawaii; Oregon; Washington, D.C.; and New York.

What might be less obvious is that the findings also showed that most homeless people aren’t living on the streets because they’re mentally ill or addicted to drugs. They’re homeless because they can’t afford rent.

Together, these studies prove a couple of things.

First, we Californians like to think of the housing crisis as our thing. And indeed, it is worse here than most places. But in reality, this is a U.S. thing. Unless you’re about to move to another country, you can’t escape it — and maybe not even then.

And second, with the economy booming and wages remaining stagnant, construction moving at a snail’s pace for all but the most expensive housing units and more Americans renting than they have been in the past 50 years, this situation is only likely to get worse.

This is all the more reason to pay close attention to what’s happening at the Capitol, as lawmakers, their backs against the wall, finally start passing some serious legislation to address housing and homelessness. But it’s also a reason to pay attention to what’s happening with the Trump administration in the nation’s capital.

Housing isn’t a partisan issue — everyone needs an affordable roof over their heads to avoid being a drag on the social safety net — and yet, the same Republicans who love to talk about wanting Americans to be self-sufficient are going out of their way to make life harder for poor and middle-class people everywhere to do just that.

For example, Ben Carson, the utterly unqualified director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, wants to impose work requirements on people who live in public housing — plus increase how much tenants must pay for rent from 30 percent of their income to 35 percent.

He calls it his Make Affordable Housing Work Act. Catchy, right?

About 2 million federally subsidized households across the country would immediately see their rents go up by about 20 percent, according to the admittedly left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The plan does need congressional approval, but this is Congress we’re talking about.

In Sacramento, where home prices hit a 12-year high last month and where rental prices have climbed faster than most cities across the country thanks to the influx of Bay Area refugees, this could be disastrous. The city is counting on some of those subsidies to help get many of the homeless people who are being navigated to triage shelters into permanent housing.

Then there’s the Republican tax law. The Urban Institute found that it actually discourages home ownership by eliminating incentives for middle-class families to stop renting and buy. In the long term, that could further drive up demand and drive down the already scarce supply of rental housing, adding to everyone’s woes in every state.

When the average American renter makes $16.88 an hour and has to make $17.90 an hour to rent a decent one-bedroom apartment and $22.10 an hour for a two-bedroom place, that’s not just a crisis. It’s a catastrophe that must be addressed.

We understand this all too well. Once again, the old adage is true. As California goes, so goes the country.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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