Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Making the rent is too hard for too many Californians

Isaiah Brumfield, 6, works on math at the Mustard Seed school for homeless children last October. CalWORKs grants don’t cover the rent in most of California.
Isaiah Brumfield, 6, works on math at the Mustard Seed school for homeless children last October. CalWORKs grants don’t cover the rent in most of California.

Across much of California, finding decent and affordable housing is difficult enough if you have a job, even for some otherwise comfortably in the middle class.

Now imagine how tough it would be if you’re on public assistance.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine because the California Budget & Policy Center compared what families receive from CalWORKs and what it costs to rent an apartment.

In most counties, the maximum grant for a family of three is less than the market rate for a one-bedroom. For instance, in Sacramento County, the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids check is $145 short of the rent.

In expensive coastal counties, the CalWORKs grant doesn’t come anywhere close to being enough. In San Francisco, the gap is a mind-boggling $1,110 a month.

And in those dozen or so counties where the assistance is enough to pay the rent, what’s remaining is barely enough for a week’s worth of groceries. In Merced County, for example, the family would have $69 left.

So unless families are getting sizable housing subsidies or other help, they’re not going to have much left for food, health care and other essentials.

The budget center found a similar story comparing Supplemental Security Income grants for 1.3 million poor seniors and disabled Californians with market rents for studio apartments. The rent is higher than the grant in 16 counties.

The center says that when housing costs more than half of household income – as it did for 1.6 million of California’s 4.1 million low-income renters in 2013 – the odds are much greater that a family ends up homeless. And that starts a terrible and costly cycle for them and society and is especially harmful to children.

The center, which advocates for the poor, points out that Gov. Jerry Brown isn’t proposing to increase funding for CalWORKs, which serves 1 million poor children. So the maximum grant will stay at $670 a month for a family of three in most counties, $704 in more expensive coastal counties.

There also isn’t much progress at the Capitol to build more affordable housing.

Last October, Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 35, which would have expanded the state’s low-income housing tax credit by $300 million a year. The more controversial AB 1335, which would have imposed a $75 fee on real estate documents to generate $300 million to $500 million annually, died in the Assembly on Feb. 1, even though it was championed by Speaker Toni Atkins.

Federal housing vouchers help as many as 300,000 Californians, more than all other federal and state programs combined. By giving families some choice of where to live, they are crucial to help them escape high-crime, poor neighborhoods. But federal budget cuts have reduced the number of families using them.

California may have a reputation for providing a generous safety net, but families struggling to make the rent won’t get much more help anytime soon. For one of the richest states in the world’s wealthiest nation, that’s a shame.

By the numbers

The maximum CalWORKs grant for a family of three compared to the market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in selected counties:

  • El Dorado: $670, $815
  • Fresno: $670, $690
  • Los Angeles: $704, $1,154
  • Merced: $670, $601
  • Placer: $670, $815
  • Sacramento: $670, $815
  • San Diego: $704, $1,153
  • San Francisco: $704, $1,814
  • San Joaquin: $670, $735
  • Yolo: $670, $870

Source: California Budget & Policy Center