Women of color face highest rent burden in Bay Area

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 11 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

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,

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

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

“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

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

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.

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“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

“The problem is affordability,” Jones said. “It squeezes

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.”

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Women of color face highest rent burden in Bay Area