Op-Ed: To Make Housing Affordable Raise Wages


Press Democrat

Friday, March 22, 2019

To Make Housing Affordable Raise Wages

By Martin J. Bennett

The rental-housing crisis in Sonoma County is close to catastrophe. Rents spiked by 50 percent from 2011 to 2016, then immediately soared by 35 percent after the October 2017 Tubbs fire—just before Governor Brown ordered a one-year 10 percent cap on rent increases (the Santa Rosa City Council renewed the cap last December). The recent historic Russian River flood forced hundreds of low-income renter families to evacuate, and will certainly intensify the rental crisis.

In 2019 the Press Democrat called Sonoma County “the seventh least affordable market in the United States for a three-bedroom apartment.” Low income families spend more than half their income on rent, with little left for other essentials such as health care, utilities, and food.

The State Department of Finance reports that over the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018, more than 2200 residents left the county. Many low-income renters relocated to more affordable housing markets in Solano, Sacramento, Yolo, and Eastern Contra Costa.

In the 2018 Sonoma County Homeless Census and Survey, more than 10,000 county residents self-identified as ‘unstably housed’—many live with family or friends or without a formal lease. Of the county’s 3000 homeless, 72 percent of 500 poll respondents identified “unaffordable rent” as the main reason for their lack of permanent housing.

Building new affordable housing is costly and takes years. Moreover, according to the California Housing Partnership, federal and state funding for affordable housing in Sonoma County has been slashed by $42 million every year since 2008—a reduction of 89 percent. The $6 billion in bonds for affordable housing and homeless services that California voters approved last fall will pay for just a fraction of the 14,600 new affordable rental housing units the county needs to meet current demand.

Simultaneous with climbing rents and reduced funding for affordable housing, wages and incomes have stagnated. A new report by Jobs with Justice, “The State of Working Sonoma,” demonstrates that inflation-adjusted wages remained flat for the bottom 60 percent of the county’s workforce for decades (1979-2016), but wages for the lowest 20 percent dropped by 11 percent. Furthermore, between 2000-2016 median rents jumped by 25 percent, while median renter annual incomes increased by only 9 percent.

Clearly, the fastest way to make rents affordable is to raise the wage floor, and particularly the minimum wage. The current state minimum wage is $12.00 an hour for large employers. In 2016, the state legislature approved raising the minimum wage incrementally to $15 an hour for all employers by 2023. However, 25 cities and one county in expensive coastal California have already approved $15 an hour minimum wage laws, which cover most workers employed at least two hours a week inside city’s boundaries.

Amongst these cities are San Francisco, Emeryville, and Berkeley that have mandated $15 an hour by 2018; eight cities in Santa Clara approved $15 by 2019; and four cities in San Mateo, the city and county of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Santa Monica approved $15 by 2020. Once the minimum reaches $15, each of these cities requires annual increases based upon the Consumer Price Index.

In the North Bay, the Alliance for A Just Recovery, a coalition that includes every major labor, environmental, and faith based organizations in the county, is proposing legislation to phase-in a $15 an hour citywide minimum wage by 2020 in the cities of Novato, Sebastopol, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Cotati.

Why? Because the rent won’t wait.

According to a UC Berkeley Labor Center report, the proposed minimum wage laws will affect 47,000 low-wage workers in these cities, and by 2020 the average annual incomes of affected workers will increase by $2900. The median age of workers receiving a pay increase is 33; on average, these workers contribute more than half of their family’s income.

Most of the increased earnings of affected low-wage workers will pay rents and buy basic necessities from local businesses. Thus the minimum wage hike will stimulate the regional economy, spur increased business activity, particularly for small business, and create new jobs in response to increased consumer demand.

To make housing affordable, slow the displacement of low and moderate-income families, and close the jobs-housing mismatch that plagues our community, ultimately, all North Bay jurisdictions should adopt a minimum wage higher than the state’s.

Martin Bennett is Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and Co-Chair, North Bay Jobs with Justice.

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