Close to Home: To make housing affordable, raise wages

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

The state Department of Finance reported that over the 12-month period ending last July 1, more than 2,200 residents left the county. Many low-income renters relocated to more affordable housing markets in Solano, Sacramento, Yolo and eastern Contra Costa counties.

In the 2018 Sonoma County Homeless Census and Survey, more than 10,000 residents self-identified as “unstably housed”- many live with family or friends or without a formal lease. Seventy-two 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 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), and wages for the lowest 20 percent dropped by 11 percent. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2016, median rents jumped by 25 percent, while the median annual income for renters increased 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 an hour for large employers. In 2016, the 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 already approved $15-an-hour minimum wage laws, which cover most workers employed at least two hours a week inside city's boundaries.

San Francisco, Emeryville and Berkeley mandated $15 an hour by 2018; eight cities in Santa Clara County approved $15 by this year; and four cities in San Mateo County, 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 minimum wage by 2020 in 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 would affect 47,000 low-wage workers in these cities, and by 2020 the average annual incomes of affected workers would increase by $2,900. 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 would pay rents and buy basic necessities from local businesses. Thus the minimum wage hike would 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 minimum wages higher than the state's.

Martin J. Bennett is co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

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