Golis: Still lots of talk about housing

Minimum-wage and rent-control proposals are symptoms of a society that waited too long to pay attention to the well-being of people who have less.|

If you’re paid $11 an hour, you earn about $1,900 a month (before taxes and withholding). Meanwhile, the average apartment rent in Sonoma County is about $1,600 a month.

You’ll be OK, it seems, so long as you don’t need to put food on the table or pay for clothing and medical care for your kids.

During this past week, the political talk hereabouts concerned proposals that approach the problem of income and housing costs from different directions.

The Board of Supervisors is being pressed to establish a $15 minimum wage for employees of companies that do business with the county. And the Santa Rosa City Council is being urged to enact rent controls.

These proposals emerge from the belated recognition that tens of thousands of people in Sonoma County are scrambling to find housing and pay the rent - and it won’t be long before their travails undermine the hometown economy.

Not long ago, minimum-wage laws and rent controls wouldn’t have been a serious topic of conversation. Business people, landlords and economists can talk all day about the unintended consequences of government meddling in a market economy.

The current issued of the Economist magazine calls minimum-wage proposals in the U.S. “a reckless wager.”

Still, it’s difficult to remain on the sidelines, and so minimum-wage and rent-control ordinances become the solutions of last resort. As never before, income inequality has become a fact of life in America, and the economic and political consequences reach far beyond the well-being of the working poor.

When University of California President Janet Napolitano announced on Wednesday that all UC workers would be paid at least $15 an hour, she seemed to capture the spirit of the moment when she said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

How does a country justify tax breaks for billionaires while rejecting the idea that an in-home care giver ought to be paid more than $11 an hour? You’ll have to ask congressional leaders content to embrace the most Darwinian of economic models.

Minimum-wage and rent-control proposals also are symptoms of a society that waited too long to pay attention to the well-being of people who have less.

None of this is unique to Sonoma County, of course. The Atlantic magazine reported that the high cost of housing is the biggest reason Silicon Valley schools can’t retain teachers. Think about this: The median price of homes sold in May in Cupertino and Mountain View was $1.8 million. These are not mansions. They are houses averaging 2,000 square-feet in area.

In neighboring Marin County, the local newspaper reported last week, the median price of a home sold in June was $1,050,000. A lack of inventory was blamed. No surprise there.

In Sonoma County, there’s been a abundance of talk about doing something about affordable housing, but local agencies don’t have much to show for it, save plans to do more talking.

In February, Gov. Jerry Brown told Press Democrat Editorial Director Paul Gullixson: “The problem is you don’t want housing up there.” It would be nice to prove the governor wrong, but we haven’t yet.

Rents have increased 30 percent in three years. The occupancy rate, 97.2 percent, is the functional equivalent of a no-vacancy sign. The median price of homes sold in June, $550,000, is approaching the all-time high, and it’s 72 percent higher than it was as recently as 2011.

Meantime, as a Press Democrat editorial reported in May, fewer new housing starts were recorded last year than at any time in the last 45 years.

If I had a vote - a terrible idea - I might be tempted to vote for a minimum wage and for rent controls, if only because it has been so long since anyone signaled to the working poor that their problems matter.

If people want to think these measures alone will solve the problem, however, they will be fooling themselves. The danger remains that these stop-gap measures will distract politicians and interest groups from their responsibility to craft long-term solutions.

Sooner than later, they will be required to get involved in the heavy lifting of advancing new housing projects - and of promoting the kinds of initiatives that produce more 21st century jobs.

After all, even if you are paid $15 an hour, the average rent in Sonoma County would still eat up more than 60 percent of your income.

Unfortunately, when it comes to adding to a depleted inventory of rental units, the path of least resistance may lead away from a comprehensive solution.

It’s no problem for environmental and neighborhood groups, for example, to join a progressive coalition that supports rent controls. But can these same organizations stand and support housing projects and rules that expedite the construction of new housing?

While the talking goes on, tens of thousands of the working poor are out there. Waiting.

In the push and shove of local politics, elected officials may find it difficult to come up with solutions. Discovering what Napolitano called “the right thing to do” is seldom easy.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.