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  • Writer's pictureCasey Murray

Housing Musical Chairs: Sacramento's Rental Crisis Disproportionately Impacts Black Residents

You can read the story, published in the Sacramento Observer, here.

To most, Coko Marie’s apartment complex looks fairly mundane. Litter dots the green spaces and things are a bit rundown.

To Marie, the apartment is nearly a miracle.

The single mother of four, with another child on the way, lives in an affordable housing complex in Sacramento. Just months ago, the family lived in a one-bedroom unit at a different complex.

“The house was really bad. They had a lot of rats outside and a lot of bugs around the house. I want to say the unit next to me had a lot of mold,” she said. “These are things that (the landlord) wasn’t really trying to treat.”

But the family stayed, for years, because local rents began to skyrocket.

The rising costs have disproportionately impacted Black families in Sacramento, who are more likely to be renters. Experts say that as housing takes up a greater share of a family’s budget, it exacerbates other equity concerns.

In just five years, from 2016 to 2021, the average rent in Sacramento County rose nearly $500, from $1,141 to $1,625, according to reports from the California Housing Partnership, a private nonprofit created by the state legislature in 1988 to provide policy guidance on housing.

Zooming out creates an even more drastic picture. In 2000, the partnership estimated the average rent per unit to be less than $800 – meaning rents more than doubled in 21 years.

Such rising costs have forced renters like Marie to make difficult calculations. Tenants who live in an apartment for more than a year are protected by laws that limit rent increases to no more than 10% annually. But if landlords aren’t holding up their end of the bargain or a family needs more space, the only option is to sacrifice relatively stable housing costs for a unit available at market-rate.

Carolina Reid, a faculty research adviser at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, said certain populations bear the brunt of the crisis.

“Lower-income households are the ones that are most affected by the housing crisis, especially renters, who have less control over their housing costs,” she said. “We know that there’s also certain people who are more likely to be renters. Younger households are more likely to be renters. People of color are more likely to be renters.”

County rates of homeownership vs. renting for White and Black residents has remained stable since 2015.

Forced To Stay

Marie had turned apartment searching into a full-on hustle until a friend essentially was able to give Marie her spot on the waiting list for the affordable housing unit she’s now in. If she hadn’t, Marie still would be waiting the estimated four years it takes to get off the waitlist.

“It was very depressing. Especially once I got pregnant and I had another baby on the way, I didn’t want to have an infant in those kinds of living conditions,” she said. “I even ventured out to cities outside of Sacramento looking, because I was desperate at this point just to find something that was safe for all of my kids.”

California’s housing shortage is well documented. Reid said the problem started decades ago and lies both with the shortage of housing units and with the stagnation of wages.

“California for many decades has under-built the amount of housing it needs to support its growing population, its workers and households at all different levels of income,” she said.

But she also said part of the problem is that housing assistance isn’t treated the same as other forms of assistance.

“It is a failure of public policy in that we’ve never treated housing as a basic need,” Reid said. “While some aspects, like access to food, are considered an entitlement program — meaning that anybody who is eligible qualifies for assistance — in the housing sector, only about one in four, one in five households who is eligible for housing assistance receives it.”

This is reflected in the years-long waitlists for affordable housing units or to receive a housing choice voucher, commonly referred to as Section Eight, where the tenant pays what they can afford and the government bridges the gap to reach the market equivalent.

So those in low-income households compete in the market, where available units can be snapped up in hours and meeting application criteria is difficult. Marie said if she hadn’t been able to get her affordable unit, she’d still be in her last one-bedroom, preparing to raise five children there.

“I definitely was looking,” she said. “But it was stuff I couldn’t afford a lot of times where they wouldn’t approve the income that I had at the time or my credit. So it was really difficult to actually get out of that situation.”

What Marie describes is what Reid called housing musical chairs. When the music stops, the families with the fewest resources will be those without a home.

“There’s 10 households competing for one unit, and the person who has the most resources is going to get that unit, and so people with less are really hurt by that,” she said.

Such competition allows landlords to develop more criteria, as Marie described, that benefit wealthier applicants. And landlords can afford to be picky about who they rent to. It’s common in Sacramento for landlords to require a certain credit score and that the tenant makes three times the rent.

“When a landlord has multiple applicants, they can sort of set these rules that make it extremely difficult for people to actually find a place to rent,” Reid said.

Pushed Out

“The last three homes that I’ve lived in, I’ve been displaced,” said Tanya Faison, founder of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Faison said she had to move once because the landlord told her he was moving back into the house, once because the landlord wanted to do significant renovations and now because the landlord wants to sell the house.

Every time she has to move, the cost of rent goes up.

“(Where I live) started off being $1,450 a month, then every year he’s raised it 10%, so as I’m leaving I’m paying $1,672 a month, and that’s expensive for me,” she said. “So now you go into a market where everything is like $2,000 and up if you’re getting a two-bedroom home with one bathroom. … Now I have no choice but to raise my rent $300 in order to keep a roof over my head.”

Each application for a rental property can cost as much as $50. Faison has to apply not only for herself, but also submit an application at each place for her mother, who is moving in with her. She said the applications alone cost her hundreds of dollars.

But she said there’s no other option if you find a place even close to your budget. You have to be first in line or someone else will get the property.

“I literally had to keep Zillow and Trulia [in browser windows] and I had to keep refreshing them every so many minutes, and that’s how I found the place that I’m moving into now,” she said. “I caught it six minutes after it was put online and it was done in the middle of the night. So I was able to apply for it immediately to be the first.”

Being forced to move and repeatedly face new financial strain eventually takes a toll, Faison said. “It just makes me super anxious. I don’t feel like I have anything secure,” she said. “You just know that at any moment it could just change.”

The Long-Term Impact

Reid said she has seen the compounding cost of the housing crisis in her research.

“Affordability just is so fundamental to household well-being, and the literature is particularly strong when it comes to children,” Reid said. “We know that kids who have more stable housing and where parents can afford that housing, that children do better in school. When there’s inequalities in housing, we see that play out in all sorts of dimensions of equity and inequality, from health to educational outcomes to employment opportunities.”

In this way, the housing crisis also can widen the wealth gap.

“It has long-term implications in terms of wealth building, and the ability to save enough, for example, to pay for a down payment to buy a home,“ Reid said. “And so those high rent costs really sort of have both short-term and long-term implications.”

As housing costs rise, higher-income people move to lower-income areas, leading to even higher costs there.

“If there’s not enough housing, it’s going to put pressure on the overall market,” Reid said, “which is going to lead to gentrification in certain neighborhoods, which is going to put pressure on lower-cost units and push more people out of those units.”

Faison recognizes this phenomenon all around her. She grew up in Oak Park, a historically Black neighborhood that many activists say has gentrified significantly over the last 10 to 20 years.
She said it used to be a haven for first-time home buyers and others in need of cheap housing. She has spent years trying to get back into the neighborhood, but it’s no longer affordable.

She fears what will happen if this trend continues. “It’s just too aggressive out here. And it’s almost like, it’s pushing us to death. We won’t be able to exist anywhere,” she said. “Eventually we’ll get pushed out of the city and then eventually that city will get gentrified and we’ll be pushed out of that city, and we won’t have a place to go unless it’s out of the state.”

Policy Recommendations – And A Bygone Sacramento

Decades of policy decisions have led the city and nation to this point. Reid said there’s no silver bullet to fix the issue, but governments could start by expanding eligibility for housing assistance.

“For people living in poverty, the only way that they’re going to be able to afford housing in California is through housing assistance,” Reid said. “The market isn’t going to supply housing that is going to be affordable to them, in part because of the high cost of construction. And in part, it also takes a long time to bring the housing supply online.”

Reid also recommends steps to counteract the effects of historical discrimination.

“I would address racial inequalities in access to credit and homeownership, and be very intentional about a reparations approach to recognizing that historical discrimination has created a very uneven playing field,” Reid said. “To close that is going to require intentional investments in, particularly, Black and Hispanic households.”

Currently the state, city and county are attempting to address the housing shortage, but activists like Faison say it’s way too little, and obviously, much too late.

The Sacramento she used to know is already gone.

“I know back in the day, there were so many different places that were always available. They were never full, and you could always find something if you were super broke,” she said. “That pretty much doesn’t exist.”

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