I remember it like it was yesterday. My kids were at a tennis clinic at one of the local clubs. They had played there for years; and while we never joined as members, the club was making a cool $650 a month from us in lessons, clinics, and other fees, spread out between my two, oldest kids.
Two, older gentlemen walked out of the clubhouse, and found a seat to watch their grandkids play in the clinic. I continued to sit there, reading my book while I waited for my girls; but immediately got distracted when one of them took a phone call, and afterwards said “well, that was one of my renters …his roommate moved out and he needs help finding a new one to cover all the costs. He’s been good to the place, so I’ll help him until then. He’s not like the others.”
“Oh, don’t get me started on renters. We just had to evict an old bitch after learning she had filed for bankruptcy,” the other man said to him.
“She keep paying?”
“Yeah but you know we don’t want those problems. You know renters. They’re all scum.”
As of 2019, just over 45% of Californians identified as either renters or homeless. This group – representing nearly half of all Californians in a state of nearly 40 million people – is seen by at least a fair number of the other half as “all scum.”
A renter myself, I’ve seen it – the so-called scum – over the years; the vast majority have been people like us – young, middle class families with not a large enough income, or interest (or, in our case: both) to buy. Others among the lower class: seniors on a fixed income, people that fell down on their luck or who never had luck to begin with. Naturally there are the occasional bad renters you hear about – that trash the apartment, leaving holes in the walls and meth in the carpets. But for every bad renter story I’ve heard or seen, I’ve come across probably ten times as many who were just average people, trying to get by.
To be honest, in my 20 years as a renter, I can actually only think of one renter I knew of that I would call “bad.” On the contrary, it’s usually the landlords that are the bad ones.
A friend of mine, whose name would be best not to share for fear of retaliation to her, has run the gamut of horrific renter stories over the years. This isn’t to say she, as a landlord, had terrible renters; it’s in her own experiences renting from others that have been the stuff of nightmares. As recently as last Thanksgiving, she told me about her landlord refusing to allow her to use the kitchen in the home in which she rents a room. Today, she tells me it’s been months since she’s been allowed to use the kitchen. Her landlord routinely bullies her, makes fun of her with other family members to her face; and on at least one occasion has had the rent arbitrarily raised mid-term, in spite of an existing and legally enforceable verbal contract.
In my own recent experience as a renter, we’ve had our own fair share of being treated like “renter scum.” Most often, it’s been at the hands of predatory property management companies – like the one we just left; or by slumlord owners that believe they have no obligation to provide a livable environment. Between the last two homes we have lived in (the one we just left, and the one we live in now) we have had untreated rats in the attic, an oven that did not work for a whopping 3&1/2 months, sewage spraying out of the toilet and into my 5 year old’s mouth, faulty electrical wiring leaving us with less than 50% of working electricity in the house for more than a week, and a psychotic neighbor banging on our door in the middle of the day, screaming that my children need to stop playing in their own home.
Of course some will say this comes with the territory of renting, whereas I always thought of renting as being us paying more for the luxury of not having to deal with maintenance and the like. I suppose I was wrong, just as I was incorrect of the old-time idea that you could rent a home and if you treated it well, took care of it as if it was your own, the landlord would let you stay indefinitely – something I learned this year when our lease was terminated so the owner could sell the home while the housing market remained hot. And even under this care and love we treated the home with, we were still treated and considered no better than this colloquially false narrative that all renters are scum.
As you do with so-called scum, the landlord gave us the boot this January, rejecting requests for us to stay through the school year for our kids to remain in the school district; then effectively stole our entire security deposit along nefarious accusations and claims really meant to grift and profit as much as they could from us until the bitter end.
It became clear to me that we were not getting our deposit back when they accused us of stealing our own refrigerator (they had forgotten that the home rented did not come with one). As if this were not enough, we were then expected to repair minor cosmetic issues that fell under standard “wear and tear” clauses of California tenant protection laws. Minor scuffs to the floor boards, and regrouting due to the discoloration that comes with a home over 30 years old, was referred to as “abuse.” They charged us twice for cleaning the same areas. Then, they expected us to pay for major renovations to issues that pre-existed our tenancy, to make the home sellable for a higher price.
The most egregious issue – as if accusing us of stealing our own refrigerator was not bad enough – was the laundry closet. The closet, which was situated between the door from the garage to the home and the half bathroom, needed major renovations to make the house ready to sell. This had nothing to do with us; as I said, it was an issue that pre-existed our tenancy, and which we lived with for all those years. The washer and dryer that the landlord had put in prior to us moving in – back in 2016 – were just too large for the closet. Quickly this was discovered when the gas line broke because of this miscalculation in size, and toxic gas and exhaust leaked into the house – threatening to kill my family of 6 (myself, my husband, my elderly father, and our three children). The immediate response at the time by the landlord was to repair the exhaust pipes and gas line, and to then remove the doors from the closet. We put up a nice curtain, and lived with this situation for more than 5 years, only for the landlord to then expect us to pay to completely re-design the laundry room and plumbing so the doors could be put back on for the sale of the home after we left.
And what recourse did we have to any of this in the end? Hire an attorney with all that savings we were forced to spend to move? Take them to small claims court, full knowing that the landlord was a retired attorney himself? As most renters do, we cut our losses and figured there’s little we can do.
This class war in California between renters and owners has developed into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. It is like the Battle for Helm’s deep in Lord of the Rings: on one side are the unrelenting and opportunistic orcs (slumlords); on the other, everything that comprises Middle Earth (renters – the middle and working classes) just living their lives, many there for different reasons, being attacked. The pejorative attitude that anyone not in the position of owning a home is scum is so pervasive to our culture and our leadership, that it’s made its way into public policy, profoundly impacting markets, cost of living, quality of life, and a host of other issues – including homelessness. This is to say that, as I see it, homelessness is not as simple as someone being sick or an addict, rather the unhoused are a nuanced group of people that have little to no control over their living situation, even in the best of circumstances.
The Truly Unhoused
Unhoused is a term now frequently used to describe people that are experiencing homelessness in an effort to be more sensitive to a group of people that find themselves on the streets, in encampments, in shelters, or in their minivans. And yet, it is worth considering, that anyone not owning a home in California (or anywhere, for that matter) is – at least technically – unhoused, or on the verge of being so.
One of those was in the case of a local journalist – local to my community – who, only after he moved across the country, made public the fact that the cost of living, coupled with the stagnant wages and grim conditions of local journalism, led him to choose to live in his Ford Econoline 250 for two years. In this poignant and brutally honest piece, he says: “I’m one of the thousands of people who have responded to the challenge of living in 21st century America by choosing to become houseless;” and this is where the nuance of dealing with homelessness, and the class war between owners and landlords, must recognize that the issue is not solely one of mental illness or addiction, or of all renters being scum.
And in fact, one study out of Los Angeles – the epicenter of California’s homelessness crisis – found that roughly 30% of people living on the streets were suffering from serious mental illness or addiction. And while this figure is striking, and creates a call to action for leaders across the state that is quickly looking to become this year’s hot button election issue, it largely perpetuates a co-narrative to “renters are all scum,” that being that “homeless are all mentally ill.”
But what about that 70%?
Made up of people like the journalist mentioned above, Ian Bradley; hundreds of thousands of seniors couch-surfing while waiting on years-long Section 8 waiting lists, people that simply fell down on their luck over the years, and so on…the list of nuance that makes up that 70% is long. And yet when we see people living out of a tent, or a trailer, we immediately peg them as sick, when the truth is: it is our social structure, dirty politics, and unchecked capitalism, that is the problem.
Of course everyone knows that California’s cost of living is exponentially higher than most other areas of the country, but – again – the nuance of it is what largely goes unseen.
This is because what makes the cost of living so difficult in the state is that (1) wages have not kept up with increases in cost of living, causing more Californians to fall into poverty now than at any other point in California’s history, (2) supply and demand of housing have been bottlenecked by special interests and paid-off local elected officials, and (3) opportunistic slumlords have been allowed to abuse tenants for far too long, making it virtually impossible for tenants to ever better themselves, always finding themselves stuck in the cycle of moving expenses and lost security deposits.
Cal Matters reported last year that roughly 7.1 million Californians are now living in poverty as a direct result of the cost of living. This is a staggering 18% of the state’s population, and it has certainly only worsened through the course of the ongoing pandemic. To make matters worse, 56% of Californians spend more than half their paychecks on rent, alone; with the average housing price in the state coming in at 7 times what the average resident of the state earns.
Simply put, the cost of living has far outpaced in growth the average incomes in California. The state has the highest level of poverty in the nation, and the second-highest level of homelessness; both of these figures, though, are attenuated to wages as compared to cost of living. This is to say that while incomes are generally higher in California, because living costs disproportionately more, poverty is a condition presented to a far larger group of people simply because everything costs so much.
Pre-pandemic, roughly one-third of Californians lived at or below the poverty line. Today, more than one-third of Californians make $15 an hour or less – a wage that may seem high to people in other parts of the country, though is abysmal when considering that our cost of living is between 4 and 12% higher than any other state in the nation. In my own county, ranked as one of the least affordable rental markets in California, renting a two bedroom apartment comes in averaging $38/hour, meaning that a minimum of 2.8 jobs is required to just meet that need. The city from which I just moved? The average job makes minimum wage, while the average home price now tops $800,000.
Wages of course haven’t done anything to impact the housing market. The rising cost of living is no problem for people that have the security of a fixed mortgage, or an investment that pays for itself. With 55% of Californians owning at least one home, the rest are owned by private investors, property management companies, and big corporations looking to make money off the misfortunes of others. Home owners and investors, alike, have only made the problem worse by playing games flipping homes for profit, while at the same time influencing public policy to shackle developments from driving down rents by creating a more competitive market for renters.
Just over half the state making life increasingly more difficult for the other half.
And again, the pandemic only accentuated this problem, with the working class suffering catastrophic wage losses, household wage earners dying from COVID, and upper-middle and upper class workers fanning out away from urban areas, gobbling up properties with their newfound ability to work remotely. And yet policy has not effectively caught up with this apocalyptic crisis at the speed with which it needs to fix the problem.
California’s Housing Apocalypse
As many have astutely pointed out: California is not in a housing crisis, we are in a housing apocalypse. The issue is not as simple as one issue, it is many. While many reporters have argued against conflating them all, I argue that conflation of them is critical to understand how they beget each other, and how it has reached apocalyptic proportions. More than 150,000 unhoused individuals living in tents on sidewalks is in large part due to the general unavailability of adequate housing per capita. Similarly, the cyclical de-evolution of millions of Californians falling into dire straights and eventual poverty is a result of the unmediated cost of living, stagnant wage policy, and a predatory property management and real estate market.
My friend Jordon, over at the 805UncensoredPodcast – a renter himself – is more optimistic than I am on solutions to this catastrophe, which he acknowledges average voters probably are not very well versed on. Among his most promising ideas to at least partially solve the crisis is that California, or its municipalities, universally adopt a UBI, or Universal Basic Income. Some cities in the state have already started pilot programs like this, and it’s worth considering that the Child Tax Credit in 2021 was something of a UBI – all of which irrefutably proved successful in lifting people out of poverty to give them the means to then address their own, personal housing challenges. And yet, special interests and petty politics has all-but destroyed the promises those 2021 programs offered.
Another solution Jordon and I discussed recently was the YIMBY-California group’s advocacy towards a massive influx of new housing being the solution to the crisis. Another couple friends, Max, Jackson, and Rebecca, over at my local branch of YIMBY have been staunch advocates of massive housing builds around our county, and in fact the group endorsed my candidacy for city council. So I was already familiar with their mission when our own tenancy was terminated, at which time I learned first hand just to what extent housing is urgently needed, and yet at the same time criminally being bottlenecked by local politicians and homeowners.
Around the time we started looking, California State Senator Scott Wiener posted a graphic to Twitter citing Ventura County (the county in which I live) as the second worst county in California for seeking a rental, with 1 unit listed for every 1,358 families. Within days of looking, the aspect of competition became evident, as did the fact that many landlords were taking things into their own hands – legal, or not; including encouraging deposit bidding wars and outright discrimination. For some properties, we found ourselves competing against 40 or 50 other families, and people offering 6 times the legal limit in a security deposit. On this, we could not compete.
Of course my friends over at YIMBY, like Jordon at 805UncensoredPodcast, are far more optimistic than I am on legislative and policy decisions solving the housing unit availability issue.
For my own part, I again boil this down to election reform, including in the area of campaign finance. In my own election, when I broke down my opponent’s largest donors, they were largely made up of property managers, realtors, and landlords. These are the people that are driving public policy at the most local level, which impacts our lives in the immediate term. Of course those entities are going to want local politicians to bottleneck and slow walk developments – it keeps them in the position to subjugate the renter class, and profit off the misfortunes of the 45%. Even when the state steps in with legislation like 2021’s SB8 and 9, unchecked and corrupt local politicians are still able to shackle those statewide policies with local moratoriums – something that happened in the city from which I just moved, and which directly contributed to the personal housing crisis my family is in today.
Whatever the solution, or solutions, ultimately may be in the end, it is a matter of fact that the problem is to the extent of apocalyptic proportions. And what do we know about an apocalypse more than the fact that it is the utter end, the total destruction, the denouement of society as we know it? Some argue that American society is falling apart because of partisanship, terrorism, the pandemic… I believe it’s actually in California’s Housing Apocalypse that the end is nigh. The unhoused in California is a broad group of many people, in many situations and living under many different types of roofs; and the situation for them is unsustainable. When it crumbles, the ripple around the country will be unavoidable.