Earlier this month, a man was found dead in the elevator shaft at the Montgomery BART station in downtown San Francisco. The victim, along with bedding, was discovered wedged between the elevator car and shaft. Authorities believe the man, who apparently was homeless, had been sleeping on top of the elevator car and was crushed during the morning commute.
Although this tragedy was particularly distressing, stories that highlight the many difficult challenges facing homeless and low-income people remain all too common. The housing and jobs crisis endures in America, especially in the Bay Area, despite the proclamations of economic recovery coming from the White House.
Rent in California, for example, remains excruciatingly high — second only to Hawaii. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's annual "Out of Reach" report, released last Monday, a person earning California's minimum wage of $8 must work approximately 130 hours a week in order to feasibly afford a two-bedroom rental. The coalition found similar results nationally. In no state could someone working a typical 40 hour work week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour spend less than 30 percent of his or her income renting a two-bedroom unit.
And in Oakland, the housing crunch is worsening. The average asking rent at Oakland buildings with at least fifty units increased significantly last year, according to RealFacts, a Novato-based company that compiles information about large, professionally managed complexes. Rents shot up 19 percent to $1,925 during the course of 2012. And although that figure takes an average of rents for units that vary in size, the pattern of increasing rents was true from studios on up to three-bedroom apartments.
Some news articles have attributed the higher rents in Oakland to an influx of residents who are fleeing the high cost of housing in San Francisco. However, the housing situation for low-income earners in Oakland has been dire for a long time. At the end of September of 2012, the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) opened its wait-list program to provide low-income residents with public housing and vouchers, something it only does once every few years. Within the first two days (of a week-long period) the OHA reportedly received more than 10,000 applications.
But applications only guarantee a place in the automated lottery system. The 8,000 households that were eventually selected in October could indeed expect housing — but only over the course of the next three years.
Earlier this month, Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, claimed, "I think if you look at today's report and some of the other indicators that have been coming [out] — unemployment insurance claims ... auto sales, we see a picture of an economy that's continuing to recover."
But while the Obama administration celebrates its successes, low wages and expensive housing continue to plague the state and the nation. Critics note that 130,000 people stopped looking for work last month, and thus ceased being counted in the Labor Department's number of unemployed. Perhaps more relevant to the argument that housing is increasingly out of reach for many Americans is the fact that much of the new employment created was second or third jobs for people already employed elsewhere. That strongly implies that wages are simply not high enough to pay for basic needs such as housing.
In addition, while the Obama administration has made the lofty goal of ending homelessness among war veterans by 2015, the money provided by the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program has dwindled or run out entirely in many communities. Finally, the sequestration debates in DC provide little hope that ameliorating homelessness is much more than an empty promise.
Considering the imminent federal funding cuts, it is difficult to believe that the White House will fulfill its vow to significantly impact the number of people living — and often working — on our nation's streets. Moreover, the American people deserve an honest assessment of the country's economic situation from our elected officials.
We also need to raise the minimum wage. UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor during the Clinton years, notes that if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would now be 10.56 an hour. Reich advocates raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9, or $18,720 a year for a 40 hour work week. To his credit, President Obama has also called for raising the minimum wage to $9.
Last week, the City of San Jose increased its minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 through Measure D. In so doing, it became one of only a small cohort of American cities, including Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Washington, DC, and San Francisco, to establish its own minimum wage.
But as someone who walks Oakland's streets daily, I have seen disappointingly little "recovery" here. I am doubtful that the speeches coming from the White House Rose Garden will have a meaningful effect on those asking for spare change in front of my Temescal doorway.