High Rents and Unsustainability for Workers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock of late, you’re probably aware of the growing class issues in the Bay Area with respect to skyrocketing rents, growing tensions between the tech crowd and everyone else, growing costs of living, gentrification, and established communities being pushed out to make way for high-profit tenants. Renters in the city now pay an average of almost $3,000/month for a one bedroom apartment, which is far, far above a reasonable level for minimum wage earners. If you apply the equation that you’re supposed to spend 1/3 of your income or less on housing, residents are supposed to make $9,000/month or $108,000/year to afford to live in San Francisco.

That is rather higher than minimum wage, although it approaches starting salary at many startups. You can see who’s living in San Francisco. But what about all the workers who support them? Even a startup needs janitorial services. Those technies need to eat somewhere, or buy their food at a grocery store. The streets have to be swept, the garbage collected. Public transit workers have to drive buses and trains for those unfortunate techies who don’t have private bus services and don’t want to drive. Public works employees have to maintain the parks, while other workers have to handle the numerous facets of life and culture in a city.

Every time you jog along a well-maintained path, or hit the gym, get a massage, pop into a bookstore to grab something, you’re benefiting from the labour of people who make far, far less than you. While some professions (like transit) offer decent compensation with benefits thanks to unions, other workers are making minimum wage — or less — which is something to think about when getting shirty with a barista at Starbucks. Many of these workers cannot afford to live in San Francisco proper (without stacking roommates in cramped conditions and living in a constant state of housing precarity and stress). So they live further afield.

They used to live in Oakland (Berkeley was always too expensive thanks to the University). Now, Oakland is getting too expensive thanks to the push of the tech industry into the city and the hipster flood that’s consuming traditionally low-income neighbourhoods. Workers can’t push out into Walnut Creek because the bedroom community, while less costly, is still above their income range. Workers go up the East Bay, and down, but they’re increasingly facing a cost of living so high that they can’t realistically live within an hour, or even two, or their work on public transit — some people commute daily from as far as Santa Rosa because the City is where the jobs are, but they can’t afford to live there.

I was chatting with a nurse at the hospital the other day and she said she came down from Petaluma to work, because even with her good pay and benefits at the hospital, she couldn’t afford a home for herself and her family in an area close to the hospital. She battles traffic every morning and every night ¬†because she can’t find work in a local hospital, and she barely gets to see her family at all between leaving at the crack of dawn for her shift and coming back at night. On her days off, she’s so tired that she can barely get errands done, let alone interact with her family and feel like she’s a part of their lives.

This is the state of affairs faced by many workers in the Bay Area, trapped between not being able to afford to live, and struggling to eke out an existence. For those without extensive professional training, work that pays well is simply impossible to find, and that means fighting it out for every dollar. Even among those who have experience and skills, competition is extremely ferocious — while¬†the tech industry is ‘always hiring,’ ideal positions aren’t always available and those with other skillsets can have trouble finding work. (Biotech professionals, for example, may not be able to find positions because there’s a glut of extremely qualified workers in the region thanks to three feeder schools/research institutions: Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCSF.)

As anyone should be able to see, this is an untenable situation. Workers need to be able to reach the communities they work in easily, and ideally, they need to be a part of their communities. Not just because workers shouldn’t have to commute an hour or more to get to work, but because being part of a community, and being involved with a community, has a number of benefits that workers aren’t accessing now. They can’t establish connections and friendships, get to know the people they work for and with, get to know the neighbourhood, take an active role in policy and decisionmaking where they work — many workers, for example, live in different counties or districts and thus can’t vote when issues come up to the polls…but those issues directly affect their working conditions (as for example if a community votes on a living wage proposal).

The tech industry, of course, has no particular reason or incentive to create communities that welcome workers of all levels, not just rarefied programmers. But cities in the Bay Area need to be thinking about a functional way to control rents and to recognise that subsidised housing takes on a different meaning in a community with such high rents. People with incomes that wouldn’t qualify in other communities simply cannot afford to live in the Bay Area: Should they be punished for having work, family, and connections that make it hard to leave and seek work elsewhere?

Image: Furnished Apartment for Rent, Jen, Flickr.