San Francisco Chronicle
By Orson Aguilar
California and much of the country face a housing affordability crisis that’s having a particularly devastating effect on renters. Finally, we have a chance at real relief, thanks to legislation introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
In California, we’re most familiar with the affordability crisis in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but it affects many other areas of the state as well. Recently, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that on average a Californian needs to make $32.68 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. The state’s minimum wage is $11 an hour
But it’s not just a California issue. In more than one-third of states, you need to make more than $20 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. More than just a San Francisco problem, this is also a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., problem and a Denver problem and a Minneapolis problem.
And the housing crisis doesn’t just hurt families. In too many areas, businesses and nonprofits — including the one where I work — find it increasingly hard to recruit talented staff because the cost of housing has become prohibitive.
Excessive rent burdens all families, but it falls most heavily on Americans of color. The percentage of families who rent has gone up for all ethnic groups since the 2008 housing crash, but is highest for blacks and Latinos. Those groups were explicitly targeted by predatory lenders in the lead-up to the Great Recession, leading to enormous transfers of wealth out of black and Latino households and turning millions of people from homeowners into renters. America’s long history of redlining (where financial institutions refuse to lend in certain neighborhoods and to certain racial groups, and which continues today in new forms) has skewed homeownership toward whites.
Homeownership remains stubbornly out of reach for many. How can a family ever save for a down payment if half the household income goes to pay the rent each month? Skyrocketing rents effectively shut the door to ever owning your own home.
We need more housing that’s affordable for working families, and we are seeing more local responses designed to lower construction costs and invest in housing as basic economic infrastructure. That push must move forward aggressively. But even in the best-case scenario, those efforts will take years to make a dent in our affordability crisis. Renters urgently need relief now.
Sen. Harris, joined by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein along with Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, has introduced federal legislation that can provide fast, desperately needed relief for tenants being crushed by sky-high rents. The Rent Relief Act would create a refundable tax credit that would be available to individuals making less than $100,000 per year who live in rental housing and spend more than 30 percent of their gross income for the taxable year on their rent (including utilities).
Supported by elected officials up and down California as well as a wide variety of organizations working on behalf of low- and moderate-income families, the Rent Relief Act would give quick help to those who need it most.
It also represents simple fairness.
Last year, Congress and the president gave huge tax relief to America’s wealthiest corporations. And the federal tax system has long subsidized homeownership through the home mortgage interest deduction — 80 percent of which goes to households making $100,000 or more a year. It’s time the “little guy” got a similar break, and the Rent Relief Act takes a big step in that direction.
If you live in California, please tell Sens. Harris and Feinstein you support this important legislation. If you (or your friends or relatives) live in a state whose senators haven’t yet signed on in support, please urge them to do so right away. It’s simple: Just call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Providing real rent relief to working families isn’t hard; it just takes political will.
Orson Aguilar is president of the Greenlining Institute.