By Mary Flynn
California residents pay dearly to live in the Golden state. Nearly half of California residents experienced a “high housing cost burden” in 2012, which means that the cost of their housing — including mortgage, home insurance, utilities and property taxes for homeowners and rent and utilities for renters — consumed more than 30 percent of their income.
About 48 percent of Californians see more than 30 percent of their income go to housing costs, compared to the national average of 37 percent.
High-cost housing is expected in urban areas like San Francisco, where swoon-worthy rents are the norm, but high rents are also a significant problem in rural areas of the state, where low wages are prevalent and affordable housing is scarce.
In rural Madera County, where Maria Rocha lives, nearly half the residents (48 percent) face a high housing cost burden. Rocha lives in Chowchilla, a small community with a population of less than 18,000 that is home to a significant proportion of Latinos.
Rocha said the main industries available to her are low paying jobs like working in the fields, packaging produce for shipment in packing houses or working at a fast food restaurant.
Rocha shares her home with nine other family members, including her husband, children and grandchildren. This is the case with many Latino families, according to Melissa Valdez, a senior loan processor for Self-Help Enterprises, a non-profit housing development organization.
“We see it a lot in the Hispanic community that we serve – we do see that a lot of larger families live in smaller houses,” Valdez said. She pointed out that while it’s part of Mexican culture to live with extended family, it’s also “the only way that they would be able to afford it.”
The burden of so much family income going towards housing can have negative consequences for overall health, recent research finds. Studies have indicated that families living in crowded residential conditions are linked to certain infectious diseases, they tend to have poorer educational outcomes, and they report more psychological distress.
Anna Garcia can attest to these difficulties. She and her two children shared a room in her grandmother’s home in Castroville, the rural town where she grew up. Garcia said she was only making a little over $1,000 a month working as a cashier at the grocery store and attending school part-time.
Garcia knew she couldn’t afford to live on her own with her children. On the occasions she would look for a place, she couldn’t find any two-bedrooms for rent for less than $850 a month.
But living in the old house also took its toll. She suffered from allergies, and said for a time the house was plagued with mildew and black mold. She attributes the stress of working part-time and attending a school all while being a single parent to other health problems as well.
“I had a lot on my plate, with that I couldn’t focus on one thing, I had to divide my time and didn’t know where the priorities were, and I started to get depressed,” she said.
Garcia said she was diagnosed with hypertension at age 27 and depression at age 32.
Sharing a room with her children was hard on the family. Her daughter, 8, and son, 3, would fight often, and the home’s location near a busy street made it nearly impossible for them to go play outside.
“We were just boxed in and we didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
A 2008 review of longitudinal research indicates that there is a link between the quality of physical housing and improved physical health.
Paying more for housing means having less money available for basic items like clothing and transportation and necessities like food and health care.
Having high quality and affordable homes allows families to allocate more of their income to nutritious foods, health care, and other items that promote good health. An affordable home decreases the stress and disruptions associated with frequent or unwanted moves (thereby increasing residential stability).
And if quality and affordable homes are available in safe neighborhoods, it can generate important psychological and mental health benefits by decreasing a family’s exposure to violent and traumatic events.
Low-income parents who live with a high housing cost burden are also more likely to report their children in ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ health than those families in a more affordable housing situation.
Additionally, unstable or unaffordable housing can diminish a child’s educational outcomes by increasing the chance that he or she will have to move, which means a change of schools and a disruption of their instruction.
Unfortunately, more people are living in substandard housing in rural areas than in urban areas, according to Rob Weiner, the Executive Director of California Coalition for Rural Housing.
“There’s a scarcity of decent affordable housing,” he said. “Most rural communities are very poor communities; specifically, housing stock is just insufficient, period.”
Weiner said the reason for this lack of affordable housing is two-fold: the cost of housing is high and the wages people are earning are very low.
Land itself is expensive in California, he said, and then add to that the cost of construction, labor, materials, financing, and lots of local government fees, “so just to produce housing in California costs more than in many other states,” Weiner said.
While there are state programs to build affordable housing, Weiner said the programs incentivize housing providers to build closer to amenities such as grocery stores and transit stations, “but that means you’re building on expensive land,” he said. “All these things conspire to create housing prices that are really high in California.”
As a result, the supply of affordable housing is unable to keep up with the demand.
Weiner pointed to current legislation, the California Homes and Jobs Act, SB391, as a possible solution. The bill proposes to create a funding source for affordable housing by imposing a document-recording fee on real estate documents. For example, when someone refinances a home, they would pay a $75 fee on that paperwork.
Supporters say the bill would generate approximately $525 million annually for affordable housing. Detractors say the tax will be detrimental to current property owners at a time when the housing market is beginning to right itself.
“Once you stabilize a family in decent affordable housing…it’s amazing how families can progress,” he said. “People’s lives are improved once you take care of their most basic needs and the needs that cost them the most money, which is shelter.”
Anna Garcia believes this whole-heartedly. After six years on a waiting list, she and her children were able to move into an affordable housing unit. She said the move has had a tremendous impact on her and her family: including a new job for her and a place to play outside for her kids. The whole family is enjoying their new space.
“Physically, mentally, I am completely different,” she said.