California’s Housing Crisis Is So Bad, People Are Turning To Rent Strikes And Squatting

img_7246

Perez with some of his fellow rent strikers and ACCE staff including Israel Lepiz (pictured back, left) and ACCE Oakland director Carroll Fife (pictured front, right).

Francisco Perez is an unlikely activist. The retired roofer and his wife, Graciella, have rented their one-bedroom apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood for the past 20 years.

Perez lives a quiet life and enjoys spending time with family and friends now that he doesn’t work. But for the last four months, he and fellow residents at his 29th Avenue apartment complex have been on a rent strike to protest poor housing conditions and to urge their landlord to sell them the building.

It’s a move that has attracted extensive media coverage and now appears to have delivered a coup for the tenants following the Feb. 27 news that their landlord had agreed to let them purchase the building through a local community land trust, a nonprofit which acquires land for the permanent benefit of low-income communities.

The Fruitvale rent strike is the latest example of how renters, often with the support of grassroots organizations, are taking radical steps to preserve or secure housing in cities where gentrification and spiraling rents are forcing them out of their homes.

It followed the Moms 4 Housing direct action, where three homeless mothers and their children started squatting in a vacant West Oakland house last November to draw attention to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Their eviction in January by sheriff deputies who battered down the door led to widespread controversy which culminated in an agreement in January by the owner to enter negotiations for the sale of the property to Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), the same organization that hopes to acquire the Fruitvale complex. 

Rent strikes, squatting and public rallies are the new face of the affordable housing crisis in California. And it’s no surprise.

In Oakland, the median house sale price is $765,350 and median rent is $3,000 a month. Latest figures show that there are almost four vacant homes for every one homeless person in Oakland.

Across California, house prices continue to rise. They are up 2.5% over the past year, according to the website Zillow, which predicts they will increase by 4.2% within the next year. Latest government research shows the state has a homeless population of about 151,000, up 16% in the last year. Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data shows at least 1.1 million vacant homes in California.

img_7298

Perez hopes to draw attention to the poor conditions at his apartment complex

Located on a leafy East Oakland street, the 29th Avenue complex is a riot of colorful balconies lined with plants, bird feeders and cheery decor. Perez is one of seven tenants in the 14-unit complex who have withheld their rent since November 2019.

It’s a last resort, he said, spurred by what he claims is inaction by the previous and current landlords to fix dilapidated kitchen cabinets, leaky plumbing, mold and missing roof tiles.

It’s also a protest against rent hikes. Within the last three years, Perez has seen his rent double to $1,500. He’s worried that any further increase would mean having to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table.

“I’m retired and I’m not working,” he said. “In the next one or two years, I won’t be able to afford the rent. What am I going to do? I have no other place to go.”

Having never been involved in a strike or action before, Perez is a little uncomfortable to be in the headlines and in front of TV cameras. But he was a natural leader when we met in his living room with fellow tenants and he describes the poor conditions that have led the group to the rent strike.

“We never planned to get this much attention, ever,” he said. “But now that we’ve got it, if we can spread the word, we can send a message to all the people who are struggling in this kind of situation. This is a problem all over the state, maybe all over the U.S. There’s something wrong.”

To help get their message across, the rookie rent strikers partnered with the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a grassroots organization that helps its 15,000 members work collectively to bring about change in areas such as housing and employment.

Using tried and tested community organizing methods such as door knocking and neighborhood meetings, the rent strike campaign quickly attracted local support and propelled the tenants’ concerns and demands into the news and on to the agenda of local politicians.

img_7259

The 29th Avenue apartment complex where half the tenants are currently on rent strike

Israel Lepiz, an ACCE Oakland organizer who’s been working with the rent strikers, said the tenants have been putting their rent into an escrow account each month and are more than willing to pay their landlord if housing code violations are addressed.

“It’s not about them not wanting to pay the rent; it’s about calling attention to what’s happening,” she said. “We did try to defuse the situation at every corner but this is the result of feeling like we’ve exhausted all our options.”

Negotiations to buy the building were still underway at the time of writing, but ACCE said progress was being made following a positive meeting with owner Calvin Wong on March 4. Wong did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

img_7304

Walker: “Housing is a human right.”

When Moms 4 Housing co-founder Dominique Walker moved back to her Oakland hometown from Mississippi last April, she was shocked to find a very different city from the one she’d left in 2004 to study for a sociology degree.

Almost all her family members and high school friends had been forced to leave the city because of high rents and house prices. Tent encampments were a common sight. Housing lists were “a joke,” she said, with wait times of several years.

Walker and her two young children had left Mississippi abruptly because she was experiencing domestic violence. She registered on an emergency housing program, got a job as an organizer at ACCE in Oakland, and enrolled her children in daycare in Berkeley. With nowhere to live immediately, they had to sleep on the couches of various family members who lived in outlying cities like Antioch or Stockton and spend hours commuting into work and school every day.

“This is the new face of homelessness,” Walker told me when we met at her new home in Berkeley, owned by the Northern California Land Trust, that she moved into at the end of January. “I was talking to teachers, nurses, community organizers. Folks with master’s degrees living in tents. They’re housing insecure, or homeless. These are folks that help and serve their community and still can’t afford housing. And there’s not a scarcity of housing.”

Walker pointed to Oakland’s foreclosure crisis ― where one in seven mortgages entered default between 2007 and 2011. Black communities, often targeted for predatory loans, were hit particularly hard. While Black Americans make up around a quarter of the city’s population, they account for 70% of Oakland’s homeless population.

Moms 4 Housing was set up to attract attention to this issue. Walker and fellow community organizers decided the best way to do this was to occupy one of the city’s many vacant homes.

They chose the vacant Magnolia Street house because it was owned by Los Angeles County-based real estate investment group Wedgewood Properties. The company buys homes — often foreclosed properties — cheaply and renovates them for sale at market prices.

“It was owned by a corporation who plays a part in the displacement in Oakland,” said Walker. “The direct action was to bring awareness to this issue.”

Wedgewood spokesman Sam Singer told HuffPost that the company had planned to renovate the property as soon as possible and put it back into the housing market. “The company is in the business of buying, renovating, and quickly selling homes to first time buyers. It does not ‘hold homes vacant,’” he said.

The moms’ occupation of the house in November 2019 was supported by many in the community but also attracted criticism because it was illegal.“They should concentrate on finding a nonviolent and progressive way to address the Oakland housing crisis that doesn’t rely on the theft of other people’s homes to solve their problems and address this serious issue,” Singer said of the protest.Walker said, however, that it needed to happen.“Housing is a human right,” she said. “It’s a basic human need and it should be recognized in the U.S. Constitution as a human right as it’s recognized by the United Nations.”

“We hate that it had to come to that,” she added. “But pressure busts pipes, and it just shows the power of the people. When we organize, we can win.”After the moms’ emotional eviction in January, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a “historic agreement” where Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to OakCLT and also to allow the city or other affordable housing organizations first refusal on other Oakland properties it plans to sell.

Landlords selling homes to their tenants or to community organizations helps to reset a market that’s failing to serve people in a humane way, said OakCLT executive director Steve King. “It’s shifting the narrative from where the tenant has no control towards them becoming owners,” he said.

Housing activists are already making inroads with lawmakers. Later this month, Oakland City Council will vote on an ordinance that would allow tenants first right of refusal if their landlord plans to sell.Inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, the Tenant Opportunity To Purchase Act (TOPA) would also create opportunities for community land trusts and nonprofit affordable housing developers to purchase homes first. Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who introduced the ordinance, said that the goal is for tenants to be able to stay in their homes, not just as renters but as homeowners.

In February, the city of Berkeley proposed a similar ordinance that would give renters the right of first refusal and right to purchase when apartment buildings and non-owner-occupied single-family homes are put on the market. And at the state level, inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill in February to give tenants the right of first refusal to buy foreclosed properties ― and after them cities, counties and affordable housing organizations ― and to enable cities to fine corporate owners of properties that let them sit vacant for more than 90 days.

Carroll Fife, director of ACCE Oakland, said residents’ increasingly bold action is the result of not being listened to.“Waiting for legislators to legislate proper solutions has not worked,” Fife said. “That’s why it’s gotten to here ― direct action ― because there’s not been the action that’s necessary by our elected officials.”“We’re not asking people to riot,” she continued. “But the reason that it’s come to people just taking back properties and going on rent strikes is because their voices and their pleas have gone unheard. These are the only steps that they have left.”

Fife said several organizations and individuals across the country have contacted ACCE about advice on direct action. 

These direct actions in California mirror what’s been happening on the East Coast, where a 14-month rent strike by tenants against substandard living conditions ― including a mice and roach infestation and mold ― at 1320 Nicholson Street N.W. in Washington, D.C., recently ended with the building being sold to a developer chosen by tenants. 

Tenant organizer Citlalli Velasquez, who works for the Latino Economic Development Center, which helped the renters organize, said the rent strike not only garnered media attention but also helped to keep the sale price low.“The previous landlord wasn’t able to market the building at a really escalated price because of these concerns,” explained Velasquez.

“It wasn’t our goal but it was great because they sold it at a really low price because of the ongoing press and the rent strike. Because of that, tenants had a lot of options.”

Having now helped launch several rent strikes, Velasquez said LEDC believes that it has “set a trend” in D.C. “I’m glad to see that where there is rising rent, there are rising rent strikes and resistance,” she said.

Back in West Oakland, Walker’s 5-year-old daughter proudly showed me her new room and the bed her mom is assembling for her 1-year-old brother. Walker said she is determined to stay in the East Bay where residents like her grandfather built up successful businesses and strong communities. Watching her children run around their new home together, she said quietly, “I want them to know that their mother was on the right side of history, that she was fighting.”

A New Housing Option for Squeezed Middle Income Americans

This article first appeared in YES! Media

missingmiddlehousing_diagram01

Missing Middle Housing is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types—compatible in scale with detached single-family homes—that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. (Credit: Opticos Design, Inc)

Retirees Mary-Jo and Joe Ginorio have lived in the same modest house in the West Winston Manor neighborhood of South San Francisco for more than 30 years. It’s no surprise: They know all their neighbors, have relatives living nearby, love the area’s diversity, and enjoy being able to walk to their local stores. More surprising to them is that their adult son and daughter (plus her family) have all returned to live at home in recent years because of high rents and house prices in the Bay Area.

The Ginorios, who are in their early 60s, always expected that their children would live near where they work, as they themselves had done for nearly 40 years in the Bay Area. But a few years ago, that looked increasingly unlikely.

Their son, who works for a local city council, was paying a hefty $800 a month to rent a single room in a shared house without laundry facilities or parking before he moved back home. He earned too much for housing assistance based on local low income limits, but not enough to comfortably afford market-rate rents.

Meanwhile, the Ginorios’ daughter (a part-time dance instructor) and son-in-law (an artist) needed to move in with them temporarily while they saved for a mortgage for a home for themselves and their two young children.

“None of us saw any of that happening,” admits Mary-Jo Ginorio, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District with her Mexican and Italian parents before she got married and moved out of the city. “But prices out here are ridiculous: Houses in our neighborhood are selling for over $1 million and renters need at least $5,000 for the first and last month’s rent. Most people just can’t afford that.”

Faced with housing five adults, two young children and a dog in their 1,050-square-foot, three bed/one bath home, the Ginorios decided to create an additional living space on their 6,000-square-foot lot. Known in the trade as an accessory dwelling unit, it comprises a detached structure with a single bedroom and bathroom in their backyard. Their son pays toward utilities and upkeep in return for access to cooking and laundry facilities in the main house.

The Ginorios’ situation is one shared widely, especially among public sector workers such as teachers and nurses in the prohibitively expensive Bay Area. In the best circumstances, these people have to take a lengthy commute from cheaper outlying towns. At worst, it means sharing cramped housing or even taking on a second job to cover the rent.

Historically, single-family zoning across the country has contributed to racial and economic segregation.

Finding creative solutions to this problem is one aspect of what Berkeley-based architect Daniel Parolek and his firm, Opticos, have been doing for more than a decade. Parolek coined the phrase “missing middle housing” back in 2010 to describe what he identified as a gap in the market for house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable urban neighborhoods. He argues that dwellings such as duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts provide much-needed diverse housing options for those middle-income renters and buyers.

Typically, these options have been “missing” because they have been made illegal or discouraged by the country’s planners since the mid-1940s. And they sit in the “middle” of a spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings.

“The concept of missing middle housing for us primarily started out with a focus on the range of housing types that historically has delivered a broad range of housing choices across the country,” Parolek explains. “First, it’s about scale; then we talk about it delivering affordability, particularly for middle income households on 60 percent average median income or higher.”

In one triplex near Parolek’s home, for example, his son’s kindergarten teacher lives in one unit, while her mother—a first-grade teacher at the same school—lives in the second unit; the third is occupied by her brother, a P.E. teacher at the local middle school. Parolek is convinced that the trend towards multi-generational living and the need for middle-income professionals to live near the workplace, combined with an appetite for more walkable environments, is enough to support public transport and neighborhood services such as shops and restaurants.

Even more compelling perhaps is what missing middle housing represents to racial diversity. Historically, single-family zoning across the country has contributed to racial and economic segregationbecause it creates a physical divide between affluent and working-class households. Missing middle housing promises more of a neighborhood blend, based on socioeconomic commonalities.

The Census Bureau’s building permits survey shows single-family homes still dominate the housing market, with 4.6 million permitted in the last five years.

Opponents such as San Francisco’s residents’ associations argue that such developments put added pressure on already dense neighborhoods and that rezoning threatens to change the character of single-family home communities. Another argument used by tenants’ groups, including the Alliance for Community Transit LA, to defeat California’s SB 50 housing bill in the state Senate in January, is that this approach could further exacerbate displacement of low-income residents.

SB 50 would have rewritten zoning laws to support multi-unit buildings near transit centers. It could have helped meet California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious target of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025.

Kristy Wang, community planning policy director at Bay Area civic planning organization SPUR, hopes any new iteration of the legislation will keep up the pressure on legislators to support multi-unit buildings. “It’s really important to change these rules to allow for more people to live in our neighborhoods,” she says. “Zoning is a barrier to missing middle housing.”

According to U.S. census data, almost two-thirds of California residences are single-family homes. And a 2018 survey by U.C. Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimates that between one-half and three-quarters of the state’s developable land is zoned for single-family housing only. While widespread rezoning has yet to come, the state has in the past year passed legislation to make it easier to build dwelling units like the Ginorios’ backyard cottage, plus in-building ‘junior’ ADUs—effectively creating up to three units on one lot.

The Census Bureau’s building permits survey shows single-family homes still dominate the housing market, with 4.6 million permitted in the last five years, compared to 215,400 two- to four-unit homes over the same period. Parolek attributes developers’ slow response to building missing middle housing to local planners being stuck in their ways: “I think so few cities have policies and zoning in place to enable missing middle housing that it’s not a huge incentive to be in that arena. They have a proven system that’s been working for decades so it’s really hard to make change within that institutional system.”

But the system clearly is no longer working for everyone. In 2019, Berkeley city council members unanimously approved a proposal for a missing middle survey based on initial report recommendations for multi-unit dwellings that are compatible with single-family homes and affordable for people who earn 80% to 120% of the area’s median income. A key proposal expected from the survey, anticipated this year, is for existing houses or zoning envelopes to be divided into up to four units.

Council member and report co-sponsor Rashi Kesarwani says missing middle housing could give young adults who grew up in Berkeley the opportunity to remain or return to live in a unit built on their parents’ property, or help an aging senior who needs to create a second unit for an on-site caregiver or for supplemental retirement income.

Berkeley’s median house price of around $1.2 million excludes many from living there, she says. “There’s a vast middle class—teachers, firefighters, police officers, electricians, small business owners—who make our community what it is and who also need housing options,” Kesarwani says. “Duplexes, triplexes and backyard cottages are part of the solution.”

Even though California has become notorious for its sky-high housing prices, the lack of housing for middle income people is a nationwide problem. Other cities across North America also are taking steps to increase the housing supply for those who can’t afford expensive single-family homes but make too much to qualify for local assistance.

The most radical solutions so far came from Minneapolis, which made headlines in December 2018 when the city council voted to end single-family zoning in favor of zoning for multiple-unit housing, such as duplexes and triplexes. As part of the city’s plan to tackle many issues such as housing affordability, racial equity and climate change, the move is designed to provide more housing options and more walkable communities in a city whose population grew by 37,000 between 2010 and 2016, but which also has lost about 15,000 low income housing units since 2000.

To stimulate missing middle housing, the Minneapolis City Council launched a $500,000 pilot program in summer 2019, inviting proposals for developments with between three and 20 units. Project recommendations will be announced in February.

Kevin Knase, Minneapolis’ senior project coordinator for residential and real estate development, anticipates getting approval of several projects from among the 21 applications, with city funding supporting affordable units that help spur larger private developments.

“Say someone is building a triplex,” he explains. “They can build one that is market rate and two will be affordable. We’re providing financing for the affordable units.”

Other cities and states are advancing missing middle housing:

• In Oregon, whose population grew by more than 400,000 new residents in the past decade, the passage and signing into law of House Bill 2001 in 2019 effectively put an end to single-family zoning, and re-legalized duplexes statewide, and fourplexes in cities with 25,000 or more residents.

• Portland, Oregon, is now in the public hearing stage on a plan to permit fourplexes on all lots — a response to “McMansionization” that would lower the maximum size of new buildings in low-density areas while allowing buildings to contain more homes. Michael Andersen, senior researcher, housing and transportation at Sightline Institute, a Pacific Northwest think tank, says Portland’s residential infill project stands to become “the most progressive reform to low-density zoning in American history.”

• Vancouver, British Columbia, legalized duplexes in 2018 and is actively encouraging ADUs such as basements, secondary suites and backyard cottages as part of its Making Room program to deliver 10,000 missing middle homes over 10 years. The city issued permitsfor 479 ADUs in 2019 and 38 already in 2020. The city is supporting “gentle densification” of residential blocks near major arterial routes, which in future could include triplex, fourplex and multi-unit dwellings.

• Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan convened the city’s first Affordable Middle-Income Housing Advisory Council in January 2019 to explore ways to fill the gap between market-rate housing and the housing needs of middle-income families. According to the council’s first report released in January 2020, Seattle has added nearly 140,000 jobs and 122,000 people in the past decade, but 85% of jobs remain in occupations that pay on average less than $100,000 per year. Recommendations include increasing the number of triplexes and cottages, adding to the city’s progressive ADU legislation passed last year that allows two ADUs per lot, and a size limit on new houses.

• And Washington state’s Senate Bill 6536 would relegalize duplexes, triplexes and up to six-plexes in certain areas. Dan Bertolet, Sightline’s research director for housing and urbanism, asserts that state standards “hold cities accountable to do their part and work together across city boundaries,” while giving each community flexibility to make it work in their local context. Microsoft recently announced a $500 million commitment to supporting affordable housing in the greater Seattle area, an implicit acknowledgement of the tech industry’s role in driving up housing prices.

Creative financing solutions such as the Minneapolis program can help incentivize middle missing housing. The San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund was created by the city in 2014, amid rising rents and a spike in evictions, as an independent financing agency that could work more quickly and more flexibly than the public sector to fund affordable housing development. It makes bridge loans to community-based nonprofits to buy and preserve rent-controlled properties in the city and prevent tenants from being replaced.

Kate Hartley, chief lending and investment officer at the fund, believes such interventions can help spur the growth and development of missing middle housing: “It really gets to what our cities need, which is to help protect our existing communities, help create housing stock where there are a wide range of incomes, and stop the change in demographic through vacancy decontrol that is driving up average income in our cities.”

In South San Francisco, Mary-Jo Ginorio welcomes a return to multigenerational living in her neighborhood, which perpetuates the diversity she so loves there. And she’s excited to see sector-specific housing solutions, such as nearby Jefferson Union High School District’s voter-approved, bond-backed development that broke ground Feb. 5 and will create a four-story building of 122 below-market rate housing units exclusively for teachers and school employees.

Parolek of architectural design firm Opticos has been engaging stakeholders through local walking tours in Berkeley, and nationwide talks to spread the word about the benefits of missing middle housing. His book, Missing Middle Housing, is scheduled to be published in July 2020. In it, he shares ideas and best practices in missing middle housing development that is he hopes will encourage greater support for this approach.

“I would hope that some of those bigger stakeholders, for example employers, will step up and realize they need to put mutual support behind trying to find solutions,” he says.

San Francisco Reforms Fines & Fees To Break Poverty Cycle

This article first appeared in Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity

FJ_logo_0

“What happens when people can’t pay?” That’s the question that vexes Anne Stuhldreher each day in her job as head of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, the nation’s first initiative embedded in local government to assess and reform how fees and fines impact a city’s most vulnerable residents.

Last month, San Francisco County became the first in the nation to make all phone calls from jail free, and to end markups on prison store items. In April, it partnered with the San Francisco Superior Court to clear all outstanding holds on people’s driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date. And in January, the city announced that it was eliminating overdue library fines.

These are just a few of the landmark reforms to emerge from the relatively young yet prolific Financial Justice Project, launched by San Francisco in November 2016 and housed in the Office of the Treasurer. The project works on the premise that fees and fines, levied partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets, can have an unintended impact of pushing people into poverty. Often, the hardest hit are people of color and those on a low income.

For example, Californians who have their driver’s license suspended because they cannot pay a traffic fine may find it difficult to get a job and support their family. Unpaid parking tickets spiral into unmanageable late fees and recovery costs for towed vehicles. Homeless people who get a $200 ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk may see this grow to $500 if left unpaid. And, people exiting the criminal justice system begin their new life with a bill for thousands of dollars in probation administration fees.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s research found that the income it generated through such fees and fines was slight compared to the cost of recovery. It also shows that the city levies more fines per capita than most California local governments.

It was this ‘lose-lose’ scenario for people and for government that prompted the city to seek a more equitable solution to fines and fees that could both hold people accountable and recoup costs without causing them financial distress.

Championing economic empowerment

Stuhldreher traces the thread of her current work back to the 2015 U.S. Department of Justice Ferguson report following the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American man shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. The report drew national attention to the negative impact of intense ticketing, fees and fines on low-income Americans and people of color. It revealed that Ferguson officials had aggressively raised revenue through fining residents. Fines were the city’s second largest source of revenue in 2013.

“The report showed a pattern of a ticket of a few hundred dollars going to folks who couldn’t pay it,” she explains. “The consequences would start to snowball — their credit could be impacted, their driving license suspended, they could go to jail for non-payment.”

Social justice advocates in California quickly noted that “this was not just a Ferguson problem,” as demonstrated in the eponymous 2015 report on how traffic courts drive inequality in the state. The report showed that four million adults in California had their driving license suspended because they couldn’t pay traffic tickets. Meanwhile, uncollected court-ordered debt accounted for $12.3 billion. In 2013, California brought in $2.6 billion in revenue from fines and forfeits, more than any other state.

And the issue was by no means limited to California or Missouri. Granted, cities rely on fine and fees revenue to balance their budgets. However, the 2007 recession and a drop in tax collections prompted many to dramatically expand this source of revenue to fund services.

Stuhldreher is a self-confessed policy geek with a focus on economic empowerment for low income groups. Her public-private partnership approach has helped deliver San Francisco programs such as the Working Families Credit and Kindergarten to College, and the WE Connect Campaign across the state in her role as senior policy advisor to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2015, she was working as a senior program manager at a health justice foundation, The California Endowment, and was hearing stories from community organizers about the impact of fines and fees on marginalized groups. So, she began to cast around within her networks for possible solutions.

“I started talking to people at City Hall here about finding a better way,” Stuhldreher explains. “About the fact that we should be able to balance our books but not on the backs of the lowest income people in our city. And we should be able to hold people accountable without impoverishing them.”

Identifying fines & fees pain points

San Francisco city and county treasurer José Cisneros – a champion of financial justice initiatives such as the Bank on San Francisco program to widen access to checking accounts for low-income residents –recognized the need for local government intervention around fines and fees.

Stuhldreher left her philanthropic role to help San Francisco become the first city in the nation to have a financial justice project. As the first-ever Director of Financial Justice for the city and county of San Francisco, she oversaw the work of an exploratory task force of community groups, local government and the courts to identify fine and fees “pain points.”

The taskforce identified a wide range of problems related to San Francisco’s fees and fines, and made a raft of recommendations to help address these issues. Of particular note, it found that in San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees was falling heavily on the African-American community. For example, the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood has a relatively high rate of poverty (23.5 percent) and a driver’s suspension rate more than three times the state average.

Stuhldreher says charges related to the criminal justice system were an immediate concern: “We were handing people a bill when they got out of jail, asking them to pay for their probation supervision and their electronic ankle monitors, for their pre-sentence reports, their drug tests. It added up to several thousand dollars.

“You think about people coming out of jail — most of them don’t have jobs, they have no money, then when they do have a job to have this [to pay]. It is incredibly self-defeating and makes it very hard for them to reintegrate into the community. It’s also a horrible source of revenue.”  She adds that collection rate on the largest fee of $50 per month was just nine percent.

So in July 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. “We wrote off $32 million dollars in debt that was hanging over 21,000 people That’s debt that would never really come in. It was a burden and a weight on low-income people and people of color in San Francisco.”

The latest example of the Financial Justice Project’s work in the criminal justice arena came last month when San Francisco announced that it will make all phone calls from jail free and end all county markups on jail store items. Currently, if an inmate makes two 15-minute phone calls a day in San Francisco, it will cost $300 over 70 days (the average jail stay), or $1,500 over the course of the year. Analysis done by the project estimates that 80 percent of phone calls are paid for by inmates’ support networks, primarily low-income women of color.

Stuhldreher explains the impact of not being able to afford phone costs: “You’re getting closer to potentially being released but you can’t tell your family, can’t sort a place to live, can’t start looking for work. You can’t call a social worker or anyone in your support network.” The move follows New York City’s decision earlier this year to make prison calls free.

She adds that the average county markup of 43 percent on items from the jail commissary places an unnecessary burden on incarcerated people and their families. The plan is funded in San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recently announced budget and the Sheriff’s Department will implement these reforms over the next fiscal year.

Partnership approach leads buy-in

The Financial Justice Project has also tackled towing in San Francisco, where it costs $575 on average if you get your car towed and 10 percent of cars are never retrieved. “Losing your car is really onerous. A lot of times, it’s a person’s biggest asset, it’s how they get around,” says Stuhldreher. “Also, it’s a money loser. When someone doesn’t retrieve their car, you’ve got to store it, pay a towing vendor, dispose of it, or sell it.”

The project worked with the Municipal Transit Authority (MTA) to halve towing fees for people who are below 200 percent of the poverty line, and to allow people to pay off citations over time through a payment plan that cost $5 to sign up for rather than previous $65. In the three months following implementation, the MTA saw a 400 percent increase in payment plan sign ups.

“If you make fines and fees more reasonable, people are more able to pay and pay them more readily. So your revenue can actually go up,” asserts Stuhldreher, who also stresses the need to bring those implementing the changes into the conversation to build buy-in.

San Francisco’s library service contacted Stuhldreher last summer with concerns that late fines and blocked library cards were stopping people from visiting their library. The city is now getting rid of library fines, writing off unpaid fines, and introducing measures such as more frequent reminders and automatic renewals where possible.

After San Francisco tackled the probation bill issue, neighboring Alameda County followed suit, with Contra Costa County and Los Angeles working towards similar measures. Oakland banned library fines earlier this month. Stuhldreher says Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC. are eyeing a similar approach around fees and fines. She takes a call “every week” from a city that wants to do the same, or just learn more.

Meanwhile, The National League of Cities has set up the Cities Addressing Fines and Fees program to support six cities across the US to assess and reform the status quo, with learning contributed by San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project.

Stuhldreher is cheered by the project’s progress to date: “We’ve now at this point either eliminated or adjusted dozens of fines and fees, we’ve lifted millions of dollars in debt off of tens of thousands of people.

“I feel like we’re building this muscle locally just to be more thoughtful about what we’re doing.”

But she also advocates for more careful consideration of fines and fees – which should recoup costs and not be punitive – as a means to generate revenue. “These fines and fees are very blunt instruments. You can kind of get on to autopilot and just increase them a little bit each year, add them to cover things. All of a sudden, they’re big, they’ve increased in scope and severity.”

Looking ahead, Stuhldreher is interested in the ‘day fines’ means-adjusted approach to traffic tickets, and is concerned about industries making money from the criminal justice system.

“If you think about people getting out of jail, you want them to stay out of jail. The recidivism rate is so high. If you can cut that, that’s a bigger cost saving. We don’t want to be taking $100 from someone who’s getting by on $500 a month That’s for groceries and shoes for their kids.”

Kids In America Are Missing School Because They Can’t Afford Toothpaste And Tampons

This article first appeared in HuffPost’s Impact section

IMG-3081

The shiny metal cabinet in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom is full of necessary supplies — not paper and pencils, but personal care products. (Credit: Sarah Helms)

The locked metal cabinet doesn’t look amiss in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom, with its bright yellow walls and green plastic stationery caddies. But rather than pencils, pens or binder paper, its shelves hold bottles of shampoo and body wash, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, sanitary pads and tampons.

For the past three school years, Helms, an English teacher at Horace Maynard Middle School in Maynardville, Tennessee, has stocked a “hygiene closet” with personal care items donated for students from low-income families by fellow teachers, current and former Horace Maynard parents, and members of the community. Helms uses cash donations to buy supplies at the dollar store. Her parents gave her the cabinet.

“I noticed certain kids being picked on for not being well groomed, and I felt that many children were just too shy to go to an adult and ask for help with the items they needed,” Helms told HuffPost. She could see how it eroded their self-esteem when their classmates commented on their appearance or body odor.

Once a month, Helms pulls toothpaste, tampons and other toiletries — including “random donations,” such as hairbrushes, combs, body spray and lip balm — from the hygiene cabinet and packs them into plastic grocery bags for 14 girls and 17 boys.

“A huge blessing” is how one Horace Maynard parent I contacted described the hygiene closet at her son’s school. Helms reached out to this single mom (she asked to remain anonymous) at the start of the school year to see whether her son would be interested in receiving a hygiene pack. She said yes. Her son’s monthly bag includes shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors and cologne.

Closet program increase highlights poverty gap

Horace Maynard’s hygiene closet is just one of the thousands of similar programs in public elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S., according to data from DonorsChoose.org, an online giving platform where public school teachers can ask for funds for their classroom needs. The site has seen requests for hygiene and personal care products mushroom, from just one in 2002 to 1,789 last year. Nearly two-thirds of requests come from schools in urban areas, and they are particularly common among schools where three-quarters of students or more are from low-income households.

Over a third of pupils at Horace Maynard are eligible to receive a free or reduced-priced lunch, and some benefit from the school district’s donation-supplied food program, which provides students a weekly bag of groceries to take home to their families.

Helms sends her students home with hygiene bags the Friday before the end of the month. “This is usually when items are needed most because those families who are on food stamps are low on money for other things like hygiene items,” she explained.

The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) provide state-level monthly help to low-income households in the form of a pre-loaded card to purchase vegetables, fruit, dairy and pantry items. Recipients cannot, however, use the cards to purchase non-food items, including toiletries and sanitary products.

Lisa Greenig, a teacher at Fairfield Middle School in southeast Iowa, said the idea for her school’s hygiene closet came about after a discussion with fellow teachers about SNAP restrictions. “Hygiene items can be expensive. Considering 50% of our students live under federal poverty guidelines, I decided to go public with the idea,” she said. “The community embraced the idea and has been very generous to help stock the closet,” which the school started in January.

closet

The hygiene closet at Iowa’s Fairfield Middle School, where half of the students live below the poverty line. (Credit: Lisa Greenig)

So far, about 24 families have signed up ― parents and guardians of students just have to complete a registration form to receive items from the hygiene closet. “We did not want to risk offending anyone by offering a bag of products without them submitting a request,” Greenig said. “At no time do we want families to feel embarrassed about using the closet.”

Greenig hopes more families, often reluctant to ask for help, will access the program once they realize how private distribution is. “Re-orders typically come through email directly to me. I pack a bag and quietly place the items in the student’s locker. Refills fit in student backpacks so they can be carried home.” With support from local businesses, such at the Hy-Vee grocery store, and backing from school Superintendent Laurie Noll and school board member Jennifer Anderson, Greenig says the district has plans to expand the program to the high school and two elementary schools.

School attendance and self esteem at risk

Other programs are a direct response to changing family circumstances, such as homelessness. “We’ve had an increase in families losing their housing, doubled or even tripled up in a household,” said Stephanie Martinez, program director of student services for the Jefferson Elementary School District in California’s Bay Area. “It’s been pretty drastic and very challenging [for students] if they’ve lost their housing or have a long commute into school.” Martinez is planning a hygiene pack program for the new school year to help students from the 100-plus families in the district living in transitional housing or shelters.

Lack of access to hygiene products can have a negative effect on the lives of children and teens, said Aleta Angelosante, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at New York University’s Langone Health: “If you are outwardly having difficulties with hygiene, it can certainly lead to at best being more neglected or ignored, at worst being pointed out and bullied in some way.”

North Carolina nonprofit BackPack Beginnings set up a personal care pantry in its Greensboro headquarters about 18 months ago to help schools in Guilford County provide products to students.“We have heard stories concerning the way it impacts self-esteem and the fact that some are skipping school because they are embarrassed by their own hygiene,” said BPB Executive Director Parker White.

Nearly 1 in 5 girls in the U.S., for example, have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to sanitary products. “Many have heard of teachers buying food for their students, but fewer people hear about them buying hygiene products. Our teachers are underpaid as is, and we want to take this burden off their plate.”

According to a survey of teachers who use DonorsChoose.org to make funding requests, 84% in the highest poverty schools have purchased essentials such as hygiene products for their students. Of those, 63% report spending more than $100 per year on these items.

Parker said about two dozen schools currently access the BPB pantry program, helping hundreds of students across the district.

Fighting for hygiene equity in schools

While programs led and funded by nonprofits and teachers are to be celebrated, hygiene equity campaigners say this issue calls for state intervention. Most hygiene items are taxed under state laws; some, such as dandruff shampoo and chapstick, are not. Some progress has been made around access to sanitary products and several states, including Nevada and Florida, have removed the so-called “tampon tax.” California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is unveiling a budget plan this week that would drop sales taxes on menstrual products.

But as long as government programs such as SNAP continue to put toothpaste and tampons on the same list of prohibited purchases as tobacco and beer, teachers, parents and local communities will likely still provide such items for low-income students.

Helms said the hygiene closet program had show her just how much of a lifeline this and other assistance schemes are for many students in her community. As the Horace Maynard mother I spoke to told me, “The closet at my son’s school has helped us tremendously. The products that are sent home are used by all my kids. It’s really a very thoughtful thing to do to help make sure the kids feel loved. I would tell everyone that has donated thank you. A million times over, thank you.”

 

What Happens When Teachers Can’t Afford To Live In Their Own Cities

This article first appeared in HuffPost’s This New World section

img_1337

Teachers like Sarah are being forced to leave the Bay Area because they can’t afford the outlandish housing costs

A few years ago, Sarah was living in a drafty garage belonging to one of her friends. Despite being a smart, highly qualified teacher to sixth- and seventh-graders at a public middle school not far from San Francisco’s international airport, she simply could not afford to live anywhere else in the city.

San Francisco is facing an unprecedented housing affordability crisis. That was the conclusion of an analysis published in July by the city’s planning department documenting the huge challenge facing the city and the wider Bay Area. Rapidly rising rents and soaring property values, combined with high construction costs and prohibitive zoning policies, have stymied the “missing middle” housing options needed for public sector employees like Sarah, who earn too much to qualify for low-income housing, but not enough to afford the Bay Area’s often outlandish market rates.

While teachers may be invaluable to society, their pay and working conditions are deteriorating as housing costs rise. On Monday, Los Angeles public school teachers began their first strike in 30 years after more than a year of failed negotiations over issues that include pay.

“It’s so important for our public servants to be able to live in their communities,” says Kristy Wang, community planning policy director at the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR. “But we live in such a high-cost housing market that it’s really difficult for them to do that because they just don’t make enough.”

Desperate measures

Sarah (who asked that her real name not be published to protect her privacy) is a 32-year-old originally from the East Coast who moved to the Bay Area after gaining her master’s degree and teaching credential in Southern California. In 2011, she was living with her boyfriend and their young daughter on the outskirts of San Francisco in a one-bedroom apartment that cost around $1,500 a month. When she and her boyfriend split up four years later, the market rate for a similar apartment was at least $2,400. As a newly qualified teacher earning $2,700 a month, she just couldn’t make her budget stretch that much.

“Basically, we had nowhere to live,” she says. Then her best friend, also a single mom and struggling to afford her duplex rent, suggested that Sarah move in. “My daughter shared a room with my friend’s son — they’re the same age, went to preschool together and know each other well,” Sarah says. “And I lived in her garage for a year.”

Listening to Sarah’s matter-of-fact account of how she bought carpet and space heaters to make her new sleeping quarters more comfortable, the rationale is compelling. Her rent was now $1,300 a month, and sharing grocery shopping with her friend also cut costs.

But, she says, the situation was ridiculous. The poorly insulated garage was stifling hot in summer, uncomfortably cold in winter, and lacked direct access to the duplex, which meant going outside at night to reach the bathroom. The move added up to 40 minutes each way to her daily commute. And she had to buy a baby monitor so that her daughter could hear her mom’s voice before she fell asleep.

“It’s really upsetting to be a working adult who can’t even afford a one-bedroom apartment by myself,” she says. “That makes me very angry.”

She criticizes tech companies — whose presence in the Bay Area has been blamed for rocketing rents and house prices — for not helping to manage the problems they’ve created.

The salary/housing cost divide

The Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis has made stories like Sarah’s shockingly common. Assuming a household spends no more than 30 percent of income on rent, it would need to earn $180,000 a year to be able to afford the median rent in the city, according to the planning department’s analysis published last summer. In San Francisco, the starting salary for a credentialed teacher is $55,461.

Two-thirds of teachers spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a 2018 survey by Stanford University for San Francisco Unified School District. Of those, 14.7 percent say rent accounts for more than half their income. Annual teacher turnover is around 12 percent, which translates to the district having to fill an average of 400 classroom vacancies each school year. Housing affordability is the biggest reason given for teachers leaving, according to Daniel Menezes, SFUSD’s chief human resources officer.

“Educator turnover hurts a school because children need to experience safety and stability,” says Elaine Merriweather, executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco union. “Educators develop relationships with students that really help to support their growth and learning.”

Collective bargaining and the parcel tax approved last June ― which will provide teachers with a 7 percent wage rise over the next two decades funded by a $298 annual tax on San Francisco property owners ― have increased basic teacher salaries by over a third since 2014, according to SFUSD’s Menezes. But, he says, the costly housing market means these pay increases aren’t enough to attract and retain educators, particularly those just starting out or who have a family.

“Every year, it is getting harder and harder to go out to national universities and convince a teacher to come to San Francisco because of the affordability issue,” Menezes says.

Dedicated solutions

To address the crisis, SFUSD has partnered with the city and the teachers union to build its first teacher housing complex, with occupancy expected in 2022. The Francis Scott Key development in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood in the west of the city will convert a surplus school district site into 130 apartments, costing from around $1,600 for a studio to $2,300 for a three-bedroom.

 

An artist's impression of the Francis Scott Key development in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

BAR ARCHITECTS FOR MIDPEN HOUSING
An artist’s impression of the Francis Scott Key development in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

“We’ll have teachers at the higher end of that scale and we’ll have para-educators — special needs teachers and assistants in the classroom — who earn less,” says Kate Hartley, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “We’re really excited about being able to serve that wide range of school employees.”

While Sarah welcomes the idea of dedicated housing for teachers, she says she wouldn’t be able to save any money or afford a house if she stayed in the Bay Area and had to pay those kind of rents.

To genuinely address the teacher housing crisis, the Bay Area needs protections for existing tenants and a deluge of new housing units, says Sonja Trauss, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation.

Trauss, who was a high school math teacher in the East Bay, quit her job a few years back when housing and commuting costs became too much for her to afford. Since then, she has campaigned for higher-density zoning.

“Too much of the city is zoned for low-density housing in a place that is incredibly in demand,” Trauss told HuffPost. “It’s not just San Francisco, but all over the Bay Area.”

Trauss has also fought against homeowners who block development to preserve neighborhood character. “The situation we have now is that people who already have their homes really don’t care if there’s a [housing] shortage”, she says. “Their feeling is that allowing the city to grow would change neighborhood character … But these are the people that the city needs to survive.”

In a recent example of the kind of Bay Area nimbyism Trauss has called out, more than 6,500 people signed a petition against proposals to build low-cost teacher housing in the wealthy Almaden Valley neighborhood of San Jose. San Jose Unified, the largest school district in the South Bay and a good one-hour drive from San Francisco, is considering converting eight schools with aging buildings or declining enrollment into affordable teacher housing. The plans, however, have attracted criticism from residents.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Union High School District just outside San Francisco plans to use a $33 million voter-approved bond to fund 116 low-cost apartments for teachers and other staff, due to break ground this year. Teacher pay in the district is reportedly among the lowest in the county — $49,500 to $87,300 a year.

“The plan will definitely be a game changer for a lot of people and would really help me out because housing will be low market rate, which would allow me to have more of a long-term outlook in the district,” says Mike Rodriguez, a 12th-grade math and economics teacher at Jefferson Union’s Thornton High School.

Rodriguez, 30, has a master’s degree and has been teaching for four years. He makes $50,000 a year and has $100,000 of student debt. He drives for Uber for at least two hours each day to boost his income, lives with three others and looks forward to the day when he might not need to rent a room in a shared apartment.

The region’s teacher housing crisis needs both investment and political will, says Wang from SPUR. While there is no magic bullet, she adds, European models such as Germany’s baugruppen co-housing communities and Vienna’s affordable social housing, which offer city-based, lower-cost accommodation with shared facilities, could provide solutions for middle-income earners such as teachers and other public-sector workers.

For Sarah, change isn’t coming quickly enough. For the last two years, she has been living with her parents and her daughter in Redwood City, a 30-minute commute to her current school. Once the school year ends, she plans to move to a more affordable city like Sacramento.

“It would have been nice if there had been rent control and better salaries,” she says. “I do love teaching here, but I am being driven out.”