According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (or HUD), a household is defined as rent burdened when tenants pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent, and across California it’s pretty common. Data collected in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau showed a little over half of the households across California were experiencing rent burden, and 29 percent were experiencing severe rent burden, which means they were paying more than half of their income on rent.
Sara Kimberlin is a senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center. She says the amount of people facing rent burden is on the rise.
“The key issue in California basically is that rents have been going up much faster than incomes have been going up, in particular faster than renter incomes have been going up,” she said.
Kimberlin says from 2001 to 2015, median rents went up by 18 percent. What those renters were bringing home on their paychecks, however, did not keep up.
“In terms of inflation-adjusted increase, there was no growth in median renter income during that time,” Kimberlin said.
While there’s no doubt that rent prices are soaring in California’s coastal areas and major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the places where people are experiencing the most rent burden. In fact, rent burden is very prevalent in many rural areas of California – including the North State.
“If you look at the share of households who are housing cost-burdened in that part of the state – specifically Butte County and Shasta County – the share of households paying more than 30 percent of income toward rent is definitely above average relative to California statewide,” she said.
Butte and Shasta counties are actually among the highest in the state when it comes to rent burden. Combining data collected in 2014 and 2015, the California Budget & Policy Center reported that in Shasta County 55 percent of renter households were experiencing rent burden. In Butte County, it was 61 percent.
Again, compared to California’s larger metropolitan areas, rent in the North State is considerably cheap, so it may seem odd to hear that Butte and Shasta counties have so many people who are struggling with rent burden. But that’s because rent burden isn’t necessarily an issue of the price of rent, as much as it’s an issue about the price of that rent relative to income.
Between 2006 and 2016, the percent change in median household rent in the far north region of California has gone up by about two percent, but the median renter household income — after adjustment for inflation — has gone down by a staggering 16 percent.
“The basic issue is just that earnings and workers incomes are not increasing as fast as the cost of living. That’s what causes families to struggle to cover the basic costs of housing,” Kimberlin said.
To get a better idea of how people here in the North State are impacted by rent burden, we interviewed several customers at WinCo in Chico and FoodMaxx in Oroville. We asked them how much of their income goes toward rent and how that cost affects their lives.
We also spoke with a Chico State student named Dan, who asked that only his first name be used for this story. Dan’s primary source of income is through the Supplemental Security Income program. SSI is a government program aiding people with low-income who are over 65 years old or have a disability. It provides him $895 a month of which he pays $460 on rent.
“I feel like in some ways I’m not able to afford basic commodities in a way,” he said. “Like with food I’ve had a habit even before where I just went and ate at food banks, you know, whatever they gave me. And whatever little money I do have I can set aside to save up for stuff like, you know, your basic chicken and pork chops and whatnot. I hardly ever eat out anymore. I try and find other ways of making it through because it’s not easy.”
Some say there are solutions to the growing problem of rent overburden. Again, Sara Kimberlin.
“One approach is to just try and increase the availability of housing in general, and affordable housing specifically,” she said. “The California State Legislature in the most recent legislative session passed a number of bills that are intended to try and address that issue by trying to facilitate more production of housing in all parts of California and also trying to specifically support more production of housing that’s affordable to households that have lower incomes.”
Kimberlin added that many of the decisions regarding how much housing to build and where to build it happen at the local level.