Let’s start with a few figures.
• $3,830: The net monthly earnings of a San Francisco family with two full-time earners receiving the current minimum wage.
• $575: Monthly tax estimate calculated at 15 percent.
• $3,120: The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment within San Francisco.
• $135: What’s left for food, clothing, health care, child care, transportation and utilities.
How far can a family stretch $135, which is barely more than the cash subsidy given to city welfare recipients? Even if we assume that rents may stabilize and the rising minimum wage will start to close the gap, it is difficult to deny that San Francisco is becoming inhospitable to low-income working families.
Although proposed solutions vary, as demonstrated by the recent online debate between supervisors David Campos and Scott Wiener, citizens and politicians tend to agree some of this problem is attributable to insufficient housing supply. Fixing this immediate imbroglio requires a long-term strategy.
And while the debate about who has a right to The City rages on, displacement continues at an alarming rate.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Wiener is correct in his assertion that housing is a commodity like any other, available to the highest bidder, with a price best determined by the unassailable logic of the market’s hidden hand.
What does this mean?
That the approximately 60,000 San Francisco workers who make minimum wage have scant choices: crowd, compromise or leave.
While long commutes offer a strategy for working families to cope with high housing costs, savings in rent are offset by increased transportation expenses. A report released by the Center for Housing Policy suggests that for every dollar a working family saves on housing, it spends an additional 77 cents on transportation. Furthermore, families that pay more than half their income on fixed costs, such as housing and transportation, are much more likely to experience food insecurity, lack health insurance, and encounter various other hardships as they pinch pennies and skip meals.
As more and more of the working individuals responsible for maintaining The City’s infrastructure are pushed further away from the urban center, the issue becomes one of sustainability.
Once upon a time, the well-to-do lived in the suburbs and commuted in, but as The City becomes a dormitory for the Silicon Valley labor force, the working poor who keep the machinery running are pushed further onto the fringe.
The City took a step in the right direction by offering housing assistance to first responders, but that was in 2013, and supports families making up to $200,000 per year. If families at that income level cannot afford to remain in The City, what will happen to those with far less?
Without a truly equitable living wage or housing subsidies targeting the low-income workers critical to our city’s infrastructure, the message is clear: pursue housing and employment opportunities outside the urban center, or tighten the belt and find a way to make $135 stretch to cover all nonhousing needs every month.
Nathan K. Hughes is a San Francisco resident and housing advocate currently pursuing graduate degrees in public health and social welfare at UC Berkeley.