Before leaving for my cross-country journey, I lived in the Bay Area for 5 years. In 2010, I was barely able to afford the one bedroom apartment in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood—I wanted to be able to live close to law school, my other home for the next 4 years while I went part-time. Luckily I was able to snag that modest one bedroom apartment while there was still a reasonable amount of vacancy in the rental market and generally speaking, San Francisco's tenant laws for the older buildings—specifically those built before 1979—carried with it the necessary rent control policy for public sector workers like me to be able to afford living there.
And when I needed to leave that apartment in fall 2014, I remember thinking to myself that if I were to leave, I would surely never be able to come back. This is because I knew that the market was exploding and that lack of vacancy + skyhigh prices = a much more competitive rental market. Now, the median rent for a one bedroom is right around $3000. And this scrappy public interest attorney would not be able to afford anything close to that unless I amassed a number of roommates (I did see rooms advertised where you could live with upwards of 5+ roommates, still share a bathroom, and still have to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $1500 for rent. Le sigh.)
When I moved to Oakland around this time last year, the vacancy rate on the rental market was terrifyingly low. In fact, right now, Oakland still has a vacancy rate of only 2.9%. I remember looking on Craigslist and leaning into my community organizing background to try to see if there were any places via word of mouth that weren't prominently listed. I had made plans with good friends of mine in the city to temporarily crash there in the likely chance that I couldn't find housing.
And luckily—I was able to find a spot in Oakland's Chinatown toward the end of the month due to a Craigslist ad that *I* wrote, and my former roommate luckily responded to. It was a unique stress having to worry about where I was going to live for the better part of a month.
So, when I left the Bay Area earlier this summer to embark on my pro bono project, I was intensely curious to see how the housing market was in other urban areas of the West Coast. Was San Francisco for the most part an anomaly in the housing market? Or was it more symptomatic of a larger trend that are in these other coastal cities?
I've mentioned before that I have done some housing law work when I was living in San Francisco—namely with the Eviction Defense Collaborative there. Since I have been in greater Seattle, the other half of the week I am working with the Housing Justice Project via the King County Bar Association. It has been fascinating because from my viewpoint, I am noticing many parallels between what's going in Seattle and San Francisco—and also Portland, where I was right before.
The short of it: America's major West Coast cities are all facing an intense period of what I call urban renewal. Major real estate development companies and the cranes that signify their mark are strewn all about the SFO/PDX/SEA area. When I was recently roaming around downtown/other parts close to downtown Seattle, one would be hard pressed to not find some variation of construction going on within a couple blocks of wherever you were standing.
I was in Tacoma/Seattle for work about 5 years ago working on a campaign, and I remember the traffic on I-5 was particularly nasty. But now in 2015, driving north on I-5 or around downtown Seattle during the day feels like you are in gridlock in downtown San Francisco—lots of gridlock, lots of people, lots of development, and lots of well, money.
Most of my work at the Housing Justice Project revolves around eviction defense. When I was trying to figure out my placement for project work in greater Seattle, I spoke with one of the project coordinators who straight up told me that there was a higher need in Kent versus the city of Seattle proper. So—off I went to Kent.
And I've noticed a trend that doesn't sit well with me (and frankly, the whole subject matter of eviction of course does not sit well with me). A good chunk of clients who are coming into the clinic are part of the working class—not earning a high-income, but often not constituting low-income for project grant standards. (In order to be seen, a client has to be within a certain percentage of the poverty line, otherwise, the clinic is not able to take them on.)
So, there have been a number of cases I have worked on where a client was being evicted, and they didn't fit our limited representation scope—but they surely would not have been able to afford a private attorney to represent them either. We try to fill in the gap by giving them pro se (self-representation) materials to inform them on how to move forward with their case. But as some of these clients who fit into this category walk away, I am left with questions: Will they succeed on their legal claim? And—what is this saying about displacement of our urban area middle class as a whole?
Kent, Washington is about 20 miles south of Seattle and just like what is going on in the Bay Area—and arguably what I saw in Portland—more and more working class folks are getting pushed out of city centers. And that displacement can continue to be pushed out through an increasing radius from the city.
I see what is happening in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and think about where I was that first month of this project: living in Bakersfield and working in Delano. When I initially was looking at places in Bakersfield, there were listings at about $400-$500/month. (You read that correctly!). How can there be such an overwhelming disparity for the premium of major urban city living in this country and what feels like a bargain in comparison in order to live in more rural/non-metropolitan areas?
Certainly like all other aspects of economics, the housing market thrives on supply and demand, and we are living in a time when the demand for the premium of having a city's accessibility and amenities is at a recent all-time high (in addition to being the hub for where more lucrative industries are located). But isn't the essence of city living having access to a vibrant, diverse set of cultures and options and being able to interact with many from all walks of life?
And the way it all shakes out legally—how those with working class wages can barely (if they are) be able to afford rent shakes me to my core. Is the future of America's big cities destined to fall into a semi-permanent division based on class? Or is this more indicative of a temporary trend, where largely due to unaffordability, the market will inevitably burst and socioeconomic diversity will occur once more in our country's urban centers.
I know that myself and many others are hoping for the latter. The sustainability and infrastructure of our big cities depends on a rich vibrance of diversity in our communities—as well as ensuring that everyone in this country has the right to fair and accessible housing in this country—including our major city centers.
What has your experience been with the housing market where you live?