As Rents Rise, Seniors Struggle in Sacramento and Across State

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California’s capital is one of the toughest places in the state for low-income seniors to afford rent, according to a new study.

UCLA researchers found that 68 percent of low-income seniors in Sacramento County suffer a severe rent burden, which means half or more of their pre-tax income is going toward housing. Another 17 percent suffer a moderate burden, where 30 percent or more of their pre-tax income is going to rent.

The report, published Tuesday on the UCLA Center for Health Policy’s website, looked at seniors earning at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,480 for a household of two.

Sacramento is often considered more affordable than the Bay Area or Los Angeles, both of which have seen skyrocketing rents over the past decade. But unlike those two much larger cities, the state’s capital does not have rent control.

In San Francisco, for example, 43 percent of low-income seniors have a severe rent burden, while 54 percent face the same issue in Los Angeles County.

A survey released last March by the real estate firm Yardi Matrix concluded that Sacramento had the highest multifamily dwelling rent increases between December 2012 and December 2017 in the nation, up 44 percent in total. Rents rose 30 percent between December 2014 and December of last year.

“While the cost to a new renter for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is more than twice that for a comparable unit in Sacramento, the long tenure of older renters in San Francisco’s rent-controlled units likely reduces the actual rents paid by most seniors,” the study said.

Nevertheless, having 40 percent or more of seniors struggle to pay the rent is widespread problem in California. According to the UCLA study, about 1 million of California’s seniors live in rental housing. Of those, 55.8 percent have a severe rent burden. Another 22.7 percent have a moderate burden.

“Affordable housing is a huge issue for older adults as opposed to younger adults,” said D. Imelda Padillo-Frausto, a UCLA research scientist and the study’s co-author.

Seniors can move to a cheaper part of California, such as its sparsely populated rural northern counties, but relocation can be also be disruptive. “If you are forced to move to a place like Stockton (50 miles south of Sacramento), it disrupts medical care, social relationships and all sorts of other things” that can impact health, said Steven Wallace, associate director of the UCLA Center and the study’s lead author.

Both Wallace and Padilla-Frausto propose that Sacramento build more apartment units, particularly those for low-income seniors and boost in Social Security supplemental payments. They’d also like to see lawmakers consider creating a tax credit for low-income renters, similar to the federal earned-income tax credit.

The city of Sacramento is grappling with the issue after being pressured by local housing advocates and the Service Employees International Union. The union has pushed for a city ballot initiative that would cap annual rent increases on older apartments at 5 percent a year and create an elected housing board that would set maximum annual rent increases for all other rentals. Although Mayor Darrell Steinberg is opposed to the ballot measure, it has prompted him to negotiate with the city’s housing advocate groups on drafting a rent-control ordinance.

Nearly 400 miles to the south, the city of Santa Monica has embarked on something more radical—giving money to strapped renters. Last year, the city launched a 14-month pilot program called Preserve Our Diversity, which provides subsidies to long-term renters over the age of 65 who are earning less than 30 percent of the region’s median income and paying 30 percent or more of their income toward rent. The subsidies average $740 a month for households of one and $1,293 a month for two-member households.

However, the program currently has the resources to enroll just 26 households—out of 6,000 citywide that have severe rent burdens. The Santa Monica City Council may consider expanding the program to 500 households later this year.

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