I’m a severely low-income resident of Sacramento.
This might surprise you considering I’m pretty well-known for my advocacy related to healthcare, disability, and chronic diseases. You’ve seen me on the Sacramento TEDx stage, the Women’s March on Sacramento, in press conferences and on healthcare panels, in this upcoming documentary, and in numerous television interviews about national healthcare policies.
Someone so steeped in the public eye shouldn’t have a worry about housing, right?
Yet what I haven’t talked about publicly is my very fear of becoming homeless. I’ve reached out to local representatives about my fears only to be redirected or ignored completely. It’s time you know what it’s like for me facing barriers to safe, stable, affordable housing in Sacramento, California.
Mid-June 2018 I was officially granted permanent disability benefits,
or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). It’s a huge relief, but it’s taken nearly three years to get to this point. In a couple more months I’ll be notified what my monthly payment will be, then maybe receive my first deposit a few months after that.
The average timeline for the disability process in the USA is 3-5 years. It’s a process that, by design, forces many people to give up and work themselves, quite literally, to death.
I became disabled in 2014 after a period of deteriorating health. I was finally diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) in February 2013 after 13+ years of underappreciated symptoms. By the summer of 2014 I was teetering on the brink of collapse.
The final few months I worked were excruciating. I would try to do my job, then go home and collapse. My vacation and sick days were used up because of infections, severe pain, and doctor appointments. Work was overtaxing my body, causing debilitating fatigue and increasing the symptoms of my inflammatory disease.
After my full-time job ended I tried to work part time, but two months later my best friend had sudden-onset eclampsia and died tragically after four months in a coma. My grandfather had died two months before that.
This trauma led to diagnoses of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder, and severe Anxiety. I’m also a survivor of domestic violence and a childhood filled with tragedy; these experiences all also contributed to my mental illnesses.
What does any of this have to do with rent control?
For the past four years, I haven’t been able to work substantially. I’ve been surviving on savings, gifts, occasional contract work, and my deceased father’s (who was also disabled from AS) meager inheritance. My bank account has been progressively running out of oomph and time.
I live on a budget of less than $1,000 per month which covers rent, internet, cell phone, the occasional Lyft ride, cat food/litter, and utilities. I get groceries with SNAP (EBT/Food Stamps) and my medical care is covered by Medi-Cal (Medicaid). I don’t have a car. Friends sometimes buy me toilet paper, tampons, and other non-consumable items not covered by SNAP. A church covers my therapy appointments. I’m extremely fortunate in this regard.
I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have remained in the same apartment in midtown Sacramento since 2013. My landlord has been unexpectedly gracious to keep my rent as low as he can because of my circumstances.
But to the extent that my landlord is gracious, my rent is still rising and will continue to rise. I live in constant fear of where I could move and if I will be forced to live with friends, which would make me a “sheltered homeless” individual (as opposed to unsheltered).
By sharing my story I hope to help the Sacramento City Council understand how necessary rent control is for at-risk people like me who are on the brink of homelessness without means to increase our incomes.
I studied gentrification in college. I never imagined I would become a victim of it.
Below are several barriers to my seeking and maintaining permanent housing:
- Landlords and property management companies, by and large, require proof of income in order to rent a home or apartment. Often they require the tenant to earn three times the amount of the monthly rent. A Sacramento Bee article from January 2018 states rent averages: $950/month for a 1 bedroom to $1,210/month for a 2 bedroom apartment. I would have to earn as much as $2,850/month to qualify for a 1 bedroom apartment in Sacramento, and arguably more than that considering how rent has increased since January.
- I don’t qualify for subsidized, income-based housing. I haven’t had a steady stream of income for four years. I might qualify once I begin receiving disability, but wait-lists for such housing are currently 3-5 years long.
- Income-based housing is often far away from services like medical care, grocery stores, and effective public transit. I say ‘effective’ public transit because if it takes two hours to travel 10 miles that’s not effective. Having no motor vehicle, I rely on rides, public transit, Lyft, or, rarely, my bicycle. If it takes two hours to commute one way to a doctor appointment, that’s four hours of commuting for an hour-long appointment. That means a five-hour workday for me. The commuting alone would be severely deleterious to my health due to the strain on my body as well as the risks on my weakened immune system being in enclosed, germ-y spaces. Riding public transportation is a very real threat to my health.
- I require certain ADA home features that can be difficult to find in any rental market. ‘Accessible’ apartments have longer wait-lists because there are fewer of them and a greater demand for them.
- In Sacramento County, the Housing Choice Vouchers program (formerly called Section 8) has a waiting list up to three years long. But you have to make it on the wait-list first, which is based on a lottery system. Sacramento opened applications for the wait-list for two weeks this January. I put my name in the hat along with 43,000 other people. I didn’t get on the list along with 36,000 other people; only 7,000 made it. An October 2017 radiodocumentary on Capitol Public Radio reported that even if someone has a voucher they’re lucky if they can find housing that will accept it.
- A person receiving average disability benefits in this country doesn’t qualify for well-known income-based housing options in Sacramento. The average disability amount for 2018 is $1,197 per month. That’s an average annual income of $14,364. To qualify for a Habitat for Humanity home in Sacramento County the minimum income limit for a 1-person household is $16,838 per year. To qualify for an apartment in Sacramento’s income-based Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL), the minimum income is the same: $16,830.
- If I had a good chunk of money ready to invest into owning a home I wouldn’t qualify for a mortgage on disability. The backpay I will receive for disability, dating back to the date I became legally disabled (May 2016, because the judge said so), could become a downpayment on a house. But even if I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I could pay my mortgage with a combination of disability money and rental income through a service like Airbnb, I couldn’t prove it until I was actually doing it, and we all know that buying a house doesn’t work retroactively. Unless someone comes along and cosigns on a mortgage with me I’m not able to use my backpay towards homeownership.
- Many income-based housing situations do not allow pets. I have cats, both of whom are my closest family. Additionally, because one of my cats has a specific medical condition I’m unable to live in a carpeted home.
I don’t know what will happen to my housing in the next year. I’m terrified of becoming homeless and losing independence and stability.
If limits were placed on housing costs to retain affordability, people like me would be able to remain close to our current medical care, grocery stores, community services, and other community support including faith communities that are crucial to our emotional and spiritual well-being.
If housing were truly affordable for low-income residents, we wouldn’t need to live in fear of joining Sacramento’s growing homeless population. We poor people, we disabled people can’t remain in the community without the help and support of the people we’ve elected to serve us.
We need rent control.
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