By Sean Raycraft
Ok friends, we need to fundamentally re-frame the focus of the housing crisis debate. If you were to read the discussions happening here on the Vanguard and in other spaces, you might forget that there are actual people, at all socio-economic levels, to varying degrees, actually suffering because of the housing crisis. It is paramount we as a community think about these people, while making policy decisions, land use decisions, and moral decisions about the future of our community. Oftentimes, these folks do not have a seat at the table, and are hence, on the menu.
Over the last few days, the Vanguard has run several articles about the rental housing crisis. Personally, I think it’s great the Vanguard is talking about this issue, as it has become the number one issue for me in my local political activism.
More importantly, it would seem that others in the community are talking about it too. I am someone who thinks getting people to talk about a tricky issue is the first step in seeing policy change.
About a month ago, I wrote an article outlining just how difficult it is being working poor in Davis, based off stories I have collected and friends I see suffer daily. Granted, it’s no picnic anywhere, but here in Davis there are some unique challenges for working poor people. You can read about it here: https://www.davisvanguard.org/2017/10/damn-expensive-poor-davis/
I won’t re iterate the points I made, or the retell the myriad of housing horror stories from all classes of Davis society. Instead, I would like to refocus the discussion. Seemingly, everyone
wants to use the working poor, single mothers, students, aspiring homeowners, and, yes, even the homeless to further their own agenda that has little to nothing to do with actually helping those groups through policy change. Well, let’s put a human face on that suffering, shall we?
I met the guy I know as Rom a few months ago while working at Safeway. He is homeless in Davis. He is a little quirky, educated, and has some kind of serious health problem that causes a great deal of swelling in his feet. He’s probably about 40, wears rimmed glasses that belong in the early nineties and has a thin but well-trimmed beard. He’s wiry, keeps himself and his clothes quite clean, and noticeably wears several pairs of socks (to keep the swelling of his feet down) and flip flops. He’s usually pretty shy, and when he talks, he talks nervously and quickly, and then you can’t get him to stop.
It was late at night, and he wanted to buy an entire case of water, 6 individual gallons, and keep the box. I later learned he wanted or needed the box, so he can elevate his feet while sleeping, to prevent swelling and, yes, blood clots. Rom seems like the kind of guy that should be able to find a job and housing in town. He’s had many jobs before, has a background in mathematics, and has been struggling with homelessness on and off for several years now.
A few weeks ago, days before my wedding, a friend of mine who is a cab driver in town called to tell me this really chill homeless guy had to call his cab to go to the ER because he was having some kind of medical complication, and that he knew me. It was cold that night, and I knew Rom didn’t have a quality blanket. So the next day, I dug around my garage, and found my camping camouflage blanket that is lightweight, warm and cleans easily and set out to find Rom. He was at my store, and seemingly had his medical issue under control for the moment. So I gave him my blanket and raincoat that I never use, because he needs it a helluva lot more than the box in my garage does.
He seemingly came alive in that moment. (people often fail to recognize the humanity of the downtrodden). He was telling me how excited he was that he was getting job interviews next week, and that he had a little money ($250) saved up to hopefully rent a room somewhere and get his life back on track. I didn’t have the heart to tell him in that moment what the rental market has become. I wished him well, he thanked me and wished me a great wedding and honeymoon (it was, thank you Rom) and we parted ways.
So what is the state of the rental market? A simple google search of 1 bedroom and studio apartments in Davis will show you just how unaffordable Davis is for the working poor. “one bedrooms in Davis, starting at 1330 per month.” Pinecrest Apartments One Bedroom “$1467-1698.” I’m assuming that doesn’t cover first and last month’s rent, and the security deposit. How is Rom supposed to get housing in a market like this? How is ANYONE supposed to get housing in a market like this? Students, who largely borrow the money they need to pay these rents, will be paying at least 5% interest on these loans for a decade or more. Rom and his 250 bucks are totally out of luck.
So why write about Rom and his struggles with homelessness? Well, because in our quibbling about what kind of housing gets built, more and more people are going to suffer. They are going to suffer outrageous rent increases, packed to the gills apartments, houses, condos. You’re going to see more people living in a car and showering at the gym. You’re going to see more young adults stay at their parents homes, more frequently and for longer. You’re going to see capital investors buy that house down the street that used to have a nice older couple in it who are now downsizing, for cash, and turning it into a rental, where ten students will live where two once did. You’re going to see more working people like my friend C.S. from the last article become homeless. Rom, C.S., the nurse from the last article I wrote, and her mom are the people who are harmed the most by our housing crisis. Are their voices being heard in these discussions? What can we do better as a community to prevent homelessness and obscene rents? What can be done before the university adds several thousand students in coming years and doesn’t house them?
The answer is that there is no single policy answer to solve this issue. As I have learned over months, the housing issue is complicated, with no silver bullet solutions. With that said, the simple truth is that more rental housing will help stabilize a market that is clearly headed towards failure. I can already feel the comments coming: “But Sean! The university needs to build this housing on campus for the students!” Well, yeah, of course UCD should. But the reality is the university is going to add more students and workers in the coming years, and not build adequate housing for them, and it falls upon us, the citizens of Davis to find a way to make this work for everyone. The rental market is already in crisis, and the city council to their credit is approving projects that will add some rental housing. I believe more has to be done.
Some of us clearly don’t like the idea of “mega dorms” as Eileen Samitz has described them, I’m not sure I like the idea. But what I do know is that we need more rental housing, period. The denser, the more infill, the more beds, the more environmentally conscious the better for renters and potential home buyers, tax payers and the community as a whole. Instead of cramming into mini dorms in your neighborhood, students and the working poor can have their own room, with some privacy and dignity, near a bus line, at a reasonable rate. Families can afford to live in former rentals. Developers can provide big A affordable housing as part of their developments, or contribute to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The market will not be as attractive of an investment for prospective landlords, so home buyers (young families) can move into our city and build community. I don’t want so see any more of my friends or members lose their housing because of the insatiable greed of the landlords.
So, in the future, while discussing the housing crisis, how about we actually listen to and prioritize the needs of people affected by it, instead of prioritizing the views and needs of people who are largely unaffected by it, or in many cases directly financially benefit from it. Please remember to be kind and love one another.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and shop steward with UFCW 8