The mold in Martha Leon’s house has been there for as long as she has been. It grows in thick marbled patterns along the wall and around windows, clinging to baseboards, curtains, furniture, and clothing.
But Leon and her family struggled to leave their home in Fresno, Calif., Even though she and her two children developed asthma. There is simply nowhere else that they can afford.
Fresno is the largest farming town in the Central Valley and has always been one of the most affordable places to live in California. But during the pandemic, rents started to rise dramatically, climbing 26% year over year.
Locals attribute the increase to people looking to escape the high cost of living in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. But even if life returns to pre-pandemic standards, those who live here say the situation is not improving. Rents, which had been rising steadily for years before the pandemic, continue to rise and, coupled with a housing shortage, is hitting low-income residents the hardest.
“During Covid, rents in Fresno and Central Valley kept increasing,” said Jovana Morales-Tilgren, housing policy coordinator at the Governing Council for Justice and Accountability. “A lot of people were struggling and still struggling. Landlords keep raising rents and people have nowhere to go.
With a median cost of $ 1,141 for a one-bedroom and $ 1,421 for a two-bedroom, Fresno’s rents are consistently lower than those in San Francisco or Los Angeles. But Fresno is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and also one of the poorest. About 50% of households earn less than $ 50,000 per year, while a quarter of residents live in poverty, according to US Census data.
Fifty percent of Fresno’s population is Latino, and several residents told The Guardian that they immigrated here from Mexico decades ago because of Fresno’s employment opportunities and affordability – a vanishing reality. quickly.
“In places like Fresno, you have very high poverty rates and a significant portion of people with very low incomes,” said Carolina Reid, faculty research advisor at UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. “The job market in Fresno is not catching up with the cost of housing. “
The situation left families with few options, forcing them to stay in substandard housing, move in with other family members, or even leave Fresno entirely, Morales-Tilgren said.
The Leons had been looking for new accommodation for months. They are currently paying $ 650 per month, but their landlord plans to raise the rent by at least 45% to cover the cost of renovations to the building, which means they may soon be paying $ 1,000 per month.
Leon’s son, who works in the manufacture of fruit labels, is the main breadwinner in the household, and there are few options the family can afford. The Leons asked for at least eight apartments, paying a $ 30 fee each time, but in Fresno’s competitive rental market, they never got a response.
“I have nowhere to go,” Leon, 53, said in Spanish. “Since May, I have been looking but have not found anything.”
Ashley Miranda, a mother of two who works at Starbucks, spent six months trying to find a new, safer, quieter place for her children. It used to be easy to find two bedrooms for around $ 900 a month, Miranda said, but now those same apartments cost $ 1,500.
“I keep my fingers crossed,” she said. “I just want something better. I have two children and I want their environment to be better. I just don’t understand why everything has become so expensive.
“Fresno is becoming very popular”
There isn’t enough data to determine the significant role migration from other parts of the state has played in housing prices in Fresno, but it is believed to be significant. Fresno was the only one of California’s five largest cities to see its population increase last year, which could indicate an influx of more expensive parts of the state.
“Fresno is becoming a very popular place,” said Karla Martinez, policy advocate with the Board of Directors for Justice and Accountability who works with residents of Fresno. “People see how cheap the housing market is here. The California high-speed train project, which will link Los Angeles to San Francisco via the Central Valley, is also a selling point, Martinez said.
The city has traditionally had the most affordable housing in the state, said H Spees, director of Fresno’s housing and homelessness initiatives, but California’s population growth and lack of affordability have hit hard. the region.
“You have people in the coastal areas who find it a very positive decision to sell their 1,400 square foot one story ranch home for $ 1 million in San Jose and move to Fresno and buy a wonderfully large house. for $ 400,000. It was fueled even more by remote working through Covid, but it was already starting to happen. “
This reality has left some longtime residents thinking about leaving altogether; locals like Isabel Vargas, a 59-year-old woman who has lived in Fresno for 32 years. Vargas has spent more than half of that time in the same three-bedroom rental, where she pays $ 550 a month. But a new owner who recently bought the house said she and her family had to move.
Finding a new home has now become her daughter’s full-time job, but Vargas says if they can’t find anything in their price range, they’ll likely leave town. This is something Morales-Tilgren and Martinez say they hear from other people as well.
Those who find accommodation in Fresno sometimes find themselves in virtually uninhabitable accommodation, adds Morales-Tilgren. “You’re going to have people with rodent infestations, broken appliances, mold, a lot of these extremely unhealthy environments because that’s all they can afford.”
Francisca Alba lives in a tidy two bedroom apartment with her husband and four children. They can afford the monthly rent of $ 710, but the unit has been deteriorating for years and the property manager hasn’t done much to help them. The carpet has not been replaced, or even cleaned, in the 15 years she has lived there, and the unit has not received a new coat of paint either.
The floors are damaged by the recent flooding and there has been a hole in the wall for more than a year since workers repaired pipes near the sink. The property manager told her that no one could do the repair because of Covid, so she carefully covered it with a notice board and thumbtacks.
“It lowers my self-esteem to see these things. Overall it brings me sadness, ”she said through a translator. “Managers think we’re not going to do anything about it, maybe because we’re low income – so why would they do something about it? “
“California real estate market is broken”
Fresno County is short of more than 36,000 affordable housing units, according to the California Housing Partnership, a trend that is spilling over statewide. It is a crisis driven by demand that far exceeds supply and a lack of subsidies to build affordable housing.
“Overall, the California housing market is broken,” Reid said.
At the same time, the city is grappling with a 69% increase in homelessness between 2019-2020 after years of work to reduce it. Fresno extended a local moratorium on evictions until the end of the year, offered emergency rental housing assistance and expanded housing options for homeless residents, but Spees says the problem “doesn’t.” is not something that will go away soon “.
Martinez and lawyers for the Leadership Counsel for Justice are hoping to see city council adopt rent controls, stronger eviction protections and the right to a lawyer, which they say are needed to deal with the crisis.
Without such changes and more affordable housing, experts warn the outcome will be grim. “Then Fresno is going to experience a lot of the same issues we’re seeing in the Bay Area: growing housing insecurity, potential displacement and homelessness,” Reid said.
Martha Leon says everyone she knows has been affected by the rent increases. Friends face rent increases every six months – her brother’s rent has gone up by more than 50% – and relatives are leaving. But she doesn’t know where she will go next.
“There is nowhere. It’s here or in Mexico.