On the brink
California’s high rent leaves many one crisis away from financial ruin
Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk tracks her family’s monthly budget on an Excel spreadsheet.
Panic usually sets in by the end of the month.
“Because oftentimes we are negative by about $10,” Holkenbrink-Monk said. “If we had some unexpected expense, we wouldn’t know how to figure it out. We wouldn’t know how to pay for it. We literally have zero dollars in our savings account right now.”
Her situation is hardly a rarity.
More than a third of California families don’t have enough money to pay for basic living expenses for three months without an income, according to Washington, D.C.-based Prosperity Now. Although California ranks only slightly higher than the rest of the country, on average, experts believe the state’s residents face a bigger barrier to socking money away into a rainy day fund.
“Clearly, California has a housing problem and a housing affordability problem that’s sucking out income,” said Erik Bruvold, chief executive officer at the San Diego North Economic Development Council. “We have these escalating housing prices and these really low personal savings rates.”
For Holkenbrink-Monk, it is the escalation of housing costs that, she said, have drained her of any hope of building a savings for emergencies. She moved her family into a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego in 2014 for $1,525 a month. Since then, her rent has gone up more than $400. It is about to increase again in July by another $110.
“It’s pretty infuriating and pretty heartbreaking,” she said. “Especially since part of that increase was they tacked on pet rent, a maintenance fee, administrative fees and they increased our water.”
She is employed part-time as a community college sociology professor and is working on a Ph.D. in education. Her husband works full time in culinary services at UC San Diego. He is also in school.
Their combined monthly take-home pay is $4,200, which has to cover expenses for the family of four, which includes two young children. The couple has not started paying down their $160,000 student loan debt.
And she said even with better jobs and a little more pay, she and her husband continue to pay half of their income on rent and utilities because of increases.
Since 2013, the average monthly rent on a three-bedroom apartment has jumped 19 percent in California, according to Irvine-based ATTOM Data Solutions.
Home prices are up nearly 40 percent.
“Roughly since that time period, we’ve seen average wages go up 9 percent,” said Daren Blomquist, ATTOM’s senior vice president of communications. “It’s not sustainable at all.”
More than half of the state’s renters and more than a third of its homeowners are considered housing burdened, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. That means they are paying over a third of their income on housing.
And a third of renters in the state and 16 percent of homeowners are paying more than half of their paycheck to cover housing.
The trend is shifting elsewhere in the United States. Homeowners have been spending an increasingly smaller share of their household income on housing in recent years, according to Next 10, a nonpartisan data collection group that focuses on quality-of-life issues in California. Meanwhile, the gap between what California homeowners pay for housing compared to the rest of the nation grew 3.8 percent from 2014 to 2016.
University of San Diego economics professor Alan Gin said there is a practical reason the federal government recommends that people not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
“Somebody gets ill,” Gin said. “Your car breaks down. There’s damage to your house or something like that where you’re going to need money, if people don’t have any savings at all, they’re going to be in serious financial difficulties.”
Holkenbrink-Monk knows this scenario well.
“We had one car break down on us and we didn’t have the money to fix it,” she said. “So, it’s gotten to the point where we just don’t use it. We can’t use it. We’re going to end up getting rid of it.”
She said she cannot borrow from friends and family because they are also struggling.
Holkenbrink-Monk believes California’s housing affordability problem won’t change until renters speak up.
“They don’t want to get kicked out because it’s too expensive to move anywhere else,” she said.
She argued, however, that fear can be overcome.
“I think we need to stop being afraid of talking about money too because it is such a stigma to not have enough money to pay for things,” Holkenbrink-Monk said. “I think if we break through that it would be easier to be like, ‘Hey, I don’t have any money and neither do you,’ and we should be really angry about this and start telling people, ‘No, I don’t want to pay this anymore.’”