California Already Has a Housing Crisis. The Fires Just Made It Worse.

California is on fire. Again. The state’s 2018 wildfire season has been devastating, and it’s not over yet. The dramatic Woolsey and Hill fires scorching the hills around Los Angeles are still being brought under control, and first responders are battling the Camp Fire in Butte County, which has killed at least 56 people and torn through 140,000 acres and more than 10,000 structures.

Recovery from wildfires can take years, and for affected communities, one aspect is especially pressing: Housing. California’s housing prices are infamously high, and in Butte County, this problem is particularly bad. With 19.5 percent of the county living below the poverty line, explains Ed Mayer, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, many households are heavily rent-burdened.

Five of his 36 staffers from around Butte County lost their homes in the blaze and many others are housing friends and family left houseless by the fire. The Camp Fire was most devastating in Paradise, where 95 percent of the city’s residential and commercial buildings are gone, says Mayer. The county as a whole lost a staggering 10 percent of its housing stock in the Camp Fire.

“Prior to the crisis, we had a vacancy rate of maybe 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent,” he says, estimating that Butte had approximately 1,000 units available around the county before the fire. That’s far short of the 6,000 households, including some receiving housing assistance, that will be looking for new homes after theirs were destroyed. Evacuees from Paradise are predominantly low-income elders and disabled people who settled there for a unique combination of affordable housing (by California standards) and access to medical services, he explains, a situation they may struggle to find elsewhere in the state.

He fears low-income residents may leave the state altogether, while others may be left doubling up with friends and family or moving in and out of shelters and the street. Mayer even raised the prospect of “tent cities” akin to those seen during the Dust Bowl to accommodate desperate residents, some of whom are already camping due to the lack of sheltering options. The local alternatives, like neighboring Oroville, are unlikely to meet the needs of evacuees — 60 percent of Oroville renters are already paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent and utilities every month. Oroville was also in the headlines in 2017 for its crumbling dam, which itself may be threatened by the fire.

Rents tend to spike after disasters

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Mayer says, noting that Butte County reached out to officials in Santa Rosa, where last year’s Tubbs Fire destroyed nearly 6,000 structures, including in low-income neighborhoods, to learn more about how they handled losing five percent of their housing stock to a fast-moving wildfire. The lessons from Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County may prove to be instructive for other communities in the state facing similar catastrophes.

In the weeks and months after the Santa Rosa fires, rents began soaring, and so did property values, though Governor Jerry Brown instituted temporary price gouging protections that led to at least one successful prosecution. Construction costs also began to rise, further crunching homeowners attempting to rebuild and complicated by a proliferation of unlicensed and unqualified contractors flocking to the area to take advantage of property owners eager to start rebuilding.

In Santa Rosa, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat estimated the housing crunch caused by the Tubbs fire drove some 7,000 people to leave the city of 175,000, and over 1,000 fled the county altogether — some, tragically, for Butte County. Renters particularly struggled, with working-class people and undocumented immigrants heavily represented amongst those scrambling for housing.  According to the industry-supported Insurance Information Institute, only 37 percent of renters carried renters’ insurance for their homes, which left many renters with limited resources to replace belongings, let alone find new homes. Long, uncertain waits while property owners determined whether and how to rebuild were compounded by housing scarcity and rising prices, making it hard to stay in the area in the aftermath of the fire. Sonoma County was ultimately forced to declare a homelessness crisis to access funds for people experiencing homelessness, with rates climbing six percent in the aftermath of the fire.

Yet, even with an obvious crisis, Santa Rosa voters just rejected a $124 million bond measure designated for affordable housing.

According to CoreLogic, rents tend to spike after disasters, as illustrated in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as the Tubbs fire. Delinquencies also increase as impacted residents fall behind on their mortgage payments, and something else happens too: Property tax revenues drop, at the precise moment counties and municipalities need that money most. Another Santa Rosa ballot measure, which passed, approved a temporary sales tax increase to provide funding for emergency services, offsetting some of these tax losses. But sales taxes are regressive: they place the highest burden on the people who are most likely to need the support.

These trends are highly predictable, yet communities are still unprepared for them.

Devastating wildfires are no longer shocking exceptions

The Camp Fire is the deadliest in California history, but devastating wildfires are no longer shocking exceptions. They are the status quo for the Golden State, which has hit the frontlines of climate change just like hurricane-wracked communities across the country in the South. Another CoreLogic study estimates over 48,000 homes are at risk from wildfires in California, many in communities that have already burned before, sometimes multiple times. California’s own Climate Change Assessment, released in August of this year, found that the number of acres burned by fire throughout the state will increase by 77 percent by 2100 as a result of impacts from climate change.

Decreasing rainfall is desiccating already fire-prone environments right as the wind kicks up in the summer and fall, and all it takes is a spark from a flat tire, poorly maintained electrical line, or bad hot tub wiring to ignite a fire. Embattled utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has already taken the unprecedented step of temporary power cuts during periods of high fire risk in an attempt to avoid sparking another conflagration, and a group of Camp Fire survivors just filed suit against the utility, claiming it played a role in the fire that took their homes, though the cause remains under investigation.

“I don’t know,” says Mayer, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. “There’s major decisions facing the community.” It’s a sentiment echoed across fire-prone California, from Santa Rosa officials agonizing over whether and where to approve new developments to the fire evacuees roaming the aisles of drugstores far from home in search of replacement toothbrushes.



First Person

My Criminal Record Kept Me Poor For 30 Years. A New Law Will Finally Let Me Move On.

I love getting credit card offers in the mail. I know most people throw them straight in the trash, but they’re my favorite. I’ll turn them over in my hands, read the promises written on the envelopes and remember that my name is worth something to someone.

I am 54 years old, but this is a new feeling. Going to the laundromat and the grocery store in the same week, living without roommates, and sorting through this pile of junk mail all feel like proof that I’m a whole person now. It’s all evidence that I might finally be allowed to move on from mistakes I made last century.

I have a criminal record. I was convicted of two nonviolent misdemeanors decades ago, and they have haunted me, and my daughter, ever since. For her entire life, I struggled to make ends meet. That’s not the kind of thing you can explain to a child: she hated skipping school field trips and wearing homemade Halloween costumes. And even though I tried to explain, again and again, why I had to leave during dinner to make the late shift at the bar, I could never find the right words to make her understand why things had to be this hard for us. I didn’t know the answer myself.

I’ve worked jobs wherever I could — minimum wage at the supermarket, part-time at a clothing store, cleaning gigs that only paid under the table. At the same time, I went back to school and got a degree that taught me how to do the clerical work that keeps a doctor’s office running. I always wanted to help people, and even though I graduated on the honor roll, I couldn’t find a person who’d give me the chance. When they looked at me, all they saw was my record.

So I tried to get that record cleared. I went to expungement clinics, and I applied for a pardon. Nothing worked. I didn’t know what to do. All I could do was what I had been doing for years already: piecing together part-time jobs, raising a child on an income meant for a teenager, and searching for a way to change our lives.

Eventually, I found a lawyer. She taught me my rights, and gave me the confidence I needed to apply for jobs and insist that I be given a fair chance. After thirty years of struggling, my life has finally started to get better. Still, this is only a partial solution — it depends on me sticking up for myself.

New legislation in my home state of Pennsylvania, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by the Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, would help people like me rebuild our lives. The Clean Slate law automatically seals certain misdemeanor convictions after the individual is crime-free for 10 years. No jumping through hoops, no trying to work the system, no hoping you get lucky enough to find a good lawyer. It would have reset my life more than a decade ago.

In the past year that I have learned to advocate for myself, I’ve finally been able to  put my education to work. I work as a home health aide, cleaning and feeding folks who need support, and  caring for them with a gentle touch.

I’m the first to take an extra shift at work, and because I do, I can afford to help my daughter for the first time in her life. I can’t buy her a house, but I can help pay her rent when she needs it. We don’t have to stay on the couch at a friend’s place, or making a temporary home in a basement. I get to be a mother I always wanted to be, and a Nanna to my grandkids.

This is the only version of me that they know. When I open the door to their home, they shout  “Nanna, do you have something for me?”

For the first time in my life, I get to say “yes.” I always do. Isn’t that what Nannas are for?

Editor’s Note: The Center for American Progress, where TalkPoverty is housed, is a partner in the Clean Slate campaign. Find out more at CleanSlateCampaign.org.



The Frenzy Over Amazon’s HQ2 Should Be a National Embarrassment

Amazon’s HQ2 auction is finally over.

On Tuesday, the internet retailer announced that its search for a second headquarters has ended, with Long Island City in Queens and “National Landing,” Virginia, a conglomeration of Washington, D.C. suburbs, selected as sites for its big expansion. The company is promising to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the two areas, along with billions of dollars from direct investments and a broadened tax base from its new, highly-paid workforce. The company also announced a smaller expansion in Nashville, Tennessee.

However, there’s a catch: Both Virginia and New York offered Amazon monetary incentives in an attempt to win HQ2, as it’s known. Until now, the public — and even some lawmakers in those states— had no idea what those incentives were. And it’s ultimately low-income residents in both places who will pay the biggest price.

Amazon’s announcement included the news that it will receive $1.5 billion in tax breaks from New York, and another half a billion from Virginia, along with promises from both states to make significant infrastructure improvements. As a result, each new job that Amazon brings will cost these cities tens of thousands of dollars.

Depending on which analysis you look at, cities and states in America spend up $90 billion annually on corporate tax incentives. That category of spending has more than tripled since 1990. The theory at work is that incentives are an investment in corporations creating jobs and boosting local economies.

Corporate tax breaks have little to no effect on job creation or economic growth

The evidence backing up that theory, though, is thin. In fact, most studies have found that corporate tax breaks have little to no effect on job creation or economic growth, because they mostly encourage shifting jobs from one locale to another without creating any new economic activity. (Think, for instance, of a worker who leaves her current job to take one at Amazon, or moves from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to Long Island.) What these tax breaks really stimulate is politicians’ efforts to get re-elected, as doling them out is correlated with rising vote shares.

The secrecy surrounding the effort to woo Amazon adds insult to that injury. 238 cities responded to the corporation’s initial request for proposals. Only a few of them made what they offered Amazon public. Reporters and activists in several cities took their local governments to court in an effort to ascertain what they promised Amazon.

The secrecy even extended to local elected officials.“My understanding is the public subsidies that are being discussed are massive in scale,” a New York state senator who represents Long Island City said to CNN before Amazon’s announcement.

New York’s incentive package was overseen by the state’s development office, with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo promising to go to great lengths, including naming both a polluted creek and himself after Amazon, in order to secure HQ2. Already, New York spends more on corporate tax breaks than any other state, including $8.25 billion in 2015.

That officials promised a private corporation unknown amounts of taxpayer money is troubling on its face, and prevented activists and elected officials from organizing against specific proposals. But it’s also problematic because every dollar that winds up going to Amazon is taken from programs that are designed to help the area’s residents more directly.

Since most states have balanced budget requirements, the money spent on Amazon can’t be spent on education, health care, infrastructure, affordable housing, or the host of other responsibilities of local governments. (For instance, the entire annual budget of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development is about $150 million — less than one-third of what the state offered to Amazon.) And other corporations have said they want the same deal Amazon received, which would strain budgets even more as states promise ever-bigger sums to major corporations.

The New York and D.C. areas are already among the most economically unequal in the country.

Plus, the influx of money and people that Amazon brings will exacerbate inequality in the New York and D.C. areas, which are already some of the most economically unequal in the country. According to the Urban Institute, D.C.-area rents have risen by about 10 percent since 2011, and the median house price is now north of half a million dollars. Per that analysis, “the challenges of rising affordability pressures and lengthening commutes will intensify, and more households will experience hardship” with the influx of Amazon money and workers.

Even before Amazon made its announcement, D.C. was facing a housing deficit of tens of thousands of units, while Arlington County, Virginia, has seen its affordable housing stock plummet by 90 percent over the last two decades. New York is facing similar concerns. Though the effect will be more muted than it would have been in some smaller cities, it will still be significant.

Already, other cities have experienced the downside of being home to big tech corporations that stress local housing markets, including Seattle, Amazon’s main home. An effort to tax big corporations there in order to raise funds to address the lack of affordable housing was defeated thanks to opposition from Amazon.

In many ways, the Amazon HQ2 process has been a charade. After gathering data on hundreds of cities, Amazon wound up going with the home of Wall Street and the home of America’s government, two advantages no amount of money could buy.

Meanwhile, struggling cities across the country were led to believe that an economic renaissance could be headed their way, and spent time and money trying to win something they possibly never had a chance at to begin with, instead of expending those resources on the people they are supposed to serve. The whole thing should be a national embarrassment.



What Progressives Won Last Night That You Might Have Missed

The 2018 midterm elections were a mixed bag for progressive policies. We had some big wins: States expanded Medicaid, increased the minimum wage, and gave voting rights back to more than a million Americans. But we also faced some hard losses: There are new regressive tax laws, restrictions on abortion access, and tough votes against criminal justice reform.

The undisputed good news is that Americans chipped away at the old guard last night. After two years of constant stress about losing our health care, massive tax handouts to the wealthy, and open animosity towards anyone perceived as different, we finally gained some ground.

To celebrate, we’re taking a break from our usual doom and gloom and rounding up the results that we were excited to wake up to this morning.

We finally have some good news about health care.

Congressional Democrats are in a better position to defend the Affordable Care Act, and are likely to work on stabilizing the ACA and addressing high drug prices in the new congress.

On a state level, voters were clearly motivated by concerns about health care. They also approved Medicaid expansion in three states: Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. This extends Medicaid coverage to 340,000 low-income people.

The victories for Medicaid don’t stop there. In Maine, where the governor and voters have been engaged in a protracted battle over Medicaid expansion, Governor-elect Janet Mills says she’ll implement Medicaid expansion “immediately” upon taking office. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas could also drive expansion in their states, where leadership has historically resisted it. Sadly, all isn’t rosy: Montana voters rejected a ballot measure that would have extended Medicaid funding via a tobacco tax, ending coverage for nearly 100,000 residents.

A number of pro-choice candidates performed well last night. But two states, West Virginia and Alabama, amended their constitutions to specifically rule out the right to abortion. It’s a symbolic amendment for as long as Roe v. Wade stands, but the new balance on the Supreme Court could place it in jeopardy.

Florida is giving the vote to 1.4 million residents.

Florida’s Amendment 4 restored voting rights to people with felony records. Until last night, it had been one of only three states (now two) that denied people convicted of felonies the right to vote after they served their sentences. That disenfranchised more than 9 percent of the state’s population overall, and 21 percent of African Americans.

It’s difficult to estimate how big of an impact this could have moving forward, but it’s certainly possible that this influx of new voters will sway future elections. And, most importantly, it will allow more than a million people to vote on the policies that affect their lives.

One other bright spot last night was in Colorado: The state passed an amendment barring the use of slavery as punishment for a crime. Other ballot measures were, to put it nicely, kind of a bummer. Six states passed a version of Marsy’s law, which establishes a victims’ bill of rights that has the potential to violate the rights of people accused of crimes and makes it harder for people who are incarcerated to access parole boards and early release. In addition, North Dakota and Ohio both rejected measures that would lessen sentences for drug crimes.

Conservative states are raising their minimum wage.

Voters in Missouri and Arkansas approved increases in the minimum wage, which will together provide a raise to nearly 1 million workers. Missouri’s ballot initiative, which won with more than 62 percent of the vote, will hike its wage to $12 per hour by 2023. Arkansas’, approved by nearly 70 percent of voters, will increase the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2021. Missouri’s initiative also reverses a minimum wage decrease that the state legislature imposed on St. Louis, which had raised its own minimum wage to $10 in 2017.

This continues a trend of minimum wage action on the state and local level. Though the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been increased since 2007, four states approved wage hikes in 2014, and four more did the same in 2016, while cities including BaltimoreSeattle, and Washington, D.C. have increased their own minimums.

Still, 21 states adhere to the federal minimum wage, the purchasing power of which peaked in the 1960s. We would certainly like to see more movement here, since wages have been stagnant across the country for the last several decades – particularly for low-income workers and black and Hispanic families.

We’ll look at this as a blow to the specious arguments that opponents to trans rights have been making against trans Americans.

Massachusetts will uphold rights for transgender Americans.

In 2016, Massachusetts passed a bill to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in public places, but the law’s opponents managed to get it placed on the ballot this year. Voters upheld the law, which provides protections that don’t exist on a national level, by nearly 70 percent. In most states, it is still legal to discriminate against someone in housing, business, employment, and public accommodations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because we’re celebrating, we’ll gloss over how irritated the entire TalkPoverty staff is that it’s possible to put these rights on the ballot. Instead, we’ll look at this as a blow to the specious arguments that opponents to trans rights have been making against trans Americans.

San Francisco is taxing corporations to help people experiencing homelessness.

It was generally a bad night for tax policy on the state and local level, due to several states, including North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, approving anti-tax ballot measures, and the defeat of an effort to raise corporate taxes and implement a progressive income tax in Colorado in order to spend more money on public schools.

However, San Francisco approved an increase in its corporate tax — which will be levied on about 300 of its biggest businesses — in order to raise money to combat the city’s homelessness epidemic. At least 50 percent of the funding will be dedicated to direct housing in a city where some 7,500 people are experiencing homelessness.

The successful campaign in San Francisco was mirrored in two other Bay Area cities and counters a similar effort in Seattle, where the city council passed and then repealed a “head tax” due to opposition from Amazon and other big corporations.




Working on a Campaign Is Grueling. A New Union Wants to Make It Better.

During the 2018 midterm cycle, which comes to a close today, the Campaign Workers Guild has unionized the political staffers of candidates across the country. It recently organized Break the Majority, the coordinated campaign of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, marking its first victory in the south.

Campaigns are often grueling affairs for staffers. There is a glorification of self-sacrifice for the greater good enforced by a hierarchical structure that is not conducive to addressing workers’ demands. Salaried pay often dips below minimum wage if calculated on an hourly basis. The CWG’s unionization efforts aim to tip the scales back toward workers’ rights.

“For many years campaign workers were treated as little more than volunteers who could be given a mere stipend rather than professionals who deserve fair pay and fair conditions,” said Ihaab Syed, CWG secretary.

The Campaign Workers Guild was publicly launched in February by current and former campaign workers, and currently has 28 bargaining units in 18 states across the country.

North Carolina is a particularly notable victory because it is both a swing state and a “right to work state,” which means workers do not have to pay dues for the benefits they receive from being in a unionized workplace.

Unionization rates in those states are significantly lower than they are elsewhere. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-unionized workers make 20 percent less than unionized workers on a weekly basis.

CWG’s first victory was the unionization of the Randy Bryce’s congressional campaign, the union ironworker running to take Speaker Paul Ryan’s House seat in Wisconsin. It has also unionized the state coordinated campaigns in Ohio and Minnesota.

Many of the staffers in North Carolina were familiar with CWG’s organizers from their time on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and reached out to begin their unionization effort. “CWG was very open about the process of a union campaign and broke it down into a timeline,” said Grayson Barnette, a field organizer and a member of CWG’s bargaining team in North Carolina.

All CWG bargaining units have been recognized voluntarily without the need for a formal union election. For Break the Majority, it was only six weeks between the initial unionization meeting and voluntary recognition.

However, most private-sector unions are recognized through the National Labor Relations Board elections process, which makes it more difficult, because those campaigns are often met with significant opposition by employers. Nearly 90 percent of employers force workers to attend anti-union events, while more than half effectively threaten plant closings. 35 percent of election requests are withdrawn prior to a vote even being held.

In addition to compensation increases, workers have won sick, bereavement, and parental leave.

Overall, unfair labor practices are alleged in 46 percent of unionizing campaigns, with the NLRB agreeing that at least one charge had merit in half of those cases.

The unionizing effort in the Tarheel State was sparked by a resolution passed by the North Carolina Democratic Party’s executive council that unionization would be encouraged in the 2020 campaign. In other campaigns, though, there has been some pushback.

“They say ‘This is impossible. This is how campaigns work. I paid my dues in these miserable conditions,’” said Syed.

Contracts won by CWG have resulted in several positive changes. In addition to compensation increases, workers have won sick, bereavement, and parental leave. There are 60 members in the North Carolina unit of CWG who will receive pay and health care through the end of November, as well as a 30-minute paid break for lunch during the campaign.

One of the most significant victories for CWG has been addressing sexual harassment. “As we’ve been seeing in the news, sexual harassment is rampant in our society overall and political workplaces and campaigns are no exception,” said Syed.

CWG contracts have led to training on what can be done to prevent harassment and the rights of workers. Furthermore, there has been an implementation of a process whereby complaints can be submitted and investigated.

“Just a process in place is huge for campaigns that aren’t equipped to handle it otherwise,” said Syed.

A long-term issue CWG seeks to work on is how to make health care available year-round and find ways to continue to make campaign work sustainable. For now, though, the change in conditions is worth savoring.

“It’s more for us about having a voice. It was about bringing our concerns to the table and being heard out,” said Barnette.