The Eye-Popping Definition Of ‘Low Income’ In The Bay Area Goes Up Again

By Annie Sciacca
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In the Bay area an income of $117,400 will now define you as “low” income. WHAT????

The Mercury News

In a region where even people with six-figure incomes struggle to find places to live, the threshold for who qualifies as “low income” keeps going up.

Reflecting the Bay Area’s relentless rise in housing costs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest definition of the “low” income level to qualify for certain affordable housing programs stands at $117,400 per year for a household of four people in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.

That’s up more than 10 percent from last year and is the highest in the nation.

Households in those three counties that are considered “very low” income bring in as much as $73,300 per year and the threshold for “extremely low” for a family of four is $44,000, according to HUD’s recently released 2018 limits.

The median family income for those areas is $118,400, according to HUD.

The federal income limits, which set a threshold that determines who can qualify for affordable and subsidized housing programs such as Section 8 vouchers, have risen for at least four consecutive years.

But they’re still not keeping pace with the price of housing in some areas.

The median price of resale homes has increased 25 percent in the past year in Santa Clara County, 11.8 percent in Alameda and 10 percent in Contra Costa.

In May, the median price for a single family home in the Bay Area reached a record $935,000, according to real estate data firm Core Logic.

“It just demonstrates how broken and unsustainable our housing market is,” said Amie Fishman, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California. “More and more people are unable to afford housing.”

At his job as a third-grade bilingual education teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Richmond resident Jesus Galindo makes roughly $60,000 a year. The “low income” threshold for a single person in Contra Costa County by HUD guidelines is $62,750.

In many respects, Galindo feels well-off financially. He bought a house in Richmond about three years ago, he said, on which he estimates he spends 33 percent of his monthly income. He lives within walking distance of the school where he teaches, so his transportation costs are minimal and he rarely shops for clothes or splurges on any luxuries. But that does not mean he’s not immune to the financial concerns shared by many in the Bay Area.

He knows what it’s like to live with much less. He moved around the state growing up, as his father struggled sometimes to make even $15,000 in a year in his job as a day laborer and moved the family to find places they could afford.

His parents live in Los Banos, which is having its own affordability issues as more people move there, Galindo said, but the idea that his parents cannot afford to live in the Bay Area is difficult.

“For someone who loves the Bay Area, and loves Richmond, that breaks my heart,” he said.

Galindo wonders whether he will ever be able to afford to have his own family.

“Raising a family in the Bay Area is very expensive,” said Galindo, whose partner is also a teacher. “Even though I own my home, babysitting is expensive, the cost of food is expensive.”

And he sees the impact of the Bay Area’s rising rents on both his teacher colleagues and the families of students he teaches.

“The families I work with in Richmond … they can’t afford to live here anymore, they’re pushed out,” he said.
The 2018 HUD increases broaden the pool of people eligible for some federal housing programs or subsidies, but they’re unlikely to make much difference in a region already suffering from a shortage of affordable housing.

Michael Santero, director of asset management for San Jose-based nonprofit affordable housing developer and manager First Community Housing, said waiting lists are often years-long and turnover is low.

According to HUD, low-income families are defined as families whose incomes do not exceed 80 percent of the median family income for the area. Very low-income families are defined as those whose incomes do not exceed 50 percent of the median. But to accommodate high-housing cost areas like the Bay Area, the limits are adjusted in a way that exceed those percentages.

Santero said that while most of the First Community Housing properties house families whose incomes are below 60 percent of the median, he’s not surprised to see that people at the 90 percent level are in need of affordable housing, considering the price of market rents in the Bay Area, which average between $2,500 and $3,500 locally, according to a recent RentCafe study.

One in three households in California, about 3.3 million families, are struggling to reach a decent standard of living, even though most of those households include full-time workers, according to United Ways of California.

In a recently released report, the nonprofit coalition said its measure for a decent standard of living included the cost of housing, childcare, transportation, healthcare and food. Families below the federal poverty level spend as much as 79 percent of their income on their homes, according to the report.

The Bay Area’s HUD income limits outstrip Los Angeles, where the HUD-determined low-income threshold for a family of four is $77,500, and New York City, notorious for its high housing costs housing, where the limit for the same size household is $83,450.

“California needs 1 million more units of affordable housing for people at the very low and extremely low (income limits), those struggling the most,” Fishman said.

While some argue that simply producing more housing at market-rate levels would alleviate the crunch, Fishman said a more active approach is required.

“The market will never produce homes for people at that level,” she said. “The market produces housing for those at the top.”

While she hopes a state bond that will be on the ballot this November to allocate more funds for affordable housing will help, she said the next California governor is going to have to take this issue “head on.”

The increase of HUD’s income limits, Fishman said, is “exactly the indicator of how broken the market is, how unsustainable it is, and how the affordability crisis has gone up the income scale.”

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