On November 8th, 2018, the Camp Fire sparked flames that eventually burned the majority of the area’s affordable housing, the homes of my family members included. Remaining units here in Butte County have substantial rate increases and competitive application practices that leave those with less-than-ideal circumstances stuck at the back of the line and without a home.
As a child raised in extreme poverty and unhoused during most of my childhood, I know what it’s like to live without a home, to struggle to maintain hygiene, to feel hungry, and to worry that our family would be split apart if Child Protective Services were to learn of our dire circumstances. Sadly, some survivors of our wildfires have been forced to live apart from their children: Without stable housing, they are unable to reunite.
In my work as a Housing Case Manager, I struggle to connect fire survivors to housing. I continuously run up against more barriers to housing than I could ever have imagined. Some of those barriers come from the very policies meant to protect people from discrimination, like the Fair Housing Act, which requires that applicants are treated equally in terms of consideration and eligibility.
Many property managers require ideal credit scores, spotless rental histories, and steep income-to-housing cost ratios from each adult in the home. While it’s absolutely fair to ensure tenants can reliably pay rent, it’s incomprehensible that the same screening conditions applied to adults are also required of their 18-year-old high school students. Families of children under age 18 are considered a protected class, while families with “adult” children find it difficult to secure housing.
One example among many highlights this terrible dilemma: Unable to find affordable housing after the fire, a recent client and her teenage son were prevented from staying together at a local shelter, because a parent and opposite-gendered teenage child are not permitted to do so. They have remained separated during their housing quest. The mom remains unhoused, while her son has managed to stay with friends. Poverty-stricken families like these have unfulfilled hopes of reunification; they face a Disparate Impact when their young adult children are unable to pass the extensive background checks required of anyone over age 18, such as a good rental history, decent credit scores, and a substantial income.
Extreme income requirements mandate that adults earn twice or three times the month’s rent. Cosigners who vouch for single-income households must make SIX times the rent before getting a green light. I reached out to a local property manager to confirm this, as some requirements seemed unrealistic to me. Are high school students really expected to work full-time so that their parents could put a roof over their heads? The answer was another surprise: The Fair Housing Act requires that every person, age 18 and older, be held to the same conditions, without discrimination. Even so, I cannot imagine how a student could work full-time between their math and science classes.
Poor credit scores are a “souvenir” of the fire. Survivors increased their debt from having been forced to live off of credit cards after disruptions to employment, in addition to lost housing. Transportation and employment challenges added to their struggles. Some vehicles burned in the fire, while others were repossessed after too many missed payments. Complications of living in housing limbo have increased onerous economic impacts that leave many people unable to pass housing background checks.
Our community, like many others, includes rising numbers of people who are a single paycheck, or natural disaster, away from losing their homes. Housing costs and barriers are increasing across the nation, and a recent report published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) shared the reality of the struggles to rent.
As a nation grappling with increasing homelessness and increased occurrences of natural disasters, we must break down barriers and promote more equitable housing access by connecting people to housing immediately. Paradise survivors see a hard future for Maui as they work under housing limitations similar to what Camp Fire survivors still experience, five years later. To help stabilize families, the Fair Housing Act should include young-adult, high-school students under the protection of families with minor children. Otherwise, current Fair Housing policies are essentially, deeply unfair — setting up the next generation to be homeless from the start. It’s critical that our policies work for us, not against us, as we find more ways to connect people to housing.