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SF Public Press Talks Cost of Living on Local Radio Show

San Francisco Public Press
 — Jun 2 2016 - 12:44pm

The findings of a San Francisco Public Press’ special report, “The Cost of Living Here,” were the topic of an hourlong discussion recently on KCSF-FM, the radio station of City College.

Opening a two-part series on homelessness in San Francisco, “Voices of the Community” host George Koster’s guests explained how an increasingly expensive city has affected residents, how government assistance programs have failed to respond, and what one organization is doing to fill some of those gaps.

The panel featured Angela Woodall, the project’s lead author; Stephanie Zamudio, liaison for the Family Independence Initiative, and Caroline Danielson, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Woodall said the report’s focus had been on the plights of longtime San Francisco residents, rather than newcomers. She and the team’s other reporters found that, since the turn of the century, prices had risen sharply for many goods and services — not just for housing, which is commonly the only commodity mentioned by local news outlets.

“We wanted to sort of take a step beyond that, to what was less obvious,” Woodall said.

Her lead story, “High Housing Prices Undercut Aid Programs,” had revealed that the combined prices of all goods and services rose by 43 percent in the Bay Area between 2000 and 2015, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As increasing portions of residents’ incomes were set aside for these inflating costs, Woodall said she wanted to know “what are they giving up? What are they compromising on, and how is that affecting their day-to-day life?” Her team found that in some cases people resorted to eating less protein or buying beans instead meat.

Many residents could be struggling unbeknown to the federal government, which doesn’t account for varying local costs like housing or transportation in its poverty calculations, Danielson said.

By the federal measures, California had the nation’s 15th highest poverty rate in 2013, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. After factoring in local costs, the institute found the state actually took first place. Danielson’s team applied the same recalculation to San Francisco and found that about 23 percent of the city’s population lived in poverty, a slightly bigger slice than in California as a whole.

Koster asked if it was possible to re-draw the poverty line to make it more accurate for San Francisco and the Bay Area.

“Certainly,” Danielson said. “To have it be used is another question.”

The government’s longstanding poverty metrics let it decide how to divvy up financial and other assistance. If those metrics changed, assistance could shift to other recipients.

Possible solutions

Koster asked his guests if they knew of any potential remedies to protect San Franciscans from being priced out.

Zamudio cited her organization’s approach, which has crafted programs based on what local families said they needed. One effort, “Family Time,” reimbursed parents for work hours they sacrificed to be with their children.

“What have you seen in the way of impact?” Koster asked.

“Oh, are you kidding me?” Zamudio said, “Many families are, like, ‘My kids’ grades and attendance is going up. I’m able to spend more time and be more in tune with what’s happening.’ ”

Danielson said it might be “sensible” to reduce the barriers to obtaining the federal government’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which reimburses households earning below certain thresholds. About a quarter of eligible Californians don’t obtain this federal assistance because they haven’t filed taxes, she said.

Woodall said that her reporting had revealed few city programs designed to help people weather the high cost of living.

City Hall offers free Muni passes to children and teens, and the local minimum wage will also increase to $15 by 2018.

But in general, Woodall added, the city’s elected leaders “just didn’t address the reality of the situation as far as I could tell.”

Middle-class households in particular were neglected, she said. Many struggle to afford living here but earn too much to qualify for government assistance. Woodall suggested that residents pressure their representatives to adjust those eligibility thresholds.

Politicians “know that the income ceilings are out of whack,” she said. “They just aren’t changing it.”

Part two of the series featured community members and organizations that are working to provide support to the city’s 1,500 to 2,000 homeless families and find solutions to their plight. The panelists were Emily Cohen, deputy director at Project Homeless Connect; Sam Dodge, director of the Office of Mayor Ed Lee’s Department of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), and Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae.