The mold in Martha Leon’s home has been there as long as she has. It grows in thick mottled patterns up the wall and around the windows, clinging to baseboards, the curtains, furniture and clothing.
But Leon and her family have struggled to leave their house in Fresno, California, even though she and her two children have developed asthma. There’s simply nowhere else they can afford.
Fresno is the largest city in the agricultural Central Valley, and has historically been one of the most affordable places to live in California. But during the pandemic, rents began to rise dramatically, climbing by 26% over 12 months.
Locals attribute the surge to people seeking to escape the high cost of living in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. But even as life returns to pre-pandemic norms, those who live here say the situation isn’t getting any better. Rents, which had been steadily climbing for years before the pandemic, are still rising and, coupled with a shortage of homes, that’s hitting low-income residents hardest.
“During Covid, Fresno and Central Valley rents just kept increasing,” said Jovana Morales-Tilgren, a housing policy coordinator with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “Many people were struggling and are still struggling. Landlords keep raising rents and people have nowhere to go.”
With a median cost of $1,141 for a one-bedroom and $1,421 for a two-bedroom, Fresno rents are still below those of San Francisco or Los Angeles. But Fresno is among the most diverse cities in the US, and also one of the poorest. About 50% of households make less than $50,000 a year, while a quarter of residents are in poverty, according to US Census data.
Fifty per cent of Fresno’s population is Latino, and several residents told the Guardian they immigrated here decades ago from Mexico because of Fresno’s job opportunities and affordability – a reality that is quickly disappearing.
“In places like Fresno you have really high rates of poverty and a significant share of people who have really low incomes,” said Carolina Reid, a faculty research adviser with the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. “The labor market in Fresno is not catching up to the price of housing.”
The situation has left families with few options, forcing them to stay in substandard housing, move in with other family members or even leave Fresno entirely, Morales-Tilgren said.
The Leons have been looking for a new place to live for months. They currently pay $650 a month, but their landlord is planning to raise the rent by at least 45% to cover the cost of renovations to the building, meaning they could soon be paying $1,000 a month.
Leon’s son, who works in fruit label manufacturing, is the primary breadwinner in the house, and there are few options the family can afford. The Leons have applied for at least eight apartments, paying fees of $30 each time, but in Fresno’s competitive rental market they have never heard back.
“I have nowhere else to go,” Leon, 53, said in Spanish. “Since May I’ve been looking but I haven’t found anything.”
Ashley Miranda, a mother of two who works at Starbucks, has spent six months trying to find a new place that’s safer and quieter for her children. It used to be easy to find two-bedrooms for around $900 a month, Miranda said, but now those same apartments go for $1,500.
“My fingers are crossed,” she said. “I just want something better. I have two kids and I want their environment to be better. I just don’t understand why everything has gotten so expensive.”
‘Fresno is becoming very popular’
There isn’t enough data to determine how large a role migration from other parts of the state has played in Fresno’s housing prices, but it is believed to be significant. Fresno was the only one of California’s five largest cities to see a population gain last year, which could indicate an influx from more expensive parts of the state.
“Fresno is becoming a very popular place,” said Karla Martinez, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability who works with Fresno residents. “People see how cheap the housing market is here.” California’s high-speed rail project, which will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco via the Central Valley, is also a selling point, Martinez said.
The city has traditionally had the most affordable housing in the state, said H Spees, Fresno’s housing and homeless initiatives director, but California’s population growth and lack of affordability has hit the area hard.
“You’ve got folks from coastal areas that are finding it a very positive move to sell their one-story, 1,400 sq ft ranch house for $1m in San Jose and move to Fresno and buy a wonderfully large home for $400,000. That’s been fueled even more by working remotely through Covid but it was already beginning to happen.”
That reality has left some longtime residents thinking about leaving entirely; residents such as Isabel Vargas, a 59-year-old who has lived in Fresno for 32 years. Vargas has spent more than half that time in the same three-bedroom rental, where she pays $550 a month. But a new landlord who recently bought the house has said she and her family must leave.
Searching for a new home has now become her daughter’s full-time job, but Vargas says if they can’t find anything in their price range, they will probably leave the city. It’s something Morales-Tilgren and Martinez say they are hearing from others, too.
Those who find housing within Fresno sometimes end up in units that are all but uninhabitable, Morales-Tilgren adds. “You’ll have folks that have rodent infestations, broken fixtures, mold, a lot of these extremely unhealthy environments because that’s all they can afford.”
Francisca Alba lives in a tidy two-bedroom apartment with her husband and four children. They can afford the monthly rent of $710, but the unit has been deteriorating for years and the property manager has done little to help. The carpet hasn’t been replaced, or even cleaned, in the 15 years she’s lived there, nor has the unit received a fresh coat of paint.
The floors are damaged from recent flooding and there’s been a hole in the wall for more than a year since workers fixed pipes near the sink. The property manager told her no one can make the repair due to Covid, so she’s carefully covered it with a poster board and tacks.
“It lowers my self-esteem to see these things. Overall, it brings me sadness,” she said through a translator. “The managers think that we aren’t going to do anything about it, maybe because we’re low-income – so why would they do anything to fix it?”
‘California’s housing market is broken’
Fresno county is short more than 36,000 affordable housing units, according to the California Housing Partnership, a trend echoed throughout the state. It’s a crisis driven by a demand that far exceeds the supply and a lack of subsidies to build affordable housing.
“Overall California’s housing market is broken,” Reid said.
At the same time, the city is grappling with a 69% rise in homelessness between 2019-2020 after years of working to reduce it. Fresno has extended a local eviction moratorium through the end of the year, offered emergency rental housing assistance and expanded housing options for homeless residents, but Spees says the problem “is not something that’s going to go away soon”.
Martinez and advocates with the Leadership Counsel for Justice hope to see the city council pass rent control, stronger protections against eviction and right to counsel, which they say are necessary to address the crisis.
Without such changes and more affordable housing, experts warn the outcome will be grim. “Then Fresno is going to experience a lot of the same issues we’re seeing in the Bay Area: rising housing insecurity, potentially displacement and homelessness,” Reid said.
Martha Leon says everyone she knows has been affected by rent increases. Friends are facing rent hikes every six months – her brother’s rent has gone up more than 50% – and loved ones are leaving. But she doesn’t know where she’ll go next.
“There’s nowhere. It’s here or Mexico.”
How one of California’s cheapest cities became unaffordable: ‘the housing market is broken’