This story is the second of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.
Fresno, long touted by leaders as California’s most affordable city, has seen significant increases in rent year over year. Rents have been steadily jumping locally since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving thousands of residents at risk of displacement or becoming homeless.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno, according to Apartment List, was $1,056 per month in February. It was around $1,315 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. After a sharp increase, rents are beginning to stabilize in Fresno. Apartment List’s methodology takes into account historic rents from the Census American Community Survey along with real contract rents on newly leased apartments. Fresnoland/Fresno Bee has also heard from many renters that their rents are rising year after year.
Who can afford these new market rents?
A Fresnoland analysis of average wages for common Fresno jobs found that only those employed in two of the top 10 most common occupations locally — healthcare and educational professionals — garner enough wages to afford $1,315 each month for a two-bedroom apartment today. Six of the ten most common occupations can afford median rents for a one-bedroom apartment in February, at $1,056 per month.
Fresno city leaders have touted new warehousing facilities and manufacturing jobs as key to improving economic growth and mobility for residents. But the data shows that the average annual wages for production and manufacturing workers are about $40,700 annually — and $39,813 for transportation and warehouse workers — not enough to afford the median rent for a two-bedroom. They can afford one-bedroom apartments.
About 60% of Fresno renters are considered “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
Virginia (last name withheld for safety reasons), an office assistant at a local hospital, has seen the rent on her three-bedroom home in the Hoover High area increase from $1,400 to $1,695 a month — forcing her and her fiance, who works in construction, to make tough decisions about what to prioritize — food, utilities, or medicine for her lupus diagnosis.
“Since I’m employed, I’m not eligible for all this stuff that they have out there to help with food and PG&E, so we basically go with everything off. It’s constantly ‘turn off the lights’ and ‘don’t wash your clothes,’” she said.
Low-wage jobs are common
Across Fresno County, more than 41% of all workers work in low-wage jobs, according to a 2018 analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. They define a “low-wage job” as one that earns less than $14.35 per hour.
The state’s Employment Development Department projects that the occupations with the most job openings through 2028 will continue to be in lower-wage sectors, like retail, waiting tables, farm labor, and home health aides. However, higher-paying jobs as healthcare professionals — including nurses and physicians assistants — are in demand and quickly growing.
This data, along with high levels of income inequality, is what has led researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, to label Fresno one of the least economically inclusive cities in the country.
“There’s a disjuncture between what workers earn and what they need to avoid chronic housing and food insecurity,” said Edward Flores, a sociology professor at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
According to data analyzed by Flores, more than a third of workers in the San Joaquin Valley make less than a living wage. In Kings County, as many as 44% of workers make less than a living wage.
“Industry leaders often say that (minimum-wage jobs) are a stepping stone, or jobs for teenagers, people that are looking for part-time work, or inexperienced workers,” said Flores. “But the data just doesn’t play that out.”
For Katreena (last name withheld for safety reasons), a local teacher, rising rents have held her and her husband, who works in information technology, back from buying a home. Rent for their two-bedroom Tower District home has increased from $1,200 per month in December 2018 to $1,375 today.
“It’s absurd. I have spent my life doing what I was supposed to do — getting my master’s, doing everything right, and I can’t buy a house.”