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Why do low-wage workers in San Luis Obispo County live in crumbling apartments?

Why do low-wage workers in San Luis Obispo County live in crumbling apartments?

Picture of Lindsey Holden
Why do low-wage workers in San Luis Obispo County live in crumbling apartments?

San Luis Obispo County is a place of haves and have-nots.

Its beaches and vineyards make it an ideal destination for vacationers and wealthy Californians, but the workers who make up the backbone of the county’s agriculture and tourism industries don’t share that affluence. 

Some live in dilapidated houses, motels and deteriorating apartment complexes, where multiple people sleep in one room with blankets for mattresses.

Near the gateway to the county’s wine country, hundreds of workers who toil in the fields and clean hotel rooms live in housing filled with mold and bedbugs. The Paso Robles apartment complex where these tenants live is hidden in plain sight — it’s located right off a freeway ramp and directly behind a big sign that welcomes visitors to the city.

The tenants filed a lawsuit against their landlords in May, with help from the San Luis Obispo Legal Assistance Foundation. They said they’d complained repeatedly about problems but never saw results.

There are likely many such renters living in terrible conditions — they do so because affordable housing is difficult to find, and they’re too scared of landlord retaliation to demand a better situation.

For my 2019 Data Fellowship, I want to take a closer look at tenants' plight by investigating the state of rental housing in San Luis Obispo County and its seven cities.

First and foremost, I want to learn how substandard housing impacts renters’ health. 

Is a complaint-based code enforcement system an effective way to keep tenants safe? How does slum-like housing develop and exist in spite of government oversight? How can jurisdictions make sure tenants aren’t forced to put up with unlivable conditions? 

I will seek to answer these questions by using county and city data to investigate the prevalence of substandard rental housing in the county and the effect it has on tenants, especially low-wage workers.  

Forty percent of county residents are renters, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Affordable housing is challenging to come by, especially for people earning minimum wage salaries. 

The county’s rental vacancy rate is 2.8% – lower than the statewide rate of 3.6%.

A fair-market two-bedroom apartment costs about $1,542, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition report. That means residents earning minimum wage must work 99 hours per week to afford a place to live.  

Although local leaders have tried to create policies that could protect tenants, the county’s landlords have resisted changes. 

The city of San Luis Obispo previously approved a rental inspection program that created a property registry and required owners to submit to inspections and pay fees to support the system.

But landlords saw the program as an intrusion and were angry about having to pay new fees. Tenants worried their rents would go up or their housing would be taken off the market.

The city’s mayor was eventually voted out of office, due in part to her support of the inspections. The new City Council got rid of the program.

Clearly, where rent is expensive and there’s little housing available, landlords are more likely to use the situation to their advantage — forcing renters to live in unsafe and unhealthy situations.

In addition to my data analysis, I’ll also engage with communities of renters, particularly those most vulnerable to landlord abuse. 

Learning about their experiences will be key to understanding how policies can be improved and how tenants can ensure their safety and avoid poor living environments.

I want my work to educate renters and help them learn how to protect their health. But I also want to spark change in the state of rental housing in San Luis Obispo County and who it currently benefits. 

I hope my stories will force local leaders to rethink current policies and create a better, more just situation for renters in the county.


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