What exactly does the working class look like these days? There’s a lot written about it. People have all sorts of opinions on the topic. But what’s the reality? I’m in and out of a lot of homes in the neighborhood. Along the way I meet people busy doing work that doesn’t pay much in a part of the country where any form of housing is spectacularly expensive.
One neighbor rents her apartment via a web based home sharing site. She then hires people from another web site to do the cleaning. For her this is the “Sharing Economy” in action. It’s all point and click, instant, anonymous, and profitable. But when I pop in to check on things for her when she’s out of town I’m confronted with the reality.
This man and his wife left Alabama and moved to South Carolina in search of opportunity. They managed well enough working at a big box store (part time, minimum wage, no benefits – the usual) and they were eventually able to buy a mobile home. Things went along well enough until they were laid off when the store closed. They ran out of money and lost the trailer. Then they did something unexpected and either courageous, crazy, or desperate. They left the South and moved to San Francisco where they knew they could find work.
Work is, in fact, abundant here. They’re now both “independent contractors.” Rent on their windowless basement bedroom in a bad part of town was so high that the couple quickly moved to a distant suburb known primarily for its oil refineries. Rent is more manageable at the place they now share with others, but they have a miserable hour and a half commute. So far he and his wife feel they’re better off struggling here than back in Alabama or South Carolina.
I was at the house of another neighbor when I chatted with a different guy who was doing small fix it projects. He was also hired via a web based service that matches customers with workers. He had lived in San Francisco for twelve years, but was eventually driven out by eviction and high rents. His grandmother owns a modest house in a distant working class suburb and he was able to move in with her. It was a good fit. He gets a decent place to live and his grandmother has live in help as she ages. He said everyone was happy with the arrangement. He’s lucky.
Last summer I was exploring a new fast food outlet in the suburbs fifty miles north of the city when I met a woman in the parking lot. She was a cheerful white lady who looked to be in her mid 50’s. She said she was born and raised in the area. She was an employee of the restaurant on her break so I asked her about her experience. She liked her job. She got a free meal at every shift and it was a pleasant working environment. She had worse jobs in the past. This place was pretty good. Then I asked her about her living arrangements. She pays $1,645 for a one bedroom apartment. She shares the place with a room mate to keep expenses down. She doesn’t make enough at the restaurant to pay all her bills so she has a part time job providing home health care for a disable neighbor. She can’t afford to own a car so she rides a bicycle around town – a town that wasn’t designed with pedestrians or cyclists in mind.
All over the Bay Area in cities, and suburbs, and small rural villages people are finding ways of making ends meet. These second hand mobile homes constitute the de facto affordable housing for many working people in the region. It’s the only thing that fills the gap between what can be earned, and what can be paid for.
The Tiny House movement is often seen by outsiders as either a novelty for eccentrics, or an aberration that must be stopped before the neighborhood is taken over by Bedouins. But it’s simply a logical response to economic conditions. A significant portion of the population understands that they won’t be owning property anytime soon. They can’t manage rent on a working wage. And they need to stay nearby whatever work is available. So they cobble together a home that satisfies their needs. Such is the reality of the new working class.