SOLANO COUNTY, Calif. — The cost of living has increased and made it harder for people to live the ways they did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is happening across California, people in Solano County feel like they’re living on the edge: earning too much money to qualify for low-income assistance programs but not enough to pay all the bills.
With a population of just under half a million, Solano County is sandwiched between the heart of the Bay Area and Sacramento — two notoriously expensive places to live — but is a more rural and growing community than the spots surrounding it.
People find themselves moving into this in-between area for many reasons: family, housing situations or being outpriced from the Bay.
People like 53-year-old Carie Mathis thought Solano County would be a breath of fresh air — a cheaper alternative to living in the Bay but close enough to keep the same connections and work.
Over the last few years, that hope quickly dwindled away.
“In the beginning, I did OK,” she said. “I thought it was gonna be easier coming here. That it was gonna be cheaper… and it’s not.”
She moved to Vacaville so she could be closer to her retired parents. She says they encouraged her to bring her then 17-year-old twins to the area because, "It's cheaper up here. The schools are better. It's nicer up here.”
But the small four-bedroom home she and her twin 18-year-olds share costs $2,500; it's forcing her to pick and choose which bills to pay on a monthly basis.
“It just got harder and harder as the year progressed to actually be able to pay rent, PG&E, water,” she said. “It's just virtually impossible for a single income to make it anywhere here. I'm really, really, really discouraged about that.”
She works upward of three jobs alone, from catering and cleaning homes to DoorDash and Instacart deliveries.
“I'm not a slacker, I work... I'm a hard worker,” she said. “(It feels like) I’m always drowning... like I'm treading water from one month to another.”
She’s not alone in picking and choosing where income should go every month. Kim Crosby says she’s struggling to pay her monthly PG&E bill and is resorting to living with minimal air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter.
“(Every month) it's a challenge like, ‘OK, what bills are going to be paid once rent is paid?’ And then ‘what can wait until where I'm still in my 15-day grace period without getting a late notice?’” she said. “It is challenging to have all those balls in the air.”
She has a full time job at a regional bank and says she's making a "a good wage, a decent wage," yet she’s “gotta suffer” to live.
“I don't know how much more people can take, including myself, of things rising but your salaries are not,” she said. “It's like the middle class are being squeezed out. It's either you're rich or you're poor. There is no in-between.”
Her rent jumped up $450 when her landlord wanted to sell the home she was renting during the pandemic, leading her to downgrade from renting a three-bedroom home in Vacaville to a smaller house in Fairfield. She says this was the cheapest option she could find quickly.
During the pandemic, the state put a freeze on service disconnections by utility companies, so Crosby decided to pause paying her gas and electric bill to make up for the increased rent. Now she has over $4,000 racked up and says a payment plan on top of her monthly bill is undoable.
“I need some assistance, and the programs that PG&E has I do not qualify for because I'm a single person household,” she said. “It's like you have to be destitute in order to qualify for any of the financial programs or assistance that they have, and I don't qualify.”
Data shows this isn't just a Solano County issue. Across California, more than 2.8 million energy utility customers’ accounts were in some kind of past-due debt between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and the close of 2021. And the United Ways of California says a third of all households in California do not earn enough income to meet basic needs. Here are the non-profit's 'Real Cost Measure' reports for Solano County, Sacramento County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Other counties' reports are searchable here.
While Solano County has been known for being the “most affordable county in the Bay Area,” realtors like Marisa Ausiello-DiSano from Delta Realty Group and Fairfield say that isn’t really the case anymore.
“The affordability went down completely because people were flocking here from the Bay Area,” she said. “(In 2022) we had a high inventory and a huge demand so it just kept creeping the house prices up.”
A lot of Solano County’s appeal was the proximity to the Bay Area with cheaper prices, according to Ausiello-DiSano. She says people were paying well above market value for homes but still getting a steal when compared to renting in the Bay.
“It was not uncommon to have (an offer of) $30,000 or $40,000 over [market value] on a $500,000 house and that’s kind of a lot over,” she said. “It's the dramatic increase and the frenzy and the low interest rates. I will never see that again. We will probably — not in our lifetime — we'll never see it again.”
Her numbers show the average price of a Solano County home in 2019 was about $460,000. In 2022, it was $620,000. And in 2023 so far, it’s about $580,000. That’s a 29% increase from 2019 to today.
Vacaville housing officials say their vacancy rates for rented units, studio to four bedroom, are staying consistently low. People aren’t moving once they’re in.
“We did see between 2019 and 2021 rental rates did increase significantly,” said Vacaville Housing and Community Services Director Emily Cantu. “But interestingly enough, in 2022 those rent rates adjusted downward.”
Not all hope is lost for those who want to live in or are currently living in California and worried about the cost of living.
California Senator Steve Padilla introduced a bill earlier this year with the ultimate goal of creating a formula to calculate a "real living wage," using regional and statewide housing costs to calculate what it actually costs for people to make ends meet.
While Senate Bill 352 died in this year's session, Padilla says he wants to reintroduce it next year because more and more Californians are “spending all of their time just trying to keep their head above water.”
The bill intended to create a calculation of what minimum wage workers would need to earn to afford basic housing and other necessities-- something the current minimum wage doesn't formally take into account and never has. Over the years, California’s minimum wage has gone up from 16 cents per hour in 1916 to $15.50 this year.
“When California originally established a minimum wage, for example, at the turn of the 20th century, there was no baseline formula, other than to ‘create a proper living’…which really wasn't fully defined," he said. “There never was an underlying basis for: how do you determine what that should be in the very first place? So the bill would have required that formula to be created and decided upon, and it would have required that it'd be linked to…housing costs regionally throughout the state and on an average throughout the entire state.”
The calculation would include data from all across the state to figure out how much a household with at least one full-time minimum wage worker must make to afford a “decent standard of living, including appropriate housing and basic expenses, including non-housing necessities” in a county, regionally and the state, according to the amended but now dead bill from March.
“Anyone who works hard, full time, and honestly in this state should be able to participate in our economy, invest in their future, expand their skills, their knowledge, their training — no matter what that calling may be — and be able to meet their basic needs,” said Padilla. “If that is not the case, then we're failing Californians."
He says the data needs to be collected now so meaningful change, like expanding income eligibility for social safety-net programs, can happen in the future.
Until legislation is created and change happens, middle-income earners are still hoping for the best. Mathis says she’s just taking it day by day.
“I don't know what the answer is. I really don't. I feel like I'm doing everything right,” she said. “I know I'm not the only one. There's a lot more people out there struggling just like me… I hope it gets better… I want it to get better for everybody.”
COST-SAVING OPTIONS THROUGH PG&E
What options does someone in Crosby's position have?
She owes more than $4,300 but doesn't qualify for low-income assistance programs. The maximum amount a one- or two-person household can make to qualify for something called the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) Program is $39,440 per year. Crosby and many other struggling middle-class households make more than that.
Crosby gave PG&E permission to go over her bill and options with ABC10. PG&E offered her an extended repayment plan, which a spokesperson said customers can set up on an individual basis by talking with customer service. The standard repayment plan is 12 months, although on Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) directed the state's major utility companies to offer a 24-month plan to customers who are behind in bills at least 60 days and not already on an existing plan.
"Under the new 24-month payment plan, customers will have the flexibility to manage their bills, allowing for up to two missed payments before disconnection," the CPUC news release said. "Moreover, utilities are now mandated to provide customers with notice of a missed payment via text message or email prior to disconnection."
A PG&E spokesperson also clarified there is no interest rate on paying back the late bills, nor are there late fees.
As long as someone is on a payment plan, PG&E won't disconnect their electricity or gas.
Cost-saving options available to everyone regardless of income include:
- A Home Energy Checkup quiz, to see where someone can conserve energy in their home
- Rebates for smart, energy-saving appliances and thermostats
- Budget billing. Someone can qualify if they've lived in the same place for a year. Instead of being subject to the seasonal ups and downs of gas and electricity prices, budget billing averages out a customer's monthly payments, so they can better budget for energy bills. (SMUD is among other utilities offering this, too.)
Bottom line: Unless someone makes less than about $40,000 a year, there's no program to significantly reduce or waive your energy bill debt.
For those who would qualify for low-income assistance, more information on PG&E options is HERE. For example, a customer can get up to $8,000 in unpaid balance forgiven under PG&E's Arrearage Management Plan if they are enrolled in the PG&E CARE or FERA program, owe at least $500 on their gas and electric bill (or at least $250 if a gas-only customer) and are a PG&E customer with bills past due more than 90 days.
PG&E says customers can also qualify if they are already participating in other public assistance programs, including:
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- CalFresh/SNAP (Food Stamps)
- CalWORKs (TANF) or Tribal TANF
- Head Start Income Eligible (Tribal Only)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Medi-Cal for Families (Healthy Families A & B)
- National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Medicaid/Medi-Cal (under age 65)
- Medicaid/Medi-Cal (age 65 and over)
Anyone with questions can reach out to PG&E's customer service for an individualized walk-through of options.