Can Pasadena become a ‘city of justice?’

I sometimes wonder what the Prophet Isaiah would think about Pasadena.

It was Isaiah whose words we just read this past Yom Kippur.

God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “Do you think the fast that I demand this day is to bow down your head like a bulrush? No! The fast I demand is that you feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and break off the handcuffs on your prisoners.”

In other words, it is not enough to feel guilty and ask for forgiveness. It is not enough to mouth platitudes about fairness, compassion and justice. We have to act on those beliefs.

We are a world-class city, well known for the Rose Bowl, our cultural institutions, colleges and our science-oriented institutions like Cal Tech and JPL. What many people don’t realize is that Pasadena, with 146,000 people, is also a city with many problems — poverty, violent crime, racial tensions and widening inequality.

Pasadena is proud of its history and has a strong commitment to preserve its older buildings. But I’m not sure it has the same commitment to protect its older citizens, or to provide for its young children, or to help lift its working poor out of poverty.

We like to think of ourselves as a compassionate city that cares about its needy. But are we really?

What would it mean for Pasadena to be a “city of justice”?

There are five pillars that comprise a city of justice:

1) A city with a strong economy that fulfills the American dream of fair wages and benefits in return for hard work.

2) A city that provides decent housing for a wide mix of families from different income groups and diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

3) A city with a first-class, well-funded school system that guarantees every student an opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.

4) A healthy city, where people can breathe clean air, where everyone, especially children, has access to health care and where people feel safe in their homes and safe in the streets.

5) A city with a strong sense of community, where people participate actively in their civic, neighborhood and religious institutions; where they feel their voices are heard by the political decision makers; and where people feel part of something bigger than themselves — something transcendent, even spiritual.

How close is Pasadena to becoming a real city of justice?

Pasadena is the most unequal city in California. The income of households near the top ($255,106) is 12 times greater than the income of those near the bottom ($21,277). This is the widest gap among the 36 California cities with more than 140,000 people.

In Pasadena, the wealthiest 5 percent of all households — those with household incomes above $255,106 — have over one-quarter (25.1 percent) of the all the income in the city. Among California’s 36 largest cities, only Los Angeles has a greater concentration of income among the richest households (26.1 percent).

In contrast, the poorest one-fifth of Pasadena households — those with incomes below $21,277 — combined have only 2.8 percent of total residents’ income. Those in the next poorest one-fifth — with household incomes between $21,277 and $46,375 — bring home only 7.6 percent of Pasadena’s incomes. Only in San Francisco and Oakland do the poor have a smaller share of the income.

Pasadena is thus a tale of two cities. Gentrification is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor.

Between 2005 and 2006, Pasadena’s median household income increased from $51,233 in 2005 to $59,301 in 2006 — a dramatic 15.7 percent boost in just one year. This jump in income is not because Pasadena’s existing residents got big pay raises from generous employers. It is because the people moving to Pasadena are increasingly those with high incomes, while those with low incomes are being pushed out of the city.

In other words, the city’s prosperity is not being widely shared, but is instead pitting the affluent against the poor and working class for the city’s scarce housing.

Since 1999, the number of households under $10,000 has declined by 30 percent. The number of households with incomes over $200,000 has increased by 54 percent.

Moreover, gentrification is not simply a matter of market forces. It is a matter of the city’s public policy. Almost all the housing that our city government has been approving is expensive luxury condos and apartments.

This has been exacerbated by the accelerating number of affordable apartments being converted to expensive condominiums or being torn down by city-approved demolition. Condo conversions don’t add any new units. They simply make the existing units more expensive, feed gentrification and push out the poor.

More than half (54 percent) of Pasadena’s population are renters. Half of them pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. Among low-income renters, the situation is even more serious. Among the 7,684 households with incomes below $20,000, almost all — 89 percent — pay more than 30 percent of household income for rent.

But the shortage of affordable housing isn’t confined to the poorest households. Among households with incomes between $20,000 and $35,000, 78.3 percent pay more than 30 percent of household income for rent.

Gentrification may be good for a handful of developers, but it isn’t good for most residents or for the city’s business climate. Pasadena housing costs are skyrocketing beyond what most working families — including schoolteachers, nurses and nurses’ aides, bus drivers, security guards, secretaries, janitors, child care providers, retail clerks, computer programmers, lab assistants and others — can afford.

When working families spend almost half their incomes for rent or mortgages, they have little left over to spend in the Pasadena economy, hurting local businesses. Moreover, local employers are having difficulty finding employees who live in the city. Long commutes into Pasadena exacerbate traffic congestion and pollution.

This is a major reason for the decline in enrollment in Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) schools. PUSD’s declining enrollment and budget problems are due in large part to the displacement of the poor, not the flight of the middle class.