The Housing Crunch

By: Avani Patel

I’m sitting at Starbucks off of East Bayshore in East Palo Alto for the third time this week. Since joining the Peery Foundation nearly two years ago, I’ve had over 50 meetings with community members, educators, parents and students here. It’s almost impossible to walk in and not know any one.

At a table close to the register, I’m working on my laptop in between meetings. A customer walks up to the barista at the register and greets her – this conversation follows (C=customer, B=Barista):

C: “Hey, how you been?”

B: “Good – where are you living these days?”

C: “I’m in the East Bay now, but still working here – nothing is affordable here anymore, and I’ve had to switch schools on my kids. I guess it’s okay because I wasn’t really happy with the schools here anyway”

B: Yaaaa, I know. Housing is ridiculous right now. That’s too bad though because the schools are getting better here.

C: Oh really?

B: Ya – I have a 2nd grader now. But you’re right, it’s so hard to find housing.

C: It’s gotten ridiculous. I just feel like it’s so unfair. I grew up here, went to the schools here, graduated, and am working here. I wanted to raise my family here. They should do something – like give priority to the folks that grew up here. We want to stay a part of our community, our home.

Recently, conversations have shifted drastically from talking about schools and weekend community events to stress and (read: because of) HOUSING. It’s plaguing residents of the community like never before.

Lately, there have been numerous articles in newspapers and journals across the nation about the unaffordability of Silicon Valley, some blaming tech companies and others blaming foreign investors for the soar in housing prices. Other articles have focused on teacher shortages, and focusing on the high cost of living in the area that may be forcing teachers out. I was curious to learn at a deeper level how housing is affecting families and educators in the communities of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven.

I called up Jason Tarricone, Directing Attorney of Housing and Economic Advancement, at the Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA). In terms of housing (they also tackle issues of immigration and economic advancement), CLSEPA represents families who are being evicted or at risk of being evicted – they fight to help keep families in their homes. They’re giving advice to families to avoid eviction, and at times are reaching out to landlords when it’s necessary.

Jason says, “[CLSEPA is] working really hard in East Palo Alto to fight against unlawful evictions because so many units are rent controlled and therefore affordable. Once these units become vacant, they can go for market rate, meaning the community loses that affordable unit forever…or at least a really long time.” In addition to helping families keep their homes, they are working with tenants to contact landlords when homes are unsafe or unhealthy – issues such as mice, plumbing leaks, and mold.  Sometimes, CLSEPA tries to get the county involved to do inspections when landlords are not responsive.

There are some differences in housing policy in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven (Belle Haven is the eastern portion of Menlo Park that mainly sits on the eastside of Highway 101. To others, it may be known as the community where Facebook opened it’s second massive campus.)

I learned some of these nuances of housing policy while talking with Jason; he says, “In every other city in San Mateo County, people can be evicted for no reason.  That cannot happen in EPA because of a particular policy, Just Cause for Eviction. This means that the landlord can only evict you for a just cause…they can’t evict you just because they want to sell the property or want to raise the rent by $1,000 a month. However, this does not apply in Belle Haven, North Fair Oaks, or Redwood City.” In addition to Just Cause, the city of East Palo Alto also has Rent Control. Perhaps these two policies are reasons why gentrification may not be happening as fast in EPA as other communities. Even with these policies, gentrification is happening in EPA because many residents live in single-family homes (which are not rent controlled). Add on the fact that many families do not speak English at all or as their primary language at home, plus not understanding the depths of these policies (heck, after a read through of both on the city’s website, I don’t even understand all the implications) – it has me wondering how many residents are actually “benefitting” from these policies.

After following up with Jason on my concerns, he chimed in, “Rent Control and Just Cause for Eviction laws are great, but those laws alone are not enough; you need to have attorneys and community advocates who can enforce those laws, particularly in immigrant communities, who may not be familiar with the laws and/or language. They don’t know that a landlord can’t just tell them to move out.”

When I asked Jason what CLSEPA has learned by working with families in the communities of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven, he added, “Many families in East Palo Alto are living paycheck to paycheck, and there is a real risk of eviction if they are late on rent. Many are working minimum wage jobs. Living on the margins is more dangerous now given the housing crisis, because landlords know there are plenty of people who are willing to pay higher rent – so sometimes they are looking for a reason to evict.”

In Belle Haven, there is no housing security whatsoever. Buildings are being sold left and right to investors and rents are increasing by 1000’s of dollars, which can essentially be seen as an eviction. Residents are just nervous, all the time, and it of course has to have an impact on children and relates to how they do in school. It’s not something students can just turn off. Housing, or shelter, is a basic need after all.

When I asked, “What can be done? What’s needed?” Jason replied matter-of-factly and to the point:

·      More affordable housing needs to be built. We should build much more housing in the Bay Area but it won't be enough to build our way out of the problem.

·      In the meantime, more cities can pass Rent Control and Just Cause for Eviction laws to preserve the neighborhoods and residents who live in the area right now.

·      We need more legal aid attorneys doing housing work. With more attorneys, we can keep more families in their homes.

He reminds me that from the housing situations we know about (more often documented, and families living in apartments), the tide of displacement in East Palo Alto is slower because of the laws. But the laws don’t apply to single-family homes. On the eastside of the city (where there aren’t apartment complexes…yet), some are getting rent increases of up to $500 or more a month.

In the past year, Jason’s team has seen more eviction notices and rent increases. The housing crunch is bad for everyone right now. But for people without documents or a social security number, it limits their housing options even more, and it can affect the whole life of that person. The whole life. We know this – what will we do about it? As for the Peery Foundation, we know that we need to lift our head up and learn a bit more about issues affecting education.

In a few weeks, I will be posting another housing piece featuring the voices of residents. Stay tuned.