Housing costs are causing the Bay Area community to shift like sand. Prices rise and people come and go, looking for a steady place to land. We feel and see the effects of this every day on the Coastside — as people who live here, want to live here or depend on people who live here.
“We have an affordability problem on the Coastside,” San Mateo County Housing Authority Executive Director Ken Cole said. In this county, a renter would need to earn $103,000 to afford the average one-bedroom apartment, according to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Meanwhile, the latest available Census data shows the average median income was $93,623.
The picture Cole paints is bleak.
“The coast is so underdeveloped; there’s just not a lot of housing stock, but there’s still a lot of people who want to live here. There are people who need to be close to their jobs but can’t afford to,” Cole said. “We see more homelessness, people sleeping in garages or sheds, spaces not designed for habitation … and struggling with health and safety standards. People are desperate for housing.”
What can be done?
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation offered an opportunity to discuss this complex problem. On Nov. 15, more than 700 hosts led conversations with 6,000 participants throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in an initiative called “On the Table.”
The Review was one of several Coastside hosts. The project was part of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s version of a civic engagement effort modeled on an initiative by The Chicago Community Trust.
Pasta Moon provided the venue. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation provided money for food. People from the community provided the conversation.
They included insights from Spanish Immersion Parent Association member Mary Beth Alexander, Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder of Latino cultural program ALAS, Realtor Brian Lee, Midcoast Community Council member Barbra Mathewson, Half Moon Bay High School teacher Joey Naple and iHalf Moon Bay City Councilwoman Deborah Penrose.
Over pizza, the conversation offered a slice of how different community members face housing on the Coastside.
If housing costs are so high, would it make sense to keep them down?
Penrose thinks so. She wants to push for rent stabilization. The idea would be to temporarily cap increases at 3 percent per year until more affordable housing options are available.
“I haven’t gotten another council member to agree with me,” she said. Penrose said she hears this argument: “‘We do not want rent stabilization. It doesn’t work.’ Yet, there are places where it has worked very well.”
Lee explained why some would disagree with that approach. He said some development projects take years, and that there are risks associated with rent control.
“The other part is it does mean there’s less that opens up,” he said. “The people who get in at those low rates, a lot of those people aren’t moving. The ones who do come on, they’ll actually send the market rate higher because there’s fewer (units).”
Mathewson has experienced the fluctuating market as a homeowner since she made the move to the Coastside in 1973.
“This was the cheapest place to live on the Peninsula,” she explained.
Costs have swelled in recent years and now MidPen Housing is looking into developing 71 units to create more affordable housing in Moss Beach. As a would-be neighbor, the project inspired Mathewson to get into politics. She worried that the site wouldn’t be safe for such a project, but also recognized there was tremendous need.
“I realized the housing problem was huge,” said Mathewson.
She is alleviating the affordability issue in her own way. As a landlord, she rents to a policeman and two self-employed people below market rate.
“On each unit I could be taking a couple thousand dollars more a month,” Mathewson said. “But I have good tenants and I want to keep them … I’m now basically doing rent control.”
As part of Cabrillo Unified School District’s Spanish Immersion Parent Association, Alexander has seen international teachers struggle to get established in the United States. She’s also seen the schools struggle to get bilingual teachers. One of the issues was securing housing. In response, her family opened their home to a teacher and has helped others to do the same.
“After a while I thought, if we really want to help the school, teachers are important,” she said.
As a next step, she suggests the school community collaborate with HIP Housing, a nonprofit that works as something of a matchmaker for home providers and home seekers.
Naple experienced an informal version of this. Housing can be prohibitively expensive for new teachers, and he found his through a mutual friend.
“Coming down to the Bay Area from Humboldt County, I still wanted to live somewhere that felt rural,” he said. “I felt really lucky to get into Cabrillo because it has that rural feeling. Growing up in California, I have that as part of my personality and my interest and what I like.”
Now he tries to help his own students plan for a secure future.
“I’m a special (education) teacher. I have a student who wants to be an electrician but struggles with math,” Naple said. “He was telling me, ‘Mr. Naple, how am I going to afford to pay rent if I can’t be an electrician?’ We went over some of the salaries for painters, which requires less math, and that put him at ease a little bit … but (he said), ‘Is it true that everywhere’s this expensive in the Bay Area?’ I told him, ‘Yeah, it is.’ I tried to push the positive part of how the painters’ salaries can be as much or more than a teacher’s over time.”
The long and short of it
Dozens of Coastside units are available for short-term rentals, and that can deplete housing stock. Both city and county governments are working on drafting ordinances that would detail policies to better regulate them.
“Lots and lots of rentals that are being used for that could be used for long-term lease,” Lee said. “It’s actually changing neighborhoods.”
Some people depend on real estate as investments, Alexander pointed out, noting a radio interview she heard.
“My response to that is these people don’t have any place to live. You have a roof over your head right now. Right now, these people are in crisis,” Penrose said. “It’s a matter of scale — who’s suffering more.”
“Maybe he’s using that to keep a roof over his head. You don’t know,” Alexander responded.
The elephant in the room
Fighting to make ends meet, families are being divided as some go to live in cheaper areas and spouses stay behind to keep a job. In some cases, multiple families are crowding into single dwellings. Sometimes it’s because of cost, but sometimes it’s due to racism, Hernandez-Arriaga said.
“The housing crisis is going to take out the Latino community faster than any immigration (policy) is going to here at this time,” she said.
It’s an undercurrent that drags down the rest of the community.
“I think it’s really unfair we reap the benefits … and we don’t have housing that sustains our very people that our economy is based on,” Herandez-Arriaga said. “Our whole tourism industry is built on the community around the agricultural industry, fishery, hotel industry.
“I’m just wondering — what’s going to happen when these families really move away? What’s going to happen to Half Moon Bay? It really is an economic crisis, too, that we need to be contemplating. How does this play out?”
Hernandez-Arriaga suggested examining housing as a human rights issue.
“Everyone should have a way to have access to a home and access to not only safe living, but also humane conditions,” she said.
The American Dream
As pizza was served, Alexander left the conversationalists with further food for thought.
“The American Dream is to own your own home, a single-family residence, and spend your weekends mowing your lawn and trimming your bushes,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about this for years. Is it better to have sprawl or big tall buildings? … Maybe this whole idea we have is not right.”