A group of children sat at the back of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, as they fidgeted with their marker and glitter-paint posters. Their posters read: "Stop, this is our home. East Palo Alto is not for sale; community is priceless."
They were there as members of Youth United for Community Action, a youth advocacy organization based in East Palo Alto. One of their leaders, Kyra Brown, a panelist at the Kepler's event, sat facing the audience of about 60 people on the evening of Aug. 18. They were there to talk about housing affordability.
What followed were two and a half hours that revealed a community in crisis, the deep wounds of displacement, and a long list of ideas about how to fix it.
The community had beaten the Menlo Park City Council to the topic: a joint study session of the council and the city's Housing Commission to talk about policies to address displacement had been set for April but has not yet been rescheduled, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre.
There are as many explanations for the lack of affordable housing as there are stakeholders in the issue.
City Council members say it's hard to approve affordable housing because many constituents oppose development near their homes. Besides, the city generates more tax revenues from hotels and offices than it does from housing, especially affordable housing.
Homeowners don't want anything – housing or offices – built without better infrastructure to ease traffic or other impacts on their quality of life and property values.
Commercial developers say they can't build affordable housing without also building offices to attract their real target: tech dollars.
Nonprofit housing developers say cities can't fund affordable housing construction without seed money from commercial developers, who pay into a "below market rate" fund. That fund can be generated only when developers build retail, commercial, or for-sale housing (not rental housing).
Highly paid young tech workers, if in a position to choose their housing location, are more likely to live in San Francisco, Palo Alto or Mountain View. But nobody likes spending hours each day commuting, and as they start families, common sense says they'll be gunning to move closer to their jobs and the area's high-ranking school districts.
Meanwhile, rent goes up. And up. And up.
Menlo Park housing
The housing shortage has been decades in the making. Not enough housing has been built in Menlo Park to accommodate the number of jobs in the city.
Prior to current construction projects, there had not been any market-rate apartment buildings of 10 units or more built in Menlo Park since 1974, and no deed-restricted, below-market-rate apartment buildings added to the city's stock since 1987, according to City Councilwoman Catherine Carlton, who cited Costar, a commercial real estate database. Those were buildings on Willow Road that had been built in the 1960s but purchased in 1987 by MidPen Housing to maintain for low-income tenants.
Over the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, Menlo Park built 2,699 housing units, according to City-Data.com, a website that collects statistics on cities. The city was sued in 2012 for not updating for 20 years its housing element, part of the city's general plan for development.
The city settled the lawsuit and updated its housing element, which rezoned several areas to allow high-density housing.
In 2015, there were 838 housing units approved to be built in Menlo Park, 135 of which will be designated for low-income or very-low-income tenants.
The city is also updating its overall general plan, and is considering zoning for an additional 4,500 housing units in the M-2 light industrial area east of U.S. 101. There are also about 1,000 housing units permitted by current zoning that the city hasn't yet received proposals for.
However, job growth continues to outpace housing growth, and housing costs have skyrocketed. Across San Mateo County, there were 54,600 jobs created and only 2,148 housing units built from 2010 to 2014, according to a county memo from January 2016.
The Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimates that for each new tech job, about 4.3 service-sector jobs are created. According to a 2014 report by the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, the largest number of future job openings in the Peninsula will be at low- and moderate-level wages earning less than $20 per hour.
As startling as the numbers are the stories of those struggling to live in our area.
Dr. Gloria Hernandez-Goff, superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District (based in East Palo Alto but with two schools in Menlo Park), says the housing crisis is putting her students in harsh living situations.
"We have kids who are sleeping in cars with their parents or in tents in backyards," she said. "It's common to have entire families in a garage. It's common to have a house with a family in each room."
She's heard of families who have to cook outside because there are people living in the kitchen.
"The housing cost is so high, people can't afford to live independently," she said. "People need a place to live that isn't creating a hardship for people to just work."
Of the 150 teachers in the Ravenswood district, she said, only eight live within the district's boundaries. Finding teachers and staff workers like yard duties or janitors is a major challenge for the district.
Even as superintendent, Ms. Hernandez-Goff said, she had trouble finding housing. "I put in for a house rental in Belle Haven (and) my credit check was not even done," she said. "I didn't make enough money to even compete to rent a home."
"I can't imagine what our families go through," she said. "The diversity of this area is being pushed out."
Stephanie and Scott
Julie Moncton, a manager at Kepler's, told the story of Stephanie and Scott, a couple from Oklahoma.
Stephanie was a humanities professor on a fellowship at Stanford; Scott found a job working at Kepler's. They were renting a tiny cottage in Palo Alto. Things appeared to be going great, until all of a sudden, Scott was diagnosed with sarcoma, a form of cancer. That was in April 2015. Then, the landlord told them they had to leave by the end of July.
By then, Scott had been undergoing chemotherapy and was ill or recovering from treatment most of the time, Julie said.
Julie, one of Scott's co-workers at Kepler's, offered her home. By then, the household had expanded to not just Scott and Stephanie (and Stephanie's "very large dog") but Scott's parents too, Julie said.
Two weeks after they moved in, Scott learned the cancer was not responding to treatment. He went into hospice care and died a week later.
"The market has become crazy," Julie said. She described the situation that Stephanie went through trying to find housing in the aftermath of losing Scott. "She was a great housemate, considerate, kind, neat, lovely to talk to ... at the top of her career (and) a tenured professor," she said.
"There are so many of our staff members that can't find a place to live," she said. "Even with high-paying jobs, how does anyone afford the down payment on a house anymore?"
"To me, it's a little scary to see members of the community not able to live in the community they serve," she said.
Many attendees at the Kepler's event had ideas about what should be done.
Waging a campaign to turn public opinion in favor of more affordable housing was mentioned by several people as an important starting point.
Kate Downing, who became a self-titled "reluctant celebrity" when she recently resigned from the Palo Alto Planning Commission, told the audience that the root of the problem is local city councils.
"They decide how much commercial, how much housing is allowed in cities and they decide how fast it happens."
The decisions are made, she added, "with the full support of wealthy homeowners who don't care about more housing."
"I know it's easy to blame the techies," she said. "The techies don't vote."
Pressure on city councils to limit housing growth, she said, comes from people who want to protect their properties. "Those are the hearts and minds you have to change."
Menlo Park Councilwoman Catherine Carlton told the audience, "We have to get out there and tell the story that the people who live in affordable homes – policemen, firemen, teachers – are good honest, wonderful people that you want to live next door to."
Adina Levin, a Menlo Park transportation commissioner, cited a May 2016 report by the Bay Area Council that says that one-third of Bay Area residents are considering leaving the area.
"What kind of a society has 30 percent of people considering leaving? This is really, really not OK," she said. "We are losing people who have lived here for a long time, and we're losing the next generation."
Other ideas were mentioned:
● Encourage homeowners to use county-approved templates to build secondary dwelling units that meet local codes. The owners could get financing help if they rent it out at below-market rates.
● In areas where there is new affordable housing, give priority to people who have been displaced from that area.
● Stop building commercial projects until there's a balance between jobs and housing.
● Restrict rental apartments from being rented out on Airbnb.
● Ask state legislators to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, which restricts rent-control measures.
● Allow people to legally convert their garages into secondary dwelling or "granny" units.
As the adults continued to pass around the mic presenting their ideas, the kids in the back snuck out discreetly. Soon after, the adults began congratulating each other on starting a conversation and opening a dialogue, and left too.
Days later, I still can't shake the lyrics of a music video shown during the event. The song is called "My Home" by H20 featuring East Palo Alto hip hop artist Freddy Flowpez, and depicts a family receiving an eviction notice. A child sings the lyrics of the chorus in a clear voice:
This is my home
Raise me up and watch me grow.
This is my home
Where else can we go?
Do you have a personal experience of the housing crisis? Email Kate Bradshaw at [email protected] or send a tweet to @AlmanacNews.