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Local students' research, experiences to inform Facebook-funded housing study

 
Y-PLAN students who researched affordable housing options in Menlo Park and North Fair Oaks gave a presentation to other program participants from around the Bay Area at University of California at Berkeley on April 25. Photo courtesy Deborah McKoy.

In an emotional presentation, four local high school students recently shared their experiences of the housing crisis with the Menlo Park City Council.

These students, whose lives have been intimately impacted by the high cost of local housing, have done research that will inform a housing study of the area, funded by Facebook that is expected to be released this summer.

Ashley Barraza Cazares, a sophomore at Sequoia High School, told the story of how her family's rent goes up every year, and each time, her family thinks of moving to a new city. Every year, she continued, her father hustles to find a new side job to earn more, and her family is able to stay.

Nataly Manzanero, a student at Sequoia High, said her immediate family of six ended up renting out three rooms of their house to three additional families, so there were about 15 people living in her home. Plus, her parents had to take on extra jobs. As a kid, she said, it was painful to not be able to see her parents as often as she'd like. Then, for various reasons, she said, her family had to move out of their home. There was nothing in this area they could afford. They considered moving to another city, but that would have required her parents to quit their jobs. "That would have been very financially unstable for all of us," she explained.

So their family chose to split up, living in mobile homes – and they still rent out a room to provide another household an affordable place to live, she added.

Mia Palacios, a sophomore at Sequoia High, said she has lived in subsidized housing for most of her life. Strict pet policies meant she had to give up her dog, and property management restricted how long her grandmother could visit their home.

Yvette Contreras, a junior at Woodside High, said a friend of hers is considering moving to Oregon because her parents can't afford the rent anymore. Many families, she said, are leaving the state entirely, not seeing hope for affordability elsewhere in the Bay Area.

These four students are part of a program, called "Y-PLAN," that trains high school students to not only share their stories, but conduct research and advocate for public policies. The students and their classmates in the program have some strong ideas about how local leaders can help with the housing crisis. And, as luck would have it, Facebook is listening.

Why Y-PLAN?

Y-PLAN, short for "Youth – Plan, Learn, Act Now," is run out of University of California at Berkeley's Center for Cities and Schools. About two years ago, said program founder Deborah McKoy, the program was invited to help work on an in-depth housing study funded by Facebook and led by Karen Chapple, UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning.

Back when Facebook's latest campus expansion was approved in 2016, one condition the City Council negotiated for in a development agreement was for the city to complete an in-depth housing study. One of those terms was that Facebook agreed to put $350,000 toward conducting a housing inventory and local supply study with Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

A previous displacement study funded by the corporation in 2016 found that housing demand would not increase beyond Menlo Park's available housing, because only about 4% of Facebook's employees lived in Menlo Park overall, and about 0.6% lived in Belle Haven and East Palo Alto at the time. Many locals were skeptical of those findings.

According to McKoy, the project began about a year and a half ago with an initial cohort of students at the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. Although the academy has since phased out its high school, Y-PLAN continued to work with the seniors enrolled, as well as others in the area, such as students affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.

She added that in the communities where Y-PLAN has done work throughout the Bay Area, they've uncovered, more strongly amongst adults, incredible anger about displacement by the Silicon Valley tech workforce. There's a good reason for that anger, she explained: People feel vulnerable and powerless. The goal of her program is to help young people be ahead of the curve, and seek empowerment over anger.

The young people she works with, she said, aren't angry yet.

"It's more of a fear," she said. "They know they're vulnerable." Students see construction going on all around them. Her work is to, at some level, demystify what's going on, and help them find the information they need to counter those fears. Once they use research tools to find out what's going on, they focus on civic engagement and public policy work.

The program turns 20 this year and on April 25, it hosted a summit of high school students across the Bay Area involved with different policy research projects.

The Midpeninsula program asked several cohorts of student interns to answer a complex question: "How can we stabilize the communities of Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks by making housing more affordable?"

Possible policies the students analyzed were supporting accessory or secondary dwelling units, promoting home repair help for seniors and preserving the affordable housing stock in the area.

According to Sequoia High sophomore Mia, the group of interns conducted interviews and gathered survey responses from friends and family members who live in or previously lived in and around the Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks neighborhoods.

They then created a story map to share their findings.

Access the story map online at tinyurl.com/YPLANStoryMapSouthBay.

Recommendations

The students saw secondary or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as potential options for helping to meet some demand for smaller housing units – but for use by smaller-sized households, not lower-income ones.

As McKoy explained, one sentiment expressed was, "Why don't Facebook employees live in smaller units, and leave the bigger homes to us? We have bigger families." The students, she added, were also concerned about seniors and felt that multigenerational housing options were important.

When it comes to secondary housing units, the students say in their report, "many of the houses that have the necessary space for an ADU already have one," but noted that they support the construction of such units where possible, and encourage new zoning regulations to allow more ADUs.

While tiny homes increase the overall number of housing units, the students argue they are better suited for single people or couples without children, and are not well-tailored for large, multigenerational families that live in the area.

They also recommend home repair assistance programs to be accessible for all age groups, not just seniors. Homes that have undergone repairs, they note, can go up in value and attract wealthier residents, causing displacement in the community.

"So as houses are repaired, we would want to pay attention to the needs of people living in nearby homes and apartments as well," they write.

Preserving affordable units, they say, is a "crucial strategy" for neighborhoods to prevent residents from becoming priced out of their communities. They suggested programs like community land trusts or cooperative housing models to keep housing affordable. They said they are concerned that there are not enough affordable housing units in their neighborhoods.

They also recommended cities consider rent stabilization policies, that market and below-market-rate housing be built in the same buildings, and that governments and large corporations build housing.

Responses

Facebook has already taken steps to follow up on some of the students' recommendations, according to Maya Perkins, strategic initiatives manager at Facebook.

"Facebook was excited about them and their work because it aligns with things Facebook is in interested in: giving people power to build communities and bringing the world closer together," Perkins said. "The youth Y-PLAN is working with ... have real ideas about what they want to see."

In response to early recommendations from the students, Facebook is in the process of investing in a nonprofit that is developing a revolving fund to support the development of accessory dwelling units.

Another initiative Facebook is early in the process of supporting is a project to help low-income households with early steps on the long journey toward homeownership. Because of the lack of housing affordability, Perkins explained, "Some rungs of the social mobility ladder have been pulled out." The company is contributing to a project that is "looking to be a step on that ladder toward financial stability," she said.

According to Anthony Harrison, Facebook director of corporate media relations, the company has made efforts to engage with the community and be responsive to residents' concerns over the years. "I don't think it's as if we have suddenly become enlightened," he said, adding, "We've probably been getting more creative in the last couple of years."

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