The panelists were Rosemary Barajas, a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School; Jahkim Hendrix, a freshman at Oxford Day Academy; Luis Galindo, a junior at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City; and Deshaun Jordan, a freshman at Oxford Day Academy.
Impacts and observations
Each student on the panel had some story to tell about how displacement and the high cost of housing has impacted his or her household or that of an aquaintance.
Rosemary said she comes from a single-parent household that has struggled with housing costs. As a high school student, she said, she has had to take on a lot to help her family not become homeless. At Menlo-Atherton High, she said, she's noticed less diversity in her school and has observed classmates commuting from farther afield to get to school.
Jahkim moved to East Palo Alto from Atlanta when he was about 7 to live with his grandmother. Unable to find affordable housing on Section 8, he and his mom moved to Hayward, until, within two or three years, rent became untenable and they moved back to East Palo Alto.
Luis said that he has always lived in and around Redwood City, but in tight quarters with lots of family he struggled to find enough space to do his homework and express himself. His extended family lives in a household with five kids and and all must share one bathroom, he said.
He pointed to the recent near-closure of Fair Oaks Elementary School in his home city of Redwood City. The incident, he said, is "starting to get into the bad side of gentrification." The community rallied to keep the school open "because we really need it there," he said. Not everyone in the community can easily drive the couple of extra miles to get to the next-closest school, he pointed out.
Facing declining enrollment at the school, the district had planned to close the public elementary school, which has a capacity of 800 but has only 160 students. The district had said the school needed to sign up at least 200 students.
Deshaun said he saw his grandmother struggle to make home payments with her retirement money and worry about having enough. Friends he grew up with have had to move away suddenly, and can't attend high school in the community they grew up in.
When asked what policies they thought might work to help address the problem, the students' responses varied.
Jahkim said he supports an unbudging rent control policy, while Rosemary said she wants to see more programs to support single parents and more accessible information about the programs that exist.
Luis said he supports some form of rent stabilization. "We need to be able to let landlords' rent go up, but not so savagely that people can't be able to afford their houses or apartments," he said.
Deshaun said he believes the problem is also tied to big businesses coming into town. "Stop bringing in businesses bigger than your city," he said. "Your workers are probably not always going to want to come from Modesto or wherever they (live)." People want to live near where they work, and to make room for them, he said, "you have to move some people out. That's what happening."
What message would these students send to elected officials?
"I would say: Think about the families (and) how much they struggle," Rosemary said. "Any way you can make anything better for them — you have the power to change it."
"You need to get off your ass," Luis said. The housing shortage has been decades in the making, he said, and leaders have long been saying they'll help the homeless and fix the housing crisis. "But honestly, I don't believe them anymore," he said.
Deshaun said that leaders should create more affordable housing, and if they allow new businesses, those businesses should help the city and community.
Among other questions asked by the public of the students was: Why should adults and leaders listen to them?
Deshaun said simply, "Youth are the future."
"We're the ones living here and playing here," said Luis. "(We're) the soul of this community and the future. If you're not going to support us, then you're not going to have a great future."
Another attendee asked what will happen if things don't change.
Jahkim responded that he would hope the community could come back stronger from the displacement, and Deshaun said he expects many East Palo Alto residents to leave the city and settle elsewhere.
"That will be really disheartening," Deshaun said.
"I see my family being ripped apart," Luis said. "We're not going to be able to stay here united as one family body."
"I see my family leaving, and my community and lots of families being broken up," Rosemary said.
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