August 12, 2014

By David Zisser

Two large groups, reflecting the stark contrast between the two Bay Areas we live in, came to a San Mateo City Council meeting on July 21st, each to discuss a separate agenda item.

One group – mostly white and Asian American residents from the affluent West Hillsdale neighborhood – were there to spar over the addition of a second story to an individual residence (valued at about $1.2 million), and its effect on views.

Our group, mostly working class Latino members of local churches, had come because the City Council was set to vote on whether to submit its draft Housing Element to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. San Mateo, like all California cities, is required toregularly update its Housing Element (by January 2015 in the Bay Area). Among other things, Housing Elements identify sites available for housing for people at various income levels — including the lowest — and lay out policies and programs that the cities are considering for affordable housing development.

However, Housing Elements consistently fail to include programs and policies that would prevent displacement of tenants, such as a “just cause” eviction ordinance and rent control. San Mateo, where about 46 percent of the residents are renters, is no exception.

So, we planned to ask the City Council to consider policies in San Mateo’s Housing Element that would protect them and others from displacement caused by unjust evictions and massive rent increases. The residents came armed with compelling personal stories:

  • Landlords increasing rents 110 percent to more than $3,000 per month,
  • Landlords issuing mass eviction notices without cause,
  • Parents and children forced to live apart, and
  • The fear of having to move away from their churches, jobs, friends and family, schools, and communities, where some had lived for decades. (Read my articleon how unstable, segregated, and poor quality housing affects educational outcomes.)

In preparation for the meeting, the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action (SFOP/PIA) organized between15 to 20 members of different congregations from across San Mateo, including about a dozen from St. Matthew Catholic Church, to attend and speak at the meeting. They were prepared to tell their stories and to make the case for anti-displacement policies. Some professional advocates, including myself, would also say a few words.

But once the meeting started, we would have to wait. For a while. In fact, for more than two hours, our residents listened patiently to a Spanish translation of the proceedings while a procession of 20 West Hillsdale residents had their say. Some neighbors claimed that the second-story addition would obstruct bay and skyline views. They argued over “view equity” and lamented that this debate had torn the neighborhood apart, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

After about an hour and a half of this, our residents filed out together to meet with each other and the SFOP/PIA organizer. I followed. They quietly but firmly expressed their frustration to each other, keenly aware of the irony playing out inside the Council chamber.

Eventually, though, these residents – including a number of teenage children – would have a chance to describe how they were being forced to leave their homes or couldn’t afford to stay or to find anything nearby. They mentioned the possibility of having to relocate – to Concord or Pleasanton, for example – two places where Public Advocates is working hard to give low-income people more housing choice. Just across the bay, but a world away – from everything and everyone they know.

Unfortunately, the West Hillsdale residents wouldn’t have the chance to appreciate the very different experience the church members would soon describe. After their testimony and the Council’s discussion and vote – to approve the addition to the million-dollar home – the West Hillsdale residents all left, heading to their hillside homes at 10:15 PM.

Had they waited as patiently as the church group, they would have left around midnight, when the City Council finally voted unanimously to submit the draft Housing Element, without any of the changes the residents and advocates had suggested. The Council feared such policies would stifle development and make housing even more expensive, forgetting that they were not being asked to pass such policies but merely to consider and study them.

The result: while one family was granted the right to expand their home, hundreds more will lose their homes and be forced to leave their communities. Or, they will struggle even harder – in multiple jobs and overcrowded conditions so they can afford to stay in their homes. And forget about achieving the dream of owning a modest home.

The racial and class divide reflected at the Council meeting isn’t just anecdotal. Compared to whites and Asians, Latinos and African-Americans (who, combined, comprise about 28 percent of the population in San Mateo) are much more likely to:

  • Be renters;
  • Earn significantly less;
  • Fall under the poverty line; and
  • Be overcrowded (more than one person per room)

Moreover, lower-income households are much more likely to be rent burdened (paying more than 30 percent of their income towards rent) than higher-income households. For instance, households earning less than $50,000 are more than eight times as likely to be rent burdened as those earning more than $75,000.

The graphs above and below demonstrate these clear patterns.[1]

The challenges involved in finding and staying in a home in the Bay Area are very real to many but affect each of us differently, depending on the privileges we do or do not happen to have. For example, just in the last few weeks, I got a small taste of the difficulty involved in finding a decent affordable rental home, as I visited more than 40 apartments. Fortunately, several accepted my application. But, I benefit from a range of privileges, including my race, gender, sexual orientation, education level, access to a vehicle and steady employment status. Hundreds of thousands of other Bay Area residents do not have these advantages. Not only do many of these privileges – or the lack thereof – affect a family’s ability to find a place, but without adequate protections, they also influence a family’s ability to stay there.

San Mateo City Councilmembers had the opportunity to hear two very different housing experiences in one evening. It’s one thing to ignore the impersonal pleas from advocates like me. But it’s inexcusable to ignore the cold irony staring them in the face, and the hard-working families who wait hours into the late night to bravely tell their stories.

When the City gets its draft Housing Element back from the State, we hope the Council will re-visit the issue and include a consideration of anti-displacement policies and programs in the final document. Doing so would send a clear message that the Council values a socio-economically and racially diverse San Mateo.

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