By Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz
A group of community workers, along with mostly Latino and African American working-class parents, hold hands in a prayer vigil at a suburban Bay Area neighborhood. They huddle together in the shade on the front lawn of a townhouse complex as their children play with protest signs and run around with friends. So close to San Francisco with its rent control and modest eviction preventions, the Silicon Valley city of San Mateo provides no security for tenants.
The renters at 1824 El Parque Court are not the only ones threatened with eviction—San Mateo has no Rent Stabilization Board to compile reliable statistics. Tenants in several other buildings—910 Clinton St. and the Park Royal among them—also got eviction notices in previous months.
“We see a lot of buildings being flipped through speculation and hundreds of families being left without a home, having to leave the area completely, or move in with another family member,” says Aracely Mondragón, San Mateo County community organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action (SFOP/PIA),1 which organized a vigil to bring attention to the evictions at El Parque Court while escalating a campaign about the plight of Black and Latino working families in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.
With help from SFOP/ PIA, renters in several San Mateo County cities have begun to organize, which is starting to catch the attention of some local lawmakers. San Mateo City Council member David Lim was recently quoted saying that he supports just cause eviction protections, but it will be challenging to get legislation passed.2
San Mateo County touches San Francisco’s southern border and is home to some of the largest and most recognizable tech firms in the world. YouTube, Electronic Arts, Facebook, and Oracle anchor this northern part of Silicon Valley, which houses three million people,3 and stretches south down the length of the peninsula to San Jose and back up the east side of the Bay to Fremont.
Income Disparity Skews Housing Market
Companies on the San Francisco Peninsula employ over 300,000 tech workers who earn an average of nearly $200,000 per year.4,5 This means that a huge number of people, roughly equal to three quarters of the population of Oakland, are making a tremendous amount of money in the Bay Area. Many are young professionals wanting to live in San Francisco, but with the extraordinary demand for housing and the crowded ranks of high wage earners, the spillover from San Francisco to neighboring San Mateo County is intense.
Despite this increasing high-end demand for housing, income disparity dominates the social and economic landscape. At the top, high-profile tech firms are paying elevated wages to secure top talent. At the bottom, “the average income for Hispanics, who make up one in four residents in Silicon Valley, fell to an all-time low of $19,000 a year,” according to the annual Silicon Valley Index.6,7
According to the Wall Street Journal, “Blacks and Latinos make up a sizable share of low-wage workers cleaning and guarding Silicon Valley tech companies, where the technical workforces are overwhelmingly white and Asian.” Statistics in the article make the divide even clearer. Latinos make up 69 percent of the janitors in Santa Clara but only three percent of Google’s workforce.8
As the demand for housing from a highly compensated workforce continues to grow, landlords are eager to cash in. Why rent to a janitor when you can rent the same unit to an engineer whose paycheck is 10 times larger? Without renter protections, it’s easy for a landlord to evict a tenant or clear out an entire building or just keep raising the rents. If an existing tenant can pay, they can stay, but the increases inevitably become too much.
An internet search reveals several San Mateo County businesses dedicated to helping landlords evict tenants, such as Professional Eviction Services, whose website says: “When you need to clear your home, apartment, or commercial property of its tenants, search no further than our tenant eviction service company...”
Families Feel the Bite of Greed
“With the current market and the housing crisis, we’re seeing landlords and investors taking advantage of the weak legal protections, exploiting the holes that exist in the law in order to turn a quick profit,” says Daniel Saver, housing attorney at Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. “In the wake behind them, there’s a trail of human cost. It’s destroying communities. It’s really tearing apart families and communities and ties that make San Mateo such a great place to live!”
Residents at the El Parque Court vigil talked about what this meant to them. One mom with two young children had lived there for seven years. Her daughter was still recovering from an ear implant and getting ready to start school at the end of summer. “We received the eviction notice on July 7, saying that we have to vacate our apartment in 60 days,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I am so sad about this. We had been fighting so hard for my daughter to get her implant, and the eviction notice came at roughly the same time as her implant. These were two very difficult things to handle at the same time.”
Another mom told us that it’s hard to find a new place that takes kids as landlords often restrict households to no more than four people. And moving at the end of the summer means not just finding a new place, but also getting children enrolled in a new school.
“My kids were born here, so they’re scared to move to another place,” she told us. “They think that this is their home and they’re worried about changing to another place, changing schools, and missing their friends. That’s why, for me it’s very difficult… and necessary to support vigils like this one.”
This certainly won’t be the last vigil for SFOP/PIA.
“We should start with just a baseline of tenant rights, like rent stabilization, just-cause and relocation benefits,” says Mondragón, who remains steadfast despite a well-funded lobby anchored by the Apartment Association working to defend the rights of property owners at the expense of tenants. “There is huge opposition but I think that we can continue to lift these eviction cases up and make tenant protections more feasible. And if not, you know, we’ll go to the ballot.”
Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke are co-founders of [people. power. media]. peoplepowermedia.net is an online platform broadcasting community voices to impact public policy. This article is a co-publishing project of [people. power. media] and Reimagine! RP&E.
2. “City to explore eviction limits: San Mateo City Council may consider just-cause ordinance, affordable housing crisis,” Samantha Weigel, Daily Journal, Sept. 5, 2105, accessed at http://www.smdailyjournal.com/articles/lnews/2015-09-05/city-to-explore-eviction-limits-san-mateo-city-council-may-consider-just-cause-ordinance-affordable-housing-crisis/1776425149665.html