San Mateo's rising rent forces families from housing

For two years, Reyna Gonzalez helped her fellow parishioners at St. Matthew Catholic Church who were struggling to find housing they could afford. A member of the church's social justice committee, she connected them with attorneys, met with city officials and helped them negotiate with landlords.

Then Gonzalez found herself in the same situation. Her landlord informed her that she, her husband, her son and granddaughter, and her nephew would need to move out -- or tack on an extra $1,000 to their $2,015 monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment.

"I never expected it would happen to me," said Gonzalez, who has lived in the apartment for 12 years and works as a nanny. "If we pay that much for rent, we don't have money for anything else. No food, no clothes, no shoes."

Gonzalez shared her story at a vigil on Aug. 20 outside St. Matthew's. Organized by San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action, a social service coalition that works through religious organizations. The vigil drew more than 100 clergy, renters, parishioners and other activists.

Forming a demonstration on El Camino Real, San Mateo's main drag, attendees held up signs: "$top the greed," "We need rent control now" and "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos" ("We are here and we are not leaving"). Many drivers honked in support as they passed the crowd.

Bishop William Justice of the San Francisco archdiocese, who attended the local boys' Catholic High School, Junipero Serra, and was ordained at St. Matthew's, lamented the changes wrought by rising rents.

"It's a great struggle for people not making a million dollars a minute," he told the vigil attendees. "We need to come together to find a way of ending this fear."

San Mateo lies midway between San Francisco and San Jose, firmly inside Silicon Valley, the high-tech economic sector with its high-paying jobs. Technology is flourishing right now, and companies with names like AlienVault and SugarSync have opened shop, where packs of young men indistinguishable from characters in the TV series Silicon Valley roam the downtown district at lunchtime.

Rent and house prices, always high in the San Francisco Bay Area, have accordingly soared: The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment has reached $2,500 in San Mateo County. Unlike San Francisco to the north, San Mateo has no rent control, so landlords jack up prices as much as they can get away with.

"The market here for high-paying jobs is extraordinary. It's off the charts," said San Mateo Deputy Mayor Jack Matthews. Knowing how much tech workers can afford to pay for rent, he said, investors are buying properties, making upgrades, then renting them out at much higher rates. "They see an opportunity to cash in."

Low-wage workers aren't the only ones hurting. Brad Saunders, a middle school physical education teacher, and his wife, a registered nurse, have rented a two-bedroom home for four years, currently paying $1,675 a month. But the landlord sold the building to an investor group, and their rent is doubling to over $3,000.

"My family's been here 44 years," said the St. Matthew's parishioner and father of three. "We live good, honest, simple lives. What does it say when the fabric of the community can't afford to live here? It's not right."

More housing would ease the pressure; indeed, massive complexes have risen along station stops for Caltrain, the commuter rail that connects San Francisco and San Jose. Matthews, the deputy mayor, said that besides approving new housing, the city is looking into ways to provide more affordable places to live. "It's a real problem," he said. "I would consider it a crisis."

The fence outside Gonzalez's apartment complex, which stands on a cul-de-sac that connects to a city park, is covered in posters protesting the rent increases. "Shame! 4 Families evicted," one reads.

"My neighbors are sad, they don't want to move," Gonzalez said. "My granddaughter says, 'I don't want to move; my friends are here.' It's so hard on the children."

While Gonzalez tries to find affordable housing so her granddaughter can stay at her school and she can keep her job, her charges, 10-year-old Ron and 8-year-old Natalie, did what they could to help their nanny buy a home.

Selling cookies and lemonade for 50 cents each in a local park, with a sign that read "Help Reyna," they hauled in a fortune: $50.

[Mandy Erickson is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.]

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