Long Commute to Silicon Valley Increasingly the Norm for Many

Ronnie Thomas works for Stanford University Dining, a six-hour round trip commute on bus, bike and train from his home in Stockton. (Sabrina Greenway/Peninsula Press)

It is 3:10 a.m. when Ronnie Thomas rolls out of bed in his Stockton apartment. He brushes his teeth, takes his vitamins, throws on a bright orange reflective jacket, kisses his sleeping wife and 6-month-old son and hops on his bike. This is the beginning of Thomas’s 80-mile commute to Stanford University.

Thomas, 55, is a Stanford University Dining employee. To get to and from Stanford, Thomas has to take a bike, a train and a bus. Monday through Friday, Thomas spends 16 hours away from home and treks a total commute of nearly six hours.

Every weekday, Thomas rides his bike for 30 minutes and 5 miles to the Stockton train station. He lifts his bike onto the train and sits in the same seat of the same car on the 4:20 a.m. Altamont Commuter Express. Thomas keeps himself awake in fear of missing his stop at the Fremont station at 6:00 a.m.

From the train station, Thomas grabs his bike and rushes to catch the 6:04 a.m. AC Transit U-Line bus, a line created to accommodate Stanford commuters.

The sun has just started to peak over the horizon as Thomas arrives at Stanford’s campus at 6:40 a.m., just in time for him to clock in at 6:45 a.m.

Every commute is mentally and physically draining for Thomas and requires a great sense of humor and patience. That he is able to do it is a testament to his commitment to provide for his family, his respect for his supervisors and his fondness of his co-workers.

“I do what I have to do, I have a family to take care of. It is my responsibility to take care of them. If that means sacrificing a few spare hours a day to give them a better life, I’ll do it,” Thomas said.

Thomas’s exceptionally long commute isn’t unique.

“In regards to my commute, it’s not like I am isolated,” he said. “I am not doing anything special. There are hundreds and hundreds of other people doing the same thing I do, every day.”

Thomas’ commute is representative of the challenges a growing number of low-income workers face in the Bay Area as rents rise and affordable housing options continue to vanish, especially in Silicon Valley where the bulk of the employment opportunities are.

In 2014, the San Francisco Bay Area and San Jose held the number one and two spots on a list of the highest rent increases in the United States, according to the real estate website Zillow.

“It is as bad as I have ever remembered it,” said Joe Simitian, former California state senator and current Santa Clara County supervisor, about the rental prices in the Palo Alto area.

Silicon Valley’s tech boom has increased employment opportunities for low-income service workers even more than for programmers in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, compounding an already punishing shortage of affordable housing in the area.

“One tech job creates approximately five service jobs,” said Candace Gonzalez, executive director of the Palo Alto Housing Corp. “The pace of jobs has outpaced housing.”

The Palo Alto Housing Corp.’s 20 properties of affordable housing units have thousands of people on the waitlist.

“Our waitlist will take five years or more to get off it, and by the time the people get off the waitlist, they have already moved out of town,” Gonzalez said.

Thomas moved from one of the Bay Area’s last havens for affordable housing — East Palo Alto — to Stockton last year, increasing his square footage and reducing his rent by $1,039 a month. On a $43,000 yearly salary, this option was attractive.

The trend of workers moving further away from Stanford is growing. Last year, Thomas told his friend and co-worker, Henry Jackson, about the monetary benefits of moving to Stockton. By Thanksgiving, Jackson decided to pack his bags, save some money and move there.

Thomas waits for the Stanford commuter bus at Fremont train station.
Thomas waits for the Stanford commuter bus at Fremont train station. (Sabrina Greenway)

“A lot of the workers who live near Stanford are struggling, living from paycheck to paycheck. After paying the rent and the rest of their bills, they are broke. Living in Stockton is a lot better. I can save money, spend it on other things and even look forward to buying a house,” Jackson said.

Low-income workers used to be able to afford housing near Palo Alto in low-income areas such as East Palo Alto. But in recent years, East Palo Alto’s rents have risen.

“There is no other place in the Peninsula where rents are cheaper than EPA. But now we have seen huge increases in rent, as tenants are moving out of the area. So lower-income workers will no longer be able to afford housing nearby,” said Victor Ramirez, EPA rent control administrator.

Thomas explained that one of the most difficult parts of his commute is the risk of train or bus delays that can make him late for work or arrive at home at an unreasonable time.

After a long day at work and commuting, he can use the rest. Thomas’ job as a storekeeper requires an immense amount of physical labor. He lifts anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds per day, sorting all the produce, proteins and canned goods that supply Stanford’s dining halls.

Stanford works to provide housing for thousands of students and offers housing assistance to faculty it tries to recruit in the form of rental assistance, specialized loans and a cash allowance, according to Jan Thompson, the Faculty Staff Housing director at Stanford.

But, the low-income workers — those that serve food, clean up after residents, maintain grounds and make Stanford’s campus work — are often forced to move far away, to cities like Manteca, Tracy and San Jose.

“We need more housing opportunities and we need people to be more supportive of it,” Gonzalez said.

Building more affordable housing has been a tough sell in Palo Alto.

“The community has openly resisted high-density development,” said Simitian, in reference to the Palo Alto area. “An indicator of this was the community’s rejection of building a senior affordable housing project in Maybell.” In November 2013, over 56 percent of Santa Clara County voters voted against the building of a 60-unit apartment complex on Maybell Avenue for seniors who make less than the area median income.

Gonzalez warns: “There needs to be a focus on mixed-income housing or else we will lose all diversity (social, economical and cultural). Palo Alto will be completely homogenous and that is not good for the character or vitality of a community.”

Even with the bleak affordable housing picture, Thomas’ positive attitude on life shines bright.

“I can’t complain,” he said. “I’m happy with my apartment. My family’s taken care of. I’m simple. As long as they are taken care of, I’m happy. I don’t need a whole lot.”

Long Commute to Silicon Valley Increasingly the Norm for Many 30 March,2015KQED News Staff

  • theqin

    Stanford owns a lot of land, can’t they build some affordable housing for their own employees on their own property? I know they are trying to keep a lot of it undeveloped but they could increase the density of their current townhomes to accommodate more students and employees.

  • Chairman Meow

    Well done NIMBYs, well done…

  • Fungi from Berkeley

    You’re a good man Ronnie. We should all be as appreciative of what we have as you, those who have abundance even more so.

  • genfinity

    I work at Stanford and am having to move to Vallejo now since my rent will be going up $1100 total in the last two years. As a single mom I’ve done my best to stay as long as I could but the cost of rent has finally won. Moving from an apartment to a house I’m hoping the trade off of less rent and more space will be worth the commute and time away from home.

  • Linda and I live in Alameda. Her car-train-and-bus commute is almost 2 hours each way via the Capitol Corridor train 4 days/week. (She usually works from home 1 day/week.) We cannot afford to move any closer, even though she makes considerably more than Ronnie Thomas does…

  • tommydagun

    Just so we’re keeping track, East Palo Alto is a rent control jurisdiction.

  • Tug Thumper

    The problem here is not affordable housing, it’s that US public transportation in general needs to do a lot better and commutes that involve buses are just non starters for the time conscious. Euro EMU commuter trains and I’m not talking HSR here can do 80 mile trips in less than 90 minutes. Even in New York with all it’s old infrastructure issues and limitations 80 mile trips are more like 2 hours.

  • robd003

    We need to work with home builders to get more space available for people to live. All of California’s crazy environmentalist laws are screwing it’s citizens. (San Francisco should build vertically)

  • MOHAMED A. Ahmed

    Mr. Thomas I wish you all the best. I’m writing from the United Arab Emirates, and many people here have the same problem. Again I wish you all the best.

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