Redwood City Renters, Officials Face Off as Housing Crisis Intensifies

Giselle Penuela, 10, and Alexander Penuela, 6, attend at a vigil outside a  City Council meeting in Redwood City.

Giselle Penuela, 10, and Alexander Penuela, 6, attend at a vigil outside a City Council meeting in Redwood City. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Back in October, a crowd of about 80 people marched along busy El Camino Real, near Redwood City’s downtown. The marchers, many of them parents with young children, were demanding that the City Council do something to limit steep rent increases and stop evictions. Among the signs they waved was one reading, “A healthy community welcomes all.”

Estefania Camacho, a nanny and college student, led the protesters through intersections of halted traffic. Camacho had recently received an eviction notice and she, her mother and husband had to vacate their two-bedroom apartment in less than two months. But the search for another home was not going well.

“We are really worried. We are counting the days,” Camacho said at the time.  “We haven’t found a place. We cannot afford a place with minimum wage in Redwood City or any place in the Bay Area. Everything is so overpriced.”

Marchers get ready to cross El Camino Real in Redwood City on October 1, 2015. They ask the City Council limits evictions and rent hikes.
Marchers get ready to cross El Camino Real in Redwood City on Oct. 1, 2015. The cost of housing is transforming the city, once known for its affordability compared with neighboring cities in San Mateo County.

Across Redwood City, the median rent price for two-bedroom apartments increased from $2,500 to $3,800 since 2012, according to the real estate website Zillow. Minimum wage and other full-time workers are unable to afford those rents. They end up having to move out of the area and sometimes quitting their local jobs. Anecdotes abound of “Help wanted” signs up longer than usual in Redwood City’s downtown businesses, while some local employers worry about retaining workers that can’t afford housing nearby.

The issue is prompting a wide array of residents to call for measures such as rent control and “just cause” requirements for eviction, which don’t exist in Redwood City or most of San Mateo County.

The number of evictions in Redwood City and much of the Bay Area is hard to track, as only cases that make it to court tend to be recorded. Residents and housing advocates say some landlords are getting rid of low-income tenants — often through “no fault” evictions — so they can charge higher rents.

The lower-income and heavily Latino census tracts surrounding Redwood City’s downtown are at risk of or already undergoing displacement, according to UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project.

That’s the area where Estefania Camacho lives. Last summer, Palo Alto-based Spieker Companies Inc. bought the 85-unit apartment complex that includes Camacho’s home and, according to residents, began sending eviction letters to tenants. Spieker did not return requests for comment, but Camacho’s eviction notice says the company needs her to vacate her unit so it can be remodeled.

Camacho and other tenants banded together and got help from attorneys at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. They were able to negotiate with the new owners for more time to move out and a gradual, rather than immediate, increase in rent. Tenants will still be forced to leave — but not until next July. In the meantime, tenants said rent on two-bedroom units, currently $1,600 a month, will increase by $300 next month, with an additional $300 increase coming in April.

Camacho and her family are moving after Christmas to Tracy, about 50 miles to the east in San Joaquin County. They will be renting a three-bedroom house there for $1,800 a month.

Camacho is quitting her nanny jobs for two families in San Carlos and San Mateo because commuting from Tracy would be too taxing. Her mother is also quitting her work at a Peninsula restaurant.

“It’s going to be challenging because we have to find jobs there,” said Camacho. “But that’s all we can afford for now.”

Stories like Camacho’s — of working residents leaving their jobs and simply moving — are becoming more common, says Charleen White, a lifelong resident of Redwood City who runs her own interior design and remodeling business. She says her contractor of 15 years got fed up of living in a crammed one-bedroom apartment with his family and he is moving to Los Angeles.

“It makes me very unhappy because we are going to lose our dear friends. We are going to lose our diversity in our community,” said White. She added that every Sunday at church she hears more news of families struggling to hang on to their homes.

The Rev. Ulysses D’Aquila is the pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Roman Catholic parish and school that serves over 1,700 families, including White’s. Some families have been coming here for generations, while others are new immigrants.

D’Aquila says the lack of affordable housing is a source of anxiety for an overwhelming number of his parishioners, including children who sense their parents’ stress when they can’t afford to pay rent.

“So I think it’s a big crisis. And I think it’s an economic crisis exteriorly and I think interiorly it’s a deep moral crisis, that it’s something that we have to answer for as a society here,” said D’Aquila. He says he supports rent control.

Not too long ago, Redwood City had a reputation as being more affordable than its neighbors. Unlike other communities in San Mateo County, the town produced nearly 1,000 housing units for low-income residents from 1988 to 1998, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments. But that supply was dwarfed by demand long ago.

New construction throughout the city is mostly commercial and market rate housing. Redwood City's principal planner says only about 5 per cent of all the new construction since 2012 was housing for low and moderate incomes.
New construction throughout the city is mostly commercial and market rate housing. Redwood City’s principal planner says only about 5 percent of all the new construction since 2012 has been housing for low and moderate incomes. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Today, the big new buildings under construction downtown are mostly for offices and market-rate housing. Only about 5 percent of all new construction since 2012 has been housing for people with low and moderate incomes, according to Diana O’Dell, Redwood City’s principal planner. Moderate incomes, according to county figures, include families of four earning up to $120,000.

Barbara Britschgi, who grew up in Redwood City and raised her kids there, says the loss of cultural and economic diversity in the city hurts upper-income families as well, even if they are not struggling directly with displacement.

“To have quality of life we are called to all live together, and this is where we learn and grow from each other,” said Britschgi, a member of the city’s Senior Affairs Commission. “So if we lose that sense of diversity, we’re losing a little bit of our quality of life.”

At the root of the housing crunch is a huge imbalance between the number of jobs and housing created. Between 2010 and 2014, San Mateo County gained 54,600 jobs but only 2,500 new homes, according to the state Employment Development Department and Department of Finance.

San Mateo County recently created a task force to study that imbalance.

“We’ll see growth taper off as companies decide they can no longer locate in the San Francisco Bay Area due to the lack of workforce housing,” said Michael Lane, from the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and a member of the task force.

The Bay Area Council, a regional business group, identified workforce housing, traffic congestion and the growing difficulty employers face in finding workers as the region’s top challenges for 2016.

Housing costs are impacting more and more people, and cities across the region are struggling to figure out what to do about it, said Lane. That conversation often includes rent control. Pacifica, Alameda and the city of San Mateo are debating whether to regulate rent increases.

“You have jurisdictions that probably five or 10 years ago would never consider rent stabilization ordinances, and now that’s on the table and residents are demanding that,” he said.

San Jose, which currently allows rent hikes of under 8 percent in a year, is considering tightening its rent ordinance.

Barbara Britschgi, 80, prepares for a senior affairs commission meeting in Redwood City, her lifelong hometown. She says skyrocketing rents and housing prices are diminishing Redwood City's diversity, as well as resident's quality of life.
Barbara Britschgi, 80, prepares for a Senior Affairs Commission meeting in Redwood City, her lifelong hometown. She says skyrocketing rents and housing prices are diminishing Redwood City’s diversity, as well as residents’ quality of life. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Redwood City has not formally considered rent control, but residents have raised the issue before the City Council. At a recent meeting, children told council members their parents are unable to afford rent increases, and their families will have to leave.

Opponents of rent control contend these ordinances have unintended consequences, such as keeping the most affordable units off market. Tenants in rent-controlled units in San Francisco tend to stay there even if they can afford to move somewhere more expensive, says Michael Verdone, president of the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.

“What it does is it creates a stagnant housing market,” said Verdone, former chair of Redwood City’s Planning Commission and a resident of the city since the 1980s. “Normally if there was no rent control, tenants with means would purchase a home, and that unit would become available on the open market.”

Redwood City Councilman Jeff Gee, whose mayoral term ended this month, is also opposed to any rent regulation by the city. Gee, an architect who works full time managing construction projects, says he’s seen that owners of rent-controlled buildings don’t spend as much to upgrade and maintain them. Sometimes that means the buildings don’t comply with current safety codes.

“Rent control doesn’t address the investment that is needed to maintain a property at quality level,” said Gee, adding that a large portion of the city’s rental stock is old and lacking earthquake retrofits and fire sprinklers. “That’s why we need to find new tools to moderate rents.”

To tackle the issue, Gee and the rest of the City Council approved Fire Safety First, a program aimed at improving safety and stabilizing rents at the same time. The initiative gives property owners low-interest loans to pay for sprinkler installations, and if the owners agree to limit rent increases, the city forgives the loan. It’s still unclear how many renters the program might help.

The City Council has also taken other steps to ease the housing crisis, such as approving plans to build as many as 137 homes for low-income residents on city land. Developers working on new projects will now also have to pay a fee to fund affordable units.

Housing advocates supporting rent control, such as Aracely Mondragon from Peninsula Interfaith Action, say Redwood City’s affordable housing measures may bear fruit years from now, but do little for people who are desperate for help now.

“It’s just not going to help that family who received a 60-day notice last week and is thinking about moving to Oregon and taking their kids off the school district here,” said Mondragon, who also leads her organization’s countywide campaign for renter protections.

Gee says the problem is a regional one, and the solutions need to be worked on by governments in the entire region as well.

“I get it, I see the ‘help wanted’ signs. … Living here on minimum wage is a challenge,” he said. “But it’s not just my responsibility. We have to work together with our neighbors to address affordability and the housing and employment needs of the region.”

Resident Barbara Britschgi remains hopeful that her neighbors and elected officials will come together to protect the city’s diversity.

“There is a sense of concern and caring for each other, and I think that’s going to come through,” Britschgi said.


Farida Jhabvala Romero

Farida Jhabvala Romero is a recent graduate of Stanford's graduate program in journalism. Her story on car impounds in Menlo Park was a finalist for the 2015 Investigative Reporters & Editors awards. She previously worked at Radio Bilingüe, the National Latino Public Radio Network. You can reach her by email at or follow her on twitter @faridajhabvala.

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