Let’s talk about rent, specifically, rent control, and how it should be applied to San Mateo County. Rent control is a policy in which landlords are limited in the percentage amount they can raise their rent by. Cities employ this policy to prevent landlords from “pricing out” their tenants. Recently, Oakland lawmakers tried to address rapidly climbing rent by fixing rent increases to the rate of inflation for 90 days until a more permanent solution could be found. It is not an ideal situation, but it is good considering the opposition from landlords, whose profits would be impeded by rent control.
In East Palo Alto, lawmakers have achieved a slightly more stable solution. As of now, rent is capped at a 2% increase per year. Although this policy is a step in the right direction, it does not do enough to address the current and upcoming housing problems in East Palo Alto. According to the Sonima Foundation, a group partnered with the K-8 Ravenswood City School District, up to 35% of the students in the district are homeless (defined as living in a doubled-up situation, living with friends, living in shelters, or living on the street). A San Mateo County homeless count found that 930 people in East Palo Alto, approximately 3% of the city’s population, are living on the street.
The core of the problem is that although wage is increasing at a good pace, as Palo Alto recently instituted a new minimum wage, and unemployment is down, the cost of living in East Palo Alto is high, and the median rent is much higher than the national average, even after the rent freeze. The average house in East Palo Alto costs three times more than the national average, according to a study by the Council for Community and Economic research. The average rent is 35% more than the national average. In short, before the rent cap, the cost of living in East Palo Alto was already high. The cap helps to alleviate a bit of the economic pressure that increasing rent applies, but the costs of living are still incredibly high, and the median income of someone in East Palo Alto is only marginally better than the national average.
When rent forces families out of their homes, they face a series of tough decisions. Do they try to continue living in their neighborhood? If so, how? Do they try to find a different house or apartment in the same area for a cheaper price? Do they live on the street or in a shelter? Or do they move, uprooting themselves, ripping their kids from school and their friends, in search of an easier life somewhere else? No matter what they choose, pressure from rent puts families in a terrible situation.
Even though East Palo Alto faces a serious housing problem, it has the best system in place to solve the problem in San Mateo County. Out of all of the cities in San Mateo County, East Palo Alto is the only one that establishes eviction protection, and has a reasonable method of rent control in place. Everywhere else in San Mateo County, landlords are able to evict tenants for no reason, as long as they give tenants a notice 60 days beforehand. There, growing property values simply force families out of their homes.
So, how do we solve this issue? All opinions need to be taken into account. The landowners want to make a profit, so they would like to be able to increase rent to follow the rate of inflation. The tenants want low rent prices because they want to be able to remain living in the area. An obvious, yet temporary solution has already been adopted in East Palo Alto, to freeze rent increases. But rent prices and increasing cost of living still cripple people living in the area. We should attempt to apply a similar method of rent control throughout San Mateo County, and add a bit more onto that. The ideal would be for local government to incentivize local businesses to subsidize local housing. Much of the current issue stems from the flood of tech companies into the Bay Area. Their employees want housing, and can usually out pay the tenants. If we give companies incentives, like easier zoning or expedited permitting in exchange for subsidizing housing, it is likely they would support the community and subsididize it.
If local governments do not put restrictions in place, exponentially increasing rent will push people out of their homes, and eventually, the entire makeup of the county will be different. Instead of the socioeconomic diversity in the county we see now, we will instead see an area in which only the rich can afford to live. People who lived in the county for years will be forced out, simply because it is too expensive to live there.