You're 80 years old. You've lived in your apartment for decades. Your landlord keeps the rent low. You're walking distance to your neighborhood grocery store and doctor's office. Then one day you receive an eviction notice.
You haven't had to look for an apartment in decades, and even if you have a computer or smartphone, you're not aware of the sites and social media groups people use to find housing and how fast apartments get snatched up.
If you have a social worker, they may help you navigate the convoluted waitlists for affordable housing, but it's difficult to be eligible for these waitlists and it can be years until there's an opening.
You don't know what to do, and when seniors experience such a drastic disruption to their environment after decades, it can trigger dementia.
This happens every day in Palo Alto.
You've probably heard that California is experiencing a severe housing shortage. As an organizer, I can tell you firsthand, this is what that looks like.
Last December, I began working as a community organizer for the Palo Alto Renters' Association (PARA) working with renters in Palo Alto facing eviction. My days would start with an urgent call from a community member: almost always a senior, single parent or member of a marginalized community.
They'd always paid rent on time; they didn't violate their lease. They've lived in their home for decades or moved to Palo Alto for the schools. They're on Social Security or the pandemic hurt their bank account. Now they have nowhere to go. The first thing a tenant always says is, "How is this happening?"
California used to build homes, apartments and other residences at a more stable rate. In the 1960s if you had to move out from your home, you could easily find a home to rent in your neighborhood. Now you may be forced to live in your car, or move out of state, or what is unfortunately often the case, have no options for where to live.
In the last decades due to policy failures, California did not build many homes. Now the state has to build homes to eliminate that shortage.
All cities in California have to act to address the housing crisis from all angles: building more homes, making sure many homes are designated affordable housing (where the government sets a low price to buy or rent them), and passing protections for renters, individuals living in their car or RV, and those who currently do not have a place to live.
Palo Alto has a long history of not taking action.
Most housing projects in Palo Alto are blocked or delayed and only a few hundred homes designated as affordable housing have been added in the last decade. While most cities offer a variety of renter protections so if you are evicted, you don't risk having nowhere to live, prior to the pandemic, Palo Alto had almost no renter protections, and the packet of renter protections that was supposed to come before council this year has been delayed.
That's terrifying in a city where nearly half the residents rent.
Luckily we're in the middle of a "housing element" cycle: Every eight years, the state of California asks cities to present evidence that they can build more housing and help address the state's housing shortage — or risk legal consequences. On Nov. 7, the public comment period for Palo Alto's housing element draft plan opened for one month.
The nonprofit Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County recommends cities consider any of a variety of renter protections in their housing element drafts: from rent control modeled after East Palo Alto's rent stabilization ordinance to "just cause" eviction ordinances, which limit when landlords can evict a tenant. A strong housing element draft will include such renter protections and provide locations in Palo Alto where 6,086 new homes could be built — about half of which is to be designated affordable housing.
When PARA's sponsor organization Palo Alto Forward, a nonprofit advocating for more housing options, contracted me to help organize community members in support of housing, I assumed they would be cold to the idea of 6,086 new homes in Palo Alto. I was wrong.
Here were the stories I heard:
"I'm a retiree and lifelong Palo Altan. My daughter has gone off to college, and there's no way she'll be able to come back and live in the community she grew up in."
"I know that supporting more housing options is necessary to address the equity issues in Palo Alto. If I lose my housing, I will have to leave this area, if not leave the state."
In neighborhoods where I expected to be told, "We can't build here," instead I was met with "We need this."
Our community knows we need housing and renter protections, and even if you are not warm to this idea, I promise you there is a neighbor on your block who is dangerously close to having nowhere to live. I wish that everyone who weighs in on the housing debate could spend six months working with tenants; it would get a lot of people on the same page and remind them what's really at stake.
I've sat on the phone with parents close to tears as they debated if they should live in their car until their kids graduate from Palo Alto Unified School District. I've spent late nights looking for social workers for seniors days away from losing their home. I've been there when a tenant says they can't find an apartment and also can't continue to live with their abusive spouse.
For Palo Alto, committing to a strong housing element is a first step in protecting the lives of our community members.