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East Palo Alto must strengthen housing policies that protect families from displacement

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My family has worked tirelessly to maintain their roots in East Palo Alto because the city is our home. But we can no longer live there because there is no affordable housing. The city’s lack of plans and policies to prevent residents from losing their homes is alarming.

By Heleine Grewe, special for CalMatters

Heleine Grewe has worked in grassroots community organizing in East Palo Alto since her freshman year in high school and is now a sophomore at Menlo College in Atherton. She wrote this comment as a summer intern at Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto, a community education organization.

I grew up on Tulane Avenue in East Palo Alto, a beautiful, vibrant city of 29,000 near San Francisco Bay. I was blessed to be surrounded by my family and friends to celebrate the highs and navigate the lows of life. Grandmother and grandfather lived on the streets; my aunts and uncles were around the corner; my friends and cousins ​​were within earshot. It felt like wherever I was in the neighborhood I could call for help, ask for support, or just have loving people around me.

Then, in April, we suddenly lost my childhood home.

An absentee owner gave us 30 days notice. We were moved and devastated. The relocation process was a nightmare. My family was homeless for three months until a rental application was approved for a home away from our schools, jobs, and extended family in East Palo Alto.

East Palo Alto is just one of many California communities experiencing this type of change and displacement of longtime residents.

In my hometown, the apparent lack of municipal plans and policies to prevent residents from losing their homes is alarming. The city plan for downtown East Palo Alto, Ravenswood’s business district, has some merit. It includes jobs and housing for residents and thriving open community spaces with parks. It also carries the promise of sustainable fiscal solvency for the city by improving the tax base.

Ravenswood’s plan, however, also calls for creating thousands of tech jobs that require a four-year college degree, though one-third of East Palo Alto residents have less than a high school diploma. Why not include businesses that can employ the people who live here now?

Basic economics indicates that increased demand for housing will further exacerbate house prices and rents. This is precisely what happened when Meta (formerly Facebook) and Amazon moved into the neighborhood.

East Palo Alto needs more affordable housing. The city is proposing that 20% of all new rental housing be affordable for families earning between 35% and 60% of median household income (about $83,000). But how many families would it affect? Not enough.

The city needs to implement a more robust below-market housing program to increase the supply of affordable housing for sale. Income criteria for below-market housing should allow for low-, middle- and middle-income renters and buyers.

The city can start by expanding tenant protections. It’s obvious that East Palo Alto’s tenant protections aren’t enough – we only had 30 days to pack up and leave when our landlord decided to sell our house.

Many longtime residents are also concerned about the environmental impact of the city plan. Some of the proposed property developments are located on the border of our protected bays, which provide some protection against flooding due to sea level rise.

Developers often make promises about community benefits, but we’ve been burned before. When Amazon moved in, the jobs promised by the developer never materialized, in part because the company was not held accountable. Given the rapid gentrification of the city, many long-time residents will no longer be around to take advantage of the benefits on offer.

Developers should be held accountable. Contracts between a proponent and community organizations representing the interests of residents, also known as community benefit agreements, must clearly specify the community benefits provided in exchange for supporting the proponent’s project.

These policy fixes can work in East Palo Alto and in communities across the state where economic displacement is prevalent.

My family has worked tirelessly to maintain their roots in East Palo Alto because the city is our home. But we cannot live there because there is no affordable housing. Do we want California cities to become communities that only cater to high-income families? Instead, we should design our future to include families at all income levels.

California is known as a state of innovation. I am optimistic that we can also innovate to solve these problems.

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