Homeless in Silicon Valley: how the heartland of global tech became the epicentre of a housing crisis

In this 5 October 2017 photo, a man skates past a row of RVs where people live and sleep in the heart of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California. Apartments across the street start at over US$3,000 a month which is unaffordable for most working-class families. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

If California was a country it would have the sixth largest GDP in the world, directly behind the United Kingdom and slightly ahead of France. However, as the economy has grown, so has income inequality. According to the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Reportby the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, California accounts for nearly half of all unsheltered people in the country.

For Amie Fishman, the executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), it is the “Ground Zero” of America’s housing crisis. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the San Francisco Bay Area, which as well as being home to Silicon Valley and some of the world’s richest companies is also home to a population of service workers who can barely afford to live there.

“We are facing the gravest crisis in housing unaffordability and inequity in recent history,” says Fishman. “We are in a new period where housing has become a commodity and private consumer good bought and sold by institutional investors,” she says.

In the last few decades, Silicon Valley has become home to some of the largest tech companies in the world, including Facebook and Apple, leading to an influx of talent from across the world, lured not just by opportunity but also by high salaries and stock options. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average household income in the US is US$59,000, while mid-career Silicon Valley tech workers can earn an average of US$150,000.

As a result, housing in the Bay Area has become so expensive that workers on the lower end of the income scale can no longer afford to rent there. According to US real estate website, Trulia, the median rent in San Jose (the largest city in the Bay Area) is US$3500.

This has led to a growing number of single workers and families living in dwellings such as garages and garden sheds, while thousands of people can be found living in recreational vehicles (RVs).

While there are no official figures on the number of people living in RVs in the Bay Area, there are long lines of the vehicles on arterial roads across the region, as well as on broad streets with access to community services such as parks and public toilets. Conditions are cramped, and the vehicles offer no heating, running water, toilet facilities or privacy. And while many of the people who are forced to live in RVs do not consider themselves homeless, they are sometimes included in homelessness statistics because RVs do not meet the basic requirements of adequate housing, as outlined by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.

Priced out of home

Victor Escobar first came to the United States from El Salvador 48 years ago and has been living in Mountain View ever since. The city, at the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to major tech offices including the headquarters of Google. Three years ago, Escobar was priced out of his one-bedroom apartment where he had lived in for 20 years when the rent increased from US$1700 to US$2500 a month.

“I stayed with a friend for a few months and then I decided to buy an RV,” says the 86-year-old retired gardening business owner. Escobar says that during the course of his working life, he sent most of his income back to El Salvador, a Central American country that has experienced an unabating cycle of violence for several decades, to help his family. This prevented him from becoming a homeowner in the United States, although it did enable him to buy two homes in El Salvador for family members.

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Maria Marroquin is the executive director of the Day Worker Center of Mountain View, a local non-profit that connects workers to employers for temporary, part-time work such as domestic cleaning and gardening. Many of the people seeking work at the centre live in RVs and Marroquin finds herself increasingly embroiled in the problems of the local RV community.

Cities across the Bay Area are trying to curb the number of RVs on the streets with arbitrary rules. In Mountain View, for instance, vehicles must be moved every 72 hours to avoid citations or fines. The day Equal Times meets Marroquin, she is busy working with lawyers to help a family fight a false citation. The family, Marroquin says, has proof that they had moved their vehicle.

“The harassment by authorities is worse than I thought,” says Marroquin, who also reveals that more and more families are living in RVs, whereas previously, it was mostly single men.

Equal Times is introduced to Delmi, who is cradling her one-month-old child in Marroquin’s office. Delmi, who asked us not to use her surname, has lived in Mountain View for 16 years. Delmi’s three other children, aged 19, nine and four, were in school, when earlier that morning she discovered that her RV had been driven away by the owner who had illegally rented it out to the family.

Like Escobar, the rent on Delmi’s apartment increased from US$2000 to US$3000, forcing her family to rent an RV for US$800 a month. “The rent was already a lot and then they increased it. We couldn’t find any other reasonable accommodation,” says Delmi, whose husband is a gardener and continues to serve the local community.

Local activists say officials in Mountain View pay lip service to tolerance while harassing RV dwellers. At a town hall meeting attended by Equal Times in February this year, Mountain View police officers spoke at length about the outreach work the force is doing, and how an officer had been allocated to meet with the RV community routinely.

“He doesn’t even speak Spanish,” Marroquin says of the officer, alluding to the fact that many RV dwellers are Latino.

A tale of two Palo Altos

The Bay Area is home to a population of approximately 7.68 million people and two big cities such as San Francisco and San Jose. But the tech boom that Silicon Valley is famous for often centres around smaller towns and cities such as Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Menlo Park – places that are just a few kilometres away from each other and have benefitted immensely from tech tax dollars.

But there are exceptions. Less than 10 miles from Mountain View is the city of East Palo Alto. Almost half of its residents were African-American at the beginning of the 20th century due to racist redlining policies, and high levels of poverty meant that it was known as the ‘murder capital’ of the US in the early 1990s. Today, the city is majority Latino and it is among the more affordable of cities in the Bay Area; but even here many low-income workers are forced to live in RVs.

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East Palo Alto is separated from the affluent Palo Alto – home to the world-famous Stanford University and tech leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page (one of the co-founders of Google) – by a dried-up creek.

Late last year, a community of RV families were evicted from the street they had occupied for several years to make way for a private school for low-income children underwritten by Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organisation, the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative.

Many working-class youngsters who grew up in the Bay Area can no longer afford to live there and have been caught off-guard by the housing crisis. “When my parents moved from Mexico 25 years ago, we lived in a big house with a backyard,” says 22-year-old Vivian Yvette Romero. Today, Yvette Romero, her husband, daughter, stepson and her parents, all live in a small house in Sunnyvale, home to Yahoo and LinkedIn. “If people are paying as much as US$4000 for rent, then what do they eat?” the part-time childminder asks incredulously.

The root of the crisis

“There has been a lot of growth in California with high-paying tech jobs, but there hasn’t been an increase in housing to support this growth. This creates pressure across the board,” says Josh Leopold, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, a Washington DC-based think-tank.

He says that a number of factors such as the abolition of redevelopment agencies, which used public funds to partner with private organisations and redevelop blighted areas, as well as the high cost of construction and land in California (San Francisco has the second-highest constructions costs in the world) have worsened the crisis.

“When a new building opens there may be 50 or 70 units, and organisations are swamped with applications,” says Fishman. “Something like 10,000 applicants demonstrating extreme need for 50 housing units.”

Silicon Valley cities are also trying to benefit from the growing demand for more ‘profitable’ developments, such as office blocks and luxury housing.

San Jose recently refused to comply with the Surplus Land Act, a state law that requires surplus land to be prioritised for affordable housing, citing its status as a charter city (a city where its own charter of rules can sometimes supersede federal or state law).

“We feel it’s not the right interpretation of the law,” says Lisa Newstrom, a lawyer with Bay Area Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to low-income residents. “This would impact a wider array of public policies, as our estimate is that nearly half of Californians live in charter cities.”

It is clear that more affordable housing is urgently required to prevent the exploitation of low-income tenants, as well as the further rise of precarious tenure and homelessness. “With rising rents and growing demand, there is no longer an equitable relationship between landlords and tenants.”

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