In summary

My family has worked relentlessly to maintain its roots in East Palo Alto, because the city is our home. But we can no longer live there because there are no affordable homes. The lack of city plans and policies to keep residents from losing their homes is alarming.

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By Heleine Grewe, Special to 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 commentary 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 by the San Francisco Bay. I was lucky to be surrounded by family and friends to celebrate the ups and navigate the downs in life. Grandma and grandpa lived down the street; my aunties and uncles were around the corner; my friends and cousins were within shouting distance. It felt as if, anywhere I was in the neighborhood, I could call for help, call for support, or just have loving people around me.

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

We were given 30 days’ notice by an absentee landlord. We were displaced and devastated. The relocation process was a nightmare. My family was homeless for three months until a rental application was approved for a house far from our schools, jobs and extended family in East Palo Alto.

East Palo Alto is just one of many California communities undergoing this kind of change and displacement of long-time residents. 

In my hometown, the seeming lack of city plans and policies to keep residents from losing their homes is alarming. The city’s plan for downtown East Palo Alto, the Ravenswood Business District, has some merit. It includes jobs and housing for residents and thriving, open community spaces with parks. It also holds the promise of lasting fiscal solvency for the city by improving the tax base.

The Ravenswood plan, however, also anticipates bringing in thousands of tech jobs that require a four-year college degree, although a third of East Palo Alto residents have less than a high school education. Why not include businesses that can employ the people who live here now?

Basic economics says that increasing the demand for housing will further exacerbate home prices and rent. That’s 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 units be affordable to families who make between 35% and 60% of household median income (about $83,000). But how many families would that reach? Not enough.

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

The city can start by expanding renter protections. It’s evident that East Palo Alto’s tenant protections are not enough—we had only 30 days to pack up and go when our landlord decided to sell our house. 

Many long-term residents are also worried about the environmental impact of the city’s plan. Some of the proposed housing developments are located on the border of our protected baylands, which provide some protection from 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-term residents will no longer be here to reap any of the proposed benefits. 

Developers must be held accountable. Contracts between a developer and community-based organizations representing residents’ interests, also known as community benefits agreements, must clearly spell out the community benefits granted in return for support of the developer’s project.

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

My family has worked relentlessly to maintain its roots in East Palo Alto, because the city is our home. But we can’t live there because there are no affordable homes. Do we want California cities to become communities that cater only to higher-income families? Instead, we should be designing our future to include families at all income levels. 

California is known as a state of innovation. I’m optimistic we can innovate to solve these problems, too. 

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