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For Bay Area renters, the new normal: lower expectations and shrinking apartments

Richard Scheinin, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Gabriel Rodarte grew up in San Jose and has worked there for 30 years as a mailman for the U.S. Postal Service. Making his rounds, he says, "I see it all. I see three families living inside one small apartment, or total strangers who share a room. None of them stay very long; they can't afford it."

Neither can Rodarte. He earns nearly $60,000 a year, but his apartments keep getting smaller. Dodging the region's skyrocketing rents for the last five years, he now rents a room from a friend for $400 a month and feels "trapped. That's where I'm at -- I feel like I'm the working poor. It's just ridiculous when you can't afford to live in the place where you grew up."

A generation of tenants now sees itself as rent-poor, with every last dime doled out for gas, groceries and the landlord. Renters struggle throughout the Bay Area. In San Jose, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is now $2,550, far above the national average of $1,560. A similar two-bedroom flat can cost even more elsewhere: $3,080 in Walnut Creek and $4,910 in Cupertino, according to a recent report.

As the Bay Area's economy booms, and as the tech sector continues to expand, this is the new normal for those on the margins: shrinking expectations and shrinking apartments. Nearly 40 percent of working adults in the Bay Area are now "doubled up" with roommates in order to afford rent, according to a study from Zillow.

Their tales can get complicated: Rodarte once owned a house in Tracy, but lost it during the Great Recession when he struggled to make mortgage and child support payments. A decade later, with many of his possessions in a storage locker, he lives in that $400-a-month room. In his spare time, he goes door-to-door as a fair housing advocate for People Acting in Community Together (PACT), an interfaith nonprofit.

"We're trying to build a coalition," he explained, "because to work all these years and feel priced out -- not just people who work in the post office, but teachers and police, all kinds of people -- it's just so frustrating, and it's sad."

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Many renters have stories like Rodarte's, stories of frustration and struggle in a housing market that has forced them to move from place to place, to double up and to give up on the idea of ever having a stable home of their own. Ashante and Jennifer Parker missed a single rent payment and wound up living in their 2006 Impala with their three young children. Salma Vizcaya watched her family split apart when her parents couldn't afford the rent hike on the apartment that had been home for more than a decade.

Daniela Richey has been stretching her cash and exercising her wits for going on two decades, always trying to stay a step ahead of the next rent increase.

She grew up in Mountain View, works in accounting and earns about $52,000 a year. In 2003, she moved into a modest apartment in a 64-unit complex in Sunnyvale, paying $850 monthly for her 500-square-foot, "junior bedroom" home. By early 2016, as the post-recession tech boom pushed Bay Area housing costs through the roof, her rent had jumped to $1,700 a month.

That year, she received notice that the complex had been sold to a corporate owner who was terminating all the leases -- and gave her the option of signing back up at $2,700 a month. She already was running through her savings, "so on August 31st at 3 a.m., I went on Craigslist, looking for a room."

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