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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

She rented a 400-square-foot bedroom with bath -- no kitchen privileges -- for $1,100 a month in a house in Sunnyvale. The landlord "was renting out one other room and a tool shed in the backyard. These are trending times; people are living in tool sheds."

Now 59, Richey lives in a room in the mobile home of her aunt and uncle in Sunnyvale, kicking in a modest sum each month to help with expenses. She isn't optimistic about getting back into the rental market: "It's very disheartening for the average working person, because we do things to better ourselves and yet we are confronted with this obscene crisis."

It cuts across generations: At age 28, Jessica Page feels stymied, too.

When she was four, her family left the Philippines and moved to the Bay Area, putting down roots in Milpitas. Her mother, three aunts, two uncles and seven children, including Jessica, all lived in the same house, "and I loved the feeling of being close together," she said, "being under the same roof with all my family."

The problem is that nearly 25 years later, Page -- a college graduate who earns $33,000 a year as a counselor at a drug and alcohol clinic in San Jose -- still lives with her family in Milpitas. She is one of five relatives who now share a house owned by Page's aunt, who, mercifully, charges affordable rent -- a fraction of the market rate.

It's "kind of miraculous," said Page, who is saving up for graduate school -- she wants to be a licensed clinical social worker -- yet feels "stuck. We all want to better our lives. We want to be able to own our own homes, or at least have our own apartments. But nothing changes, and it's not like we're not working hard. We're working hard with no results."

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Salma Vizcaya watched her own parents hit a wall. A criminal justice major at De Anza College in Cupertino, she is 20 and could write a book on housing.

For her first 13 years, she lived in the same apartment on San Jose's Westside: mom, dad, Salma and her older sister and younger brother. In 2011, the family paid $1,075 a month, manageable for Vizcaya's mother, a cashier who worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., and father, a welder whose shift lasted from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

"I never saw him come home from work," Vizcaya remembered, with a laugh.

She also remembered this: In 2011, the landlord announced plans to renovate the apartment and raise the rent.

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