From the editor: When the housing crisis hits home

The moment felt a little surreal.

After months of planning, saving and talking endlessly about it, we moved back to California and here I was on a hotter-than-usual Saturday afternoon, turning the key to our new apartment. After living in Nevada for more than a year and fielding countless inquiries about when we’re moving back, we did it. We moved back home.

Well, sort of. Not San Jose — our hometown and the object of my affection for most of my adult life.

But to Livermore, a beautiful city with plenty of amazing amenities — yes, wineries — but not home. After being squeezed out of San Jose once, managing to come back and then leaving for a job in Nevada, affording an apartment in San Jose wasn’t even in the realm of possibility anymore. Even if my husband and I didn’t run this nonprofit news organization, even if we got paid full salaries, even if we worked in the private sector or in tech. San Jose would still be unmanageable. Out of reach.

The housing crisis I spent a career writing about just hit home. But it isn’t the first time — it’s just getting worse by the day.

For the first two years I worked at the Mercury News, I lived in Patterson. You may have to Google that or stick it in your Waze app. It’s an astonishing 1 1/2 to two hours away. Some nights I covered San Jose City Council until 2:30 a.m. (before Mayor Sam Liccardo established a midnight curfew) and got home close to 4:30 a.m. I slept a few hours and then drove back to City Hall.

Some nights I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to drive home to Patterson. Instead, I curled up in the cramped backseat of my Mustang, hoping I wouldn’t get a tap on the window. After two years of that commute, I finally landed an apartment in nearby Milpitas — and at $2,046 a month, it was a steal. I considered myself lucky. My family thought I was crazy. Every month, one full paycheck and half of another went to rent. It was unsustainable and I started dipping into my savings every month.

That same apartment today rents for nearly $2,500. It went up by more than $400 in the year I lived in Nevada.

And the one-bedroom apartment in Livermore I excitedly unlocked on Saturday? It’s $2,060 a month. By comparison, in Nevada, a two-bedroom townhome rented for $1,200. But we tell ourselves we’re lucky to live in Livermore, just an hour away from San Jose. It’s insane that we accept this as “normal” in the Bay Area.

When we flirted with the idea of renting in San Jose, a good friend sent me a link to a website with cheap apartment listings. I actually found a few around the $2,000 range. I was beyond excited. Then I clicked the box for “pets” and the results whittled down to three. Two of them weren’t even in San Jose.

Something has to change. It’s heartbreaking that people like me who’ve called San Jose home their entire lives can’t afford to stay. And while elected officials say they’re working on it — I have no doubt they are — progress at times feels slow. It sometimes feels like we’re doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result. We’re passing taxes and approving new housing developments, yet homelessness spiked dramatically in the last two years.

I’m not a housing expert, and I know plenty of brilliant minds in Silicon Valley spent a lifetime studying this issue. But it doesn’t take much to figure out that it’s a supply shortage. We need to build more housing. Period. We need to make it easier — and cheaper — to build affordable housing to ensure those projects break ground. We need to protect renters who are teetering on the brink of homelessness before they’re displaced. We need to find the political will to stand up to even the loudest NIMBYs.

Like others who are being squeezed out, at times it may feel like building market-rate apartments in downtown San Jose that rent for nearly $3,000 a month or approving “affordable housing” that won’t be ready for years doesn’t help. It might feel like encouraging people to build ‘granny units’ is like putting a bandaid on a gushing wound. But South Bay leaders need to try it all.

What will spur more housing today, preserve existing affordable homes that are at risk and get people into homes faster than the typical construction cycle?

Does that involve promoting new and emerging technology and building practices? Does it mean enacting zoning and planning reform as a region? Or is the solution for today something else radical that hasn’t been brought into the conversation yet?

Today, we’re grateful to have that apartment in Livermore. And unlike those Patterson days, I’ve cut my once horrendous commute in half. But what happens when the rent here goes up next year? Where do we go next?

Journalists should be able to live in the communities they serve. So should firefighters and teachers and retail clerks and restaurant servers and gas station attendants. The solution probably includes some combination of all of these things, and we can’t wait another day to get started.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow her @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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