Struggling seniors hit hard by Silicon Valley housing crisis
Seniors like Manny Escarega are increasingly finding themselves on the streets. More than half are "rent burdened." (courtesy of Grace Hase)

When Manny Escarega began caring for his ailing mother six years ago, the 57-year-old moved into her home and was forced to put his search for employment on hold.

But when she died, his brother rented the house to strangers, leaving an unemployed Escarega to fend for himself on the streets. Six years later and the now 63-year-old is still grappling with putting a roof over his head.

“Living on the street is something,” Escarega said. “Just watching out for my back and where I stay. I do find a place where I can stay where police and other transients don’t mess with me where I can sleep in peace.”

But Escarega’s story of trying to fit into the housing market as he hits retirement age isn’t unique.

A recent study conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that more than three quarters of California seniors were burdened by the cost of rent in 2016. And in Santa Clara County, 55 percent of seniors were considered severely rent burdened – with major financial stress placed on affording housing, food, medications and other needs.

Only 15 percent of seniors in the county had no rent burden at all.  The study said one of the reasons that seniors are vulnerable to the crippling effects of the housing market is the lack of budget flexibility as many are living on fixed incomes.

Erin Stanton, director of family assistance at Sacred Heart Community Services, said that it needs to be taken into account when helping seniors find long-term housing support.

The nonprofit, whose mission is to rid the community of poverty, created a two-year homelessness prevention pilot program which ends in June.“Often when we think of anti-poverty programs, a lot of that is focused around income generation,” she said.

With help from Downtown Streets Team, Escarcega landed a job as a prep cook at Compassion Cafe. But that’s only a part-time gig.

“My doctors wouldn’t want me to work full-time because of my age,” he said. “They want me to slow down. They don’t want me working these jobs where I’m working 50, 60 hours a week. They think that’s too much stress on my heart.”

Mathew Reed, a policy manager at the affordable housing nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, said his group advocates for deed restricted affordable housing for seniors.

“Folks with fixed incomes are really being hit hard,” Reed said. “And it’s easy to lose track of the fact that there are people in our communities who don’t have the ability to benefit from the rising job opportunities.”

Reed said his group encourages cities to explore solutions such as fees on new commercial projects to fund affordable housing and requiring developers to set aside units for low-income residents.

Reed and other advocates are also pushing to loosen rules for building so-called granny units  – which could be a viable solution for struggling seniors.

“Those units are smaller and more affordable so they provide great opportunities for seniors,” he said.

Reed said seniors who have granny units in their backyards can rent the unit or move in and rent out the house. It’s a way for them to generate income without having to take on an additional job.

But not everyone has a granny unit in their backyard – or even a backyard to begin with.

Stanton said she recently worked with a woman who was in dedicated senior housing, but her rent continued skyrocketing.

“At this point, it is actually more than her cash income, which she gets from social security,” Stanton said. “She’s now literally selling off all of her belongs to survive.”

Stanton said seniors selling their stuff to survive is not a long-term solution. And, she added, there isn’t enough attention paid to seniors living in poverty amid the housing crisis.

“We mostly hear the stories about either people who are on the streets or people who are tech workers and can’t afford to buy a house,” she said. “I think it’s definitely an area that needs more attention.”

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow her @grace_hase on Twitter.

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