Priced OutSep 04, 2018 06:29PM ● By Cale Finta
As the city struggles to find solutions, where do you go when Walnut Creek has been your home for twenty years?
By Ani Tuscian
Imagine the unimaginable. Your husband’s longstanding small business begins to attract fewer and fewer customers until he’s forced to close. You’ve never worked outside his business and at age 58, you take a job as a nanny. Then, in short succession, you lose your home and your husband to lung cancer. He doesn’t have a retirement fund. Neither do you. Suddenly, you’re a renter, just as all the tech companies roll into town. Real estate prices seem to double over the next ten years, affecting your adult children as they buy their first homes. Your kids can’t afford to help you financially. This was not at all how you imagined life at 70.
And yet many senior renters find themselves in a similar predicament today in the Bay Area. According to the City of Walnut Creek, 65% of seniors cannot afford to pay 30% of their income for a one-bedroom unit. Walnut Creek’s 2017 Housing Affordability Survey reveals 52% of respondents agree that there is not enough housing in the city to meet the needs of the community, and 69% believe the available housing is not affordable.
In official circles, the “g-word” or gentrification is only whispered. It’s a hot and controversial topic, particularly in a pro-development community. But the process of renovating rundown buildings and creating an environment for the influx of more affluent residents is the definition of gentrification. While upgrading can improve the quality of a community, it also has the effect of forcing current, established residents and businesses out to seek lower cost housing and stores.
According to the city’s housing and development department, although there are approximately 12,000 rentals in Walnut Creek, from 2011 to 2017 rents have risen 55.1%, leaving many low-income senior renters, and others, with limited options. Only 450 apartments in the city are slotted as low-income and they’re full. And waiting lists are impossibly long or just plain closed.
Tina Rios at Montego Place Apartments has been in the affordable housing industry for over ten years. “I just received a phone message from someone who has been on the waiting list for an apartment here for three years,” she says. When asked if rent control would help she says, “Rent control only helps if you don’t leave your apartment. Once you leave, the price goes up. Affordable housing is better.” So where does that leave someone over 65?
Margot Ernst, Housing Program Manager at City of Walnut Creek laments, “There’s not much in our power. What’s in the power of public domain is the ability to create more affordable housing, but our funding is just not there. We’re also trying to incentivize developers to create affordable housing. There are no quick solutions, unfortunately. This is a state-wide problem.”
One example of the city’s efforts is St. Paul’s Commons, a 45-unit affordable housing project on Trinity Avenue. And there’s some hope on the national level. Senator Kamala Harris recently introduced the Rent Relief Bill to provide a tax credit to people whose income is under $125,000 and who pay in excess of 30% of their gross income towards housing.
Iman Novin is running for a seat on the Walnut Creek City Council. Novin is a developer of affordable housing for seniors, families, teachers, and others who are being priced out of the Bay Area. He’s also a renter who concedes that the people he helps couldn’t afford the rent he pays. “Over half of the population in Walnut Creek is cost-burdened, which means they pay over 30% of their income for housing. Half of that half are severely cost-burdened, spending more than 50% on housing. Walnut Creek has the highest percentage of seniors in the county.”
“We need more wrap-around services to help connect seniors with resources. I believe in housing first. We’re only meeting 3-4% of low-income needs in the city right now. The best cities are diverse. It’s important to know our history, to keep our seniors in Walnut Creek, to know where we’re headed,” says Novin.
It’s difficult to pick up and move when you’ve lived, worked, and raised your children in the same town for decades. The fear is palpable. A long-time small business owner and Walnut Creek resident who’s struggling to keep up with increasing rents told the East Bay Housing Organization (EBHO), “It’s scary, I don’t know where we’ll go...we’ve contributed to the community for 22 years. We would be devastated to have to leave.”
Anne Wong, Assistant Planner at the City of Walnut Creek Community and Economic Development Department says, “The lack of affordable housing and rising housing costs affects many in our community and has increasingly become a tragedy that is growing throughout the Bay Area. This is a concern in Walnut Creek and to the City Council and one of their top four priorities. We sincerely hope that we can come together as a region and as a state, to find more progressive and permanent solutions to the affordable housing crisis.”
Sign up for more affordable housing information in Walnut Creek here:
More housing resources: Satellite Affordable Housing: https://www.sahahomes.org/