High rents force some in Silicon Valley to live in vehicles

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Faced with some of the most expensive rental housing in the nation, many San Francisco Bay Area residents are priced out of the rental market.  An hour’s drive south of San Francisco, in Silicon Valley, a mecca for high-paying American computer and technology industry jobs, some residents are even turning to cars, vans, and RVs as places to live. In tonight’s Signature Segment, Special Correspondent Joanne Jennings reports how this trend exposes an unintended consequence of an economic boom for both the middle class and the working poor. This story is part of our ongoing series “Chasing the Dream,” about poverty and opportunity in America.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Mountain View, California, is home to hundreds of technology firms. From NASA’s Supercomputing Division to tech giant Google, which alone employs twenty thousand people here. The city’s unemployment rate is two-and-a half percent — half the national average — and the median household income tops 100-thousand dollars a year. But there are perils to this prosperity, says Mountain View Mayor Pat Showater.

PAT SHOWATER: So many people have come here that the rents, because of supply and demand, have gone through the roof.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The median rent for an apartment or house is four-thousand-three hundred-ninety a month, a 54% jump since 2012.

PAT SHOWATER: It doesn’t matter whether you make $100,000 or not, you haven’t planned for a 54% rent increase. And it’s caused a lot of people to be displaced.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: A small but growing number of the city’s 80,000 residents are now living in recreational vehicles, vans, and cars. Like these on this street next to a park.

SCOTT WHALEY: This is my home, and I’m happy here.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: 59-year-old Scott Whaley moved out of his Mountain View apartment into a mini-van last November, when he lost his job as a Property Manager.

SCOTT WHALEY: I just moved into my van. I said, you know, until I can find a place.

This is my bedroom back here.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Whaley now lives this used, 1997 RV he bought for $10,000, depleting his savings.

SCOTT WHALEY: Yes, I would love to have a home. However, this is my home. I’m not homeless.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: A couple miles away, across from an office park. Marcia Christleib also makes her home in an RV.

And this is bigger than some of the studios you’ve looked at?

MARCIA CHRISTLEIB: It is.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Even though she earns $65,000 a year as an environmental consultant for NASA, Christleib says it’s not enough to support her and her husband, Dennis, who’s looking for work.

MARCIA CHRISTLEIB: The only apartment we’ve looked at so far that looks like it’s in a safe neighborhood goes for almost $2,400 a month. That’s a huge portion of a salary, and we’re just going to have to give up other conveniences. I still can only afford the things I could afford when I was making minimum wage, because everything else goes to rent.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The Christleibs tried to park their RV at a proper campsite. But the only facility in Mountain View that provided power and water hookups is now a construction site. It closed last year after a developer bought the property to build million dollar townhouses.

This summer, the city of Mountain View counted 126 vehicles being used as homes.

TOM MYERS: It’s very difficult to get good numbers, because homeless individuals are often trying to remain hidden.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Tom Myers is executive director of Mountain View’s community services agency.

TOM MYERS: People living in vehicles to this type of degree and number is completely new and completely unheard of in this community. People living in their vehicles is something that we are really, as a community, ill-equipped to be able to handle.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Delmi Ruiz is preparing dinner in the cramped RV she moved into with her husband and three kids last November.

Ruiz has worked as a housekeeper in Mountain View for 10 years. Her husband cleans offices. She says the landlord of their last apartment raised their rent three times in the year before they moved out.

DELMI RUIZ: The rent started increasing, and we were no longer able to pay for it.

JOANNE JENNINGS: So, why do you stay in Mountain View?

DELMI RUIZ: Because we’ve always lived in Mountain View. Before it was possible to live here and pay for rent, because it was cheap, but it’s become impossible to live here.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: For other displaced residents who choose to stay in Mountain View, even an RV is too expensive.

Dwayne Golstein makes 30-thousand dollars a year as a Pathology Lab Technician but he lived in this rented mini-van for two months. It was retrofitted with a mattress and window curtains. He says it was cheaper and had more privacy than the boarding house where he’d lived before.

DWAYNE GOLSTEIN: $200 a week for a bunk bed in a room with five other bunk beds.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: He saved money, but it wasn’t easy.

DWYANE GOLSTEIN: I really had to sit down and be honest with myself and say, could I get up every day and take the necessary discipline to not eat after a certain hour? Make sure I could charge my devices every evening; Get up in time if I need to move the van because of parking tickets and so forth, do that. On top of the everyday rigors of getting dressed and being presentable for my employment.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: To keep himself clean and presentable, for $35 a month, Golstein joined a 24-hour gym with showers.

DWAYNE GOLSTEIN: It’s usually cold in the evening times when I go to the gym or when I come in, so I keep my sweater. This is my laundry which I’ll take the laundromat once a week.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: For those living in vehicles who can’t afford a gym membership, the nonprofit “Dignity on Wheels” offers mobile shower and laundry services.

For his part, Golstein has moved back into a shared apartment. Some Mountain View residents living in vehicles can easily afford an apartment but choose to save money and rough it.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Brandon, who’s 23 and declined to give his last name, earns $175,000 a year as a software engineer. We agreed not to name his employer. He sleeps in this windowless moving truck parked a few blocks from his office in Mountain View. He says he has all the amenities he needs at work.

BRANDON: So, there are gyms on the campus where I work. There are showers there naturally. They have cafes where you can grab breakfast lunch and dinner. So, I thought it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to replicate that whole environment at home especially when I wouldn’t be taking advantage of it.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Brandon’s been living in his truck for more than a year and writing a blog about his experience called “From Inside the Box.”

BRANDON: It’s a substantial sum of money that I would have just been effectively burning on rent. There’s no equity being built up on anything.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The savings helped Brandon pay off his $20,000 student loan debt. He’s now maxing out contributions to his retirement plan.

A lot of people are blaming the high cost of housing on the tech companies and on the tech workers.

BRANDON: Yeah. You have all these high paid workers coming into the area. People or landlords know they can charge more for rent. It ends up becoming totally unsustainable, and intractable for people who don’t have the sort of resources that these tech workers have. I think they’re perfectly justified in blaming us.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: As the largest employer in Mountain View, Google recognizes its high salaries have contributed to an inflated housing market.

Rebecca Prozan is a Public Policy Manager at the company’s San Francisco office.

REBECCA PROZAN: Obviously, our footprint creates pressure. It creates pressure on housing and transportation, but that pressure isn’t just tech. It’s not just Google. It’s all the industries that are creating the economy of the Bay Area. We all have to work together to figure out what we’re going to look like, and how we’re going to live.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Prozan did not want to address published reports about a handful of its employees living in vehicles to save money.

REBECCA PROZAN: I think the issue is that we don’t necessarily want to comment on our employees participating in those activities.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: But she said Google is committed to addressing the problem of homeless in the Bay Area. In Mountain View alone, the company has pledged $1 million for a “rapid rehousing” program.

REBECCA PROZAN: This specific grant will work to help those who are on the fringes, either about to lose their home, or about to get into a home in the form of time limited payments, motel rooms, things of that nature to really make sure that people are able to have a home and not live in a car.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Several California cities have prohibited people from living in vehicles parked on public streets.

But in 2014, a Federal appeals court struck down a Los Angeles law that it said “opens the door to discriminatory enforcement against the homeless and the poor.” That caused LA and other cities to rescind their bans.

Certainly, Mountain View officials hear their share of complaints.

ASHLEY HANSON, MOUNTAIN VIEW RESIDENT: I have mixed feelings. You know, I feel sorry for the people that are there, but we pay a ton of rent to live in our building. And there’s like a lot of garbage.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The sites I saw were mostly clean, and people living in vehicles say the police have been tolerant. Mountain View Mayor Pat Showater says her approach is to offer help, not punishment.

PAT SHOWATER: The intent is to get everybody the shelter that they need. It just doesn’t seem like impounding somebody’s vehicle, charging them many, many dollars to get it back when they don’t have much money to start with, it just seems like, how does that help? What’s the value of that?

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