Commentary: What it feels like to be priced out of my own hometown
A neighbor recently asked if I would be attending an upcoming Walnut Creek city council meeting. She wanted to join other residents in expressing anger about all the construction of apartment buildings downtown.
“I’m so sick about all the overdevelopment in Walnut Creek,” she explained.
I replied that I had something else to do that night. But I wanted to say much more, and not just as someone who agrees with planning experts that the Bay Area’s serious housing shortage poses a dire threat to our region’s economy, socio-economic diversity and long-term quality of life.
I wanted to tell her that I’m not all that angry about the construction — not if it helps alleviate this city’s housing shortage and, in turn, provides more places to live that are affordable to people like me and my husband, who aren’t rich or near rich.
I’m a reporter, and my husband works for a nonprofit that serves homeless people in West Oakland — not the most lucrative professions. Our combined income puts us in the “moderate” income category for Walnut Creek. Others in this category include include elementary school teachers, mental health counselors, social workers, plumbers, transportation workers and legal secretaries. It could also include the children of long-time residents who are starting their careers or families and want to continue to make this city home.
But guess what? There aren’t many apartment or single-family home options available to us moderate types in Walnut Creek, according to a presentation at that city council meeting I didn’t attend, but later watched on video.
Right now, my husband and I are not looking because we’re fortunate enough to live in my late parents’ home in an old neighborhood near downtown. But who knows? Perhaps we’ll decide that we can’t handle the upkeep for this 65-year-old structure and its quarter-acre yard. Maybe my siblings and I will decide it’s best to sell.
Then what? The prospect leaves me feeling sad and anxious. I never imagined I would be at a point in my life where I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Walnut Creek, my hometown.
The Walnut Creek home when Martha Ross’ parents purchased it in 1952 (Martha Ross).
And when I say “home,” I mean it. I was born here, at the Kaiser medical center in downtown. A few days later, I was carried into my parent’s house a half-mile away. I went to local schools and hung out with friends at the old Festival movie theater, swam at the city pools and, on weekends and in the summer, explored local creeks and open spaces.
I confess I didn’t always see myself as staying here, especially after I went away to college and got married. In our 20s and early 30s, my husband and I lived in other places that seemed more cosmopolitan, like San Francisco or even Thailand.
But a few months before 9/11, family circumstances brought us back to Walnut Creek, and I became one of those odd ducks living in the house in which I grew up. I raised my son in this house and in this town. He attended the same elementary school I did and likewise enjoyed movies downtown or playing in local pools and parks while I re-established ties to old friends. I also reestablished my career as a journalist and fell in love with writing about a place I’ve come to realize has always been fundamental to who I am.
And now, this housing crisis is telling me that maybe I don’t belong here after all — that maybe I don’t deserve to call Walnut Creek and the Bay Area home because I didn’t have the foresight to buy a home before the market went nuts, or because I don’t make enough money now, or because I didn’t make other life choices — like go into corporate PR or marry a more prosperous partner.
According to that city council presentation, a “moderate” income for a three-person household is between $67,650 and $101,050. But the median rental price is no longer affordable to low- or moderate-income households that don’t want to spend more than 30 percent of annual incomes on housing, said Margot Ernst, the city’s housing program manager. Rents for two bedrooms in March ranged from $1,800 to $5,500, with many of the available units being on the pricier end. Ernst added that around 70 percent of people who work in Walnut Creek belong in the very low- to moderate-income categories.
And that brings me back to my friends and neighbors who complain about the city allowing more apartments to be built.
I certainly share their frustration with the traffic and parking headaches — a situation that’s replicated in gentrifying neighborhoods and towns across the Bay Area as they enjoy a post-recession boom in high tech and other industries.
I, too, get annoyed when it seems like the city council is letting developers slide on their responsibility to do more to ease the parking, traffic and infrastructure problems they contribute to.
But I find myself growing impatient with the anti-growth sentiment. That’s because it’s almost always expressed by people who already own their homes and aren’t terrified that they could be displaced by sudden rent hikes that are becoming all too common these days.
Moreover, this sentiment is often accompanied by complaints about the denigration of the city’s “quality of life.” People lament how Walnut Creek is losing its quiet, small-town feel to urbanization — as if that ship didn’t sail years ago.
The courtyard at the grand opening of Arboleda Apartments, an affordable housing project in Walnut Creek. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
Some also claim that potential new apartment dwellers will ruin our wonderful schools with their kids crowding into classrooms — a claim that has been characterized as overblown by school officials. And some go so far as to paint future apartment dwellers — a sizeable number of whom would qualify for affordable housing — as “undesirables” who might bring in crime.
Wow! As someone who might qualify for affordable housing, I guess that makes me undesirable.
Of course, the situation is much worse in other towns and for other people. In Palo Alto, people who earn up to $250,000 a year can qualify for affordable housing — as if it were plentiful in a place that’s become home to mega-rich Silicon Valley elites.
Meanwhile, the people who are truly suffering in this crisis are the elderly and disabled living on fixed incomes or on Social Security, or the poor, working class and minorities who can’t afford so-called market rate housing. For many people to keep their Bay Area jobs, they must relocate to exurbs in the Central Valley and face long daily commutes that can erode their mental and physical health and family life. So much for their quality of life.
Talk to any city planner or affordable housing expert, and they will explain the complex economic, social and land-use reasons the Bay Area is now mired in this crisis. One important factor they also cite is community resistance to new housing. These experts say hard-core resistance won’t preserve anyone’s quality of life. Rather, it will keep out the people who make our communities function and who make them more interesting, diverse and well-rounded places to live.
Walnut Creek has always been pretty welcoming to different kinds of people, including rich and poor, and it’s doing more than most Bay Area cities to address our housing crisis. In any case, I can’t see that my hometown’s quality of life will fare well in the long term if doesn’t continue to make itself home to all sorts of people, even natives like me.