Mountain View Voice

News - July 26, 2013

High-cost housing creates desperate living conditions

City inspector finds families living in sheds, children in closets

by Daniel DeBolt

As the cost of living in Mountain View climbs, a city inspector says that in recent years he's found families living in shocking conditions — children sleeping with their parents in garden sheds and in the closets of cockroach-infested apartments.

"The one that was the worst for me was seeing two kids and a mother and father living in a storage shed," said code inspector Chris Costanzo, recalling a discovery he made in 2012 in the Rex Manor neighborhood.

"There was a crib and little tiny bed and it was obvious there was an infant and a toddler and two people living there. It was clean and it wasn't rat-infested, but it wasn't habitable. It was like living in something a little bigger than a bathroom, with no true insulation from the elements and no running water. It was pretty sad."

The young couple living in the shed seemed "down on their luck" but were able to find somewhere else to stay pretty quickly, Costanzo said. "They didn't want to be there because it was cold."

Living situations for poorer Mountain View residents may become more desperate as rents climb at unprecedented rates. According to the data service Real Facts, the average rent in Mountain View for a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is now $3,044 a month, up from $2,295 in 2009. A one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment now costs an average of $1,828 a month, up from $1,426 in 2009.

Hazardous spaces

Since he started inspecting homes for city code violations in 2008, Costanzo said he sees over a dozen cases a year of people renting dangerous and illegally constructed spaces that most people would find surprising for Silicon Valley. He imagines there are many more that go unnoticed.

He came upon another family living in abackyard shed because he saw an extension cord running from the chimney of a house and decided to investigate. Inside the shed he found that a father and young girl had been living inside.

"I'm surprised every time we see a new one," Costanzo said, "I'll have driven by the house a hundred times and I'll say, "Wow, I never knew that was in there."

Costanzo also comes across homes where tenants are packed into illegally partitioned rooms. In the Monta Loma neighborhood, where homes often sell for over $800,000, Costanzo found a three-bedroom home with walls constructed inside to divide each bedroom in two. There was a second bathroom and a garage converted into bedrooms. The owner was apparently renting out the seven rooms individually, he said.

The temptation for landlords to do such things — and tenants to go along with it — grows as rents go up and more renters scramble to find a place to live.

"They are taking advantage of the high rental market around here," Costanzo said.

Costanza doesn't do regular checks on apartment buildings — the fire department does that — but said one of the worst living situations he saw was in a nine-unit downtown apartment building where there were four to five people living in a room.

"Some of the units had kids living in the closets," Costanzo said. "The whole apartment building was infested with rats and roaches."

Costanzo said there's often a fire danger for those living in illegally constructed rooms because of a lack of at least two exits in case of fire. Basements are a good example, as Costanzo says they often house utilities that can start a fire and the stairs into the home's main floor are often the only exit. "If you are stuck in a basement without proper egress you are not going to make it" in a fire, he said.

With so much demand for affordable housing, there's less incentive to provide basic necessities. Costanzo says he's found the heat shut off in an entire apartment building in the middle of winter, and "had every tenant say I don't want heat and I turned it off," apparently too afraid of the landlord to admit that they want the heat back on, even though it's their right to have it. Apartment dwellers have reported to the Voice that they live in fear of being thrown out at anytime, well aware that landlords in Mountain View are giving tenants 30-day notices so they can renovate their buildings and raise rents.

Costanzo said as soon as he closes one case involving deplorable living conditions, another one pops up.

"We pretty much consistently have something like that that we're working on — that we're investigating," Costanzo said. "It takes up a lot of our time. Our case load is high and we're always backlogged."

If the city had the staff to do more searching, "I'm certain there would be more cases."

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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