Mountain View Voice

News - February 28, 2014

Commissioner latest victim of housing crisis

HRC's Santiago, priced out of home, moving to state of Washington

by Daniel DeBolt

Residents driven away by Mountain View's escalating rents now include Human Relations Commissioner Nilda Santiago, who has spent more than a quarter-century in Mountain View.

"It's been pretty hard and sad because I actually built my life here 26 years ago," Santiago said. When she moved to the city, she could afford an apartment on Hope Street despite being a 24-year-old single mother pursuing a degree from Foothill College, she said. "It's been a very, very long time. I have to try all over again in a whole different place."

When the rent jumped from $1,500 to $1,850 a month for their California Street apartment in September of 2012, Santiago and her husband decided to move into a building on Sierra Vista Avenue where her husband sells computer parts, converting two rooms into living spaces with permission from the city. But now the landlord is evicting the building's tenants to make way for a housing development.

Given rising rents — and the fact that Santiago is disabled and doesn't work — finding a new Mountain View home seems daunting. "We actually started last year, around October, to look for places to move again," Santiago said. "The rent for housing was going up a lot. We looked in Gilroy, in Fremont, we looked everywhere."

The rents at her old California Street complex went up to $2,300 a month, she said.

So Santiago says she is leaving for Bremerton, Wash. soon. Her husband had visited a friend there and was charmed by a place where the American dream still seems possible and where she's seen rents of $795 a month for a decent two-bedroom apartment. Santiago has eyed homes there selling for only $80,000 — much cheaper than Santa Clara County, where the average selling price of a detached home recently topped $1 million.

"We will never be able to buy a house in California," she said. "To stay here, we will need $48,000 a year for all our expenses. If we move to Washington we will only need $19,000 a year."

Mountain View residents should be concerned abut driving away residents like Nilda, said Ken Rosenberg, a financial advisor and City Council candidate who got to know Santiago as a fellow HRC member.

"Losing a person like Nilda is a blow to Mountain View," said Rosenberg. "We're a losing a citizen who cares enough about our city to volunteer many hours. She has had fantastic ideas (on the HRC) and her comments have been constructive. She will be missed."

Santiago worked in child care for years and was the sort of person who helped others when no one else would, taking under her wing "kids and families who couldn't find housing," she said.

Santiago suffers from a disorder called reflex sympathetic dystrophy. "I live with pain 24/7," she said. "Helping other people kind of takes that out of my brain. I started helping people and that helped me."

She recalled that former city employee Blanco Cinco told her, "You know, you have that gift, why don't you put in an application for the HRC?" She was selected and until last month, advised the City Council on the city's social issues.

Santiago's story is familiar to anyone who provides a service in Mountain View, from manual labor to teaching its students or putting out its fires.

"Not everyone can have a high-paying job," Rosenberg says.

But many new tech-employed residents do and are displacing residents like Santiago. Apartments are being renovated all over the city to meet the demand of well-heeled tech employees, while housing construction has been slow to meet the demand. And though they express concern, City Council members seem powerless to stop the bleeding. The council's answer to the problem — the city's below market rate housing program — has yielded only 136 new homes in recent years for lower income residents, with 85 that still need to be built.

Longtime resident Lenny Siegel says the city's housing problem is the result of a failure in city planning. Mountain View has long had "too many jobs" and not enough homes, he says. The city's current long-range planning efforts seem poised to make it worse. The council has been discussing the possibility of new office space for at least 25,000 new jobs by 2030, but fewer than 7,000 new homes, at most.

Gone are the the days when someone like Santiago could find a decent apartment in Mountain View for $525 a month, as she did when she arrived in 1989 from Puerto Rico unable to speak English. While average rents may have nearly quadrupled, wages for most Mountain View employees have not.

For Santiago, Mountain View's housing crisis will no longer be a concern. She leaves at the end of February. Santiago said she's already met several refugees from California in Bremerton, where she said she will welcome a much slower pace of living. And if current trends continue, other community-minded residents will follow suit.

The city is losing "citizens who are contributing to Mountain View," Rosenberg said. "We're going to have to deal with that."

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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