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The fight for East Palo Alto: Where does Stanford lie?

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Drive down University Avenue long enough and, at some point, you will notice a difference. On the Palo Alto side, there are clean streets, expensive cars, posh boutiques, and vagrancy laws. Now, go past the Highway 101 Bridge. You’ll find East Palo Alto (EPA): dilapidated buildings and barren fields defined by artful graffiti, ethnic diversity and vibrant community stores.

There is a clear divide separating the two worlds and along the front lines, a war of gentrification is being waged. At the heart of this struggle is the fight for affordable housing in EPA: a dwindling resource that will soon be eliminated by the encroaching demand for land in Silicon Valley.

In a sea of consumerism, get-rich-quick start-ups and upscale restaurants and shopping centers, EPA provides the last sanctuary for low-rent housing between San Jose and San Francisco, catering to low-income, minority inhabitants. With a majority-minority population, East Palo Alto’s 29,000 residents consists of only 28.8 percent White residents with the rest identifying as Latino or Hispanic (64.5 percent), Black (16.7 percent), Asian or Pacific Islander (10 percent) or some combination of each. The diversity pervades the community in the form of mom-and-pop shops, ethnic restaurants, and community centers.

EPA serves as the blue-collar labor hub for Silicon Valley, supplying waiters, chauffeurs, gardeners and more to customers in wealthier surrounding neighborhoods. However, while EPA serves the rest of Silicon Valley, the Valley is in fact pushing out low-income residents from the city. The most prominent example of such efforts are evidenced by Equity Residential, a Chicago-based real estate company that controls more than half of EPA’s rental market. The group issues 200-300 eviction notices monthly that give tenants three days notice to pay rent or face eviction. Tenants are charged a $50 late fee for turning in rent only a single day late. In one case, Equity filed eviction against a tenant who was $0.75 behind rent. Moreover, Equity has politically opposed rent control, including an ordinance that would provide relocation benefits to evicted tenants, strengthen limitations on demolishing buildings and protect tenants from landlord abuse. Furthermore, the chairman of Equity, Samuel Zell, has been an outspoken opponent of rent control and donated $50,000 to the 2008 Proposition 98, a measure that would have phased out rent control throughout California.

Economics are driving this eviction campaign. East Palo Alto consists of some of the most prized land in the entire East Bay. Located by a waterfront and conveniently close to the headquarters of tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Tesla, EPA’s rental properties would capture higher prices from more affluent, higher-paying, tech-affiliated customers moving into the area. Residential groups like Equity stand to benefit from evicting low-income tenants, after which they can charge market rate prices that soar to over $2,500 a month in places like the San Jose metro area.

But the ethics trump the economics.  Consider the story of Virginia Valencia that was reported in Bloomberg several months ago. Virginia is a single mother of three children who has been fighting Equity on eviction in Woodland Parks. As a single mother, Virginia has no support network to fall back on. She is employed in Tesla’s cafeteria for $12/hour, but now works a second job on the weekends selling tamales out of her friend’s garage to keep up with the rent. Last year, Virginia’s oldest son got in trouble with the police, and the social worker assigned to the case warned her to spend more time with her kids. Unfortunately, that is a luxury that Virginia cannot afford if she wants to keep her family housed. “I work a lot for my children,” she says. “How can I leave my job with the rent what it is?”

Stories like Virginia’s demand a response from Stanford. Our institution has a unique role to play in the gentrification crisis unfolding in East Palo Alto. On the one hand, Stanford has strong ties to the tech community, virtually providing the workforce for companies like Google and Facebook. At the same time, Stanford has declared a commitment to advocating on behalf of EPA, creating multiple service opportunities through the Haas Center. Stanford needs to understand how funneling resources into tech is displacing the lower income communities of EPA. In fact, Stanford does acknowledge gentrification, having introduced affordable housing for its professors living in the area, but does nothing for low-income third parties affected.

We must extend our commitment to EPA. EPA as we know it will completely change in the near future if we do not act in solidarity with tenants fighting for their homes. Organizations like Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA), Tenants Together, and Nuestra Casa are already organizing in EPA to fight evictions and preserve the community, but they are strapped for resources and labor. Stanford, a center for innovation, learning, and progress, has not only the resources but also the service commitment to support these organizations fighting for EPA in its time of need.

The question is: are we truly committed to serving EPA and, if so, what will you do to stop gentrification?

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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