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[whitespace] High housing costs force most public servants to live elsewhere

Saratoga--On Monday mornings between 12:30 and 1, John and Paula Franco wake up and leave for work.

The Francos don't work graveyard shifts. They leave that early because their home is in north Stockton. It takes them two hours--not counting unexpected delays, such as accidents-- to commute to their jobs 100 miles away in San Jose and Saratoga. The Francos have been commuting from Stockton for 12 years.

As with most other public servants who work in Saratoga, John Franco, who works for the Valley Transit Authority in San Jose, and Paula Franco, a criminal justice information specialist at the sheriff's Westside Substation, live outside the county. They can't afford to live locally, where, according to Engineer Berk Gilson of the Saratoga Fire Department, it's hard to find a home under $400,000.

Finding a home in Saratoga is even harder. According to a study by TitleTech of Oakland, which used figures from 260 recent home sales in Santa Clara County, the lowest price for single-family homes, condominiums, townhouses and mobile homes in Saratoga, as of April 7, was $577,500. The highest price was $2,300,000.

At the Saratoga Fire District, which provides fire service to part of the city, salaries start at about $29,000 for apprentices and $54,000 for engineers, said Fire Chief Ernest Kraule. Because firefighters can't afford homes here, they commute from as far away as Sacramento, Yuba City and Marysville, Gilson said.

Deputies at the sheriff's office make between $56,040 and $68,124 a year, according to Lt. Ernie Smedlund of the Westside Substation. As a result, officers live in Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties, and in Livermore and Salinas.

Law enforcement personnel may not live as far away as firefighters, but that's because they commute 16 days each month for 10-hour shifts, instead of 10 days each month for 24-hour shifts as the firefighters do, said Sgt. Ted Atlas of the Westside Substation. Firefighters in the fire district currently work every other day for 24 hours and then get four days off.

According to Atlas, there aren't any deputies at the Substation who live in Saratoga or Los Altos Hills, and only one deputy, in the courts division, lives in Cupertino. Atlas lives in Campbell, but only because he bought his home from his parents in the mid-1980s, when homes cost much less than they do today.

Although some public service employees do live in Saratoga, they are exceptions to the norm. Only three out of the 24 firefighters at the district own houses in Saratoga, and they are senior members who bought their homes about 20 years ago, said firefighter Tyler Mortenson. One lieutenant in the Sheriff's Department is moving to Saratoga, only because he's inheriting a house, Atlas said.

Mortenson lives in Saratoga, but he rents a house with two other tenants, one of whom is fellow firefighter Tony Rainieri. Mortenson, Rainieri and the other tenant, a former firefighter, pay a total of $2,200 each month for their three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, which Mortenson estimates to be 2,000 square feet.

Although Mortenson said it was convenient living only about a mile away from the station, he said it would be nice to be able to buy a house. Also, Rainieri said that he and his roommates worry about the rent increasing. According to Rainieri, the last rent increase, in December, was $400.

Paula and John Franco only live at their house in Stockton on the weekends. During weekdays, they live with John's parents in east San Jose and pay them about $200 each month, or as much as they can afford.

The Francos commuted from Stockton for seven years, until there was a flood five years ago, when levies broke and water covered houses and agricultural fields in the area. The couple began staying with John's parents because it would take them three hours to get home. Back problems suffered by Paula also made the long ride uncomfortable for her. Eventually, the Francos' stay at John's parents' house during the weekdays became permanent.

During Paula's first three years commuting from Stockton, she worked nights, and John worked days. The only time they saw each other during the day--weekdays and weekends--was at the same spot every day on Interstate 580, in Livermore. "That was our love connection, 580," Paula said.

The commute, however, has cost the Francos: they have gone through four vehicles in 10 years and are now on their fifth vehicle.

The Francos would work closer to Stockton, but they'd make less money and wouldn't be able to maintain their current lifestyle, Paula Franco said. They own a five-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot house, where, at one time, all four of their children were living. Two of their children, a daughter who attends nursing school and a son, Elijah, 19, who recently graduated high school, currently live there.

The couple's monthly payments have gone from $1,200 to $2,200 in the last decade. In Stockton, $2,200 is considered high, and Paula and John are trying to refinance their loan so they can reduce their payments.

According to Atlas, the lack of affordable housing in the county makes it harder to recruit both badge and nonbadge officers. Nonbadge officers include civilian staff members, such as secretaries, accountants and records clerks, while badge officers include deputies, sergeants, lieutenants and captains, all of whom wear badges and are sworn in. Sheriff's deputies have taken other jobs to reduce their commutes, Atlas said.

With deputies leaving the county for other jobs, more positions at the sheriff's office become vacant. To compensate for these vacancies, deputies who currently work for the sheriff's office have to work overtime, which further reduces the time they can spend with their families, said Capt. Jeff Miles of the Westside Substation. According to Smedlund, each deputy probably works one mandatory overtime shift every two weeks.

The lack of affordable housing also affects the ability of sheriff's deputies to respond to emergencies from their homes. Not only does it take them longer to get to Santa Clara County, but, if there's a disaster, freeways could close and cause delays, Atlas said.

In addition, when deputies don't live in the communities they police, they become less involved in them. The only time deputies are part of the communities they work in is during their 10-hour shifts--they aren't involved in community organizations, and their children don't attend schools in the communities, Atlas said.

Public service workers fear the problem will get worse. Gilson has lived in Hollister for about five years, where, he said, the price of a home similar to his four-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot house has jumped from $190,000 to $430,000 since he moved there. A person can't even get a condominium or townhouse in Hollister for $190,000 now, Gilson said. "As the years go on, it's going to be harder and harder for the newer people, and people will move further and further out," he said.

To buy his home, Gilson used a program from the California Public Employees' Retirement System to finance the $6,000 down payment on his house. Although he's using money slated for his retirement, Gilson considers it a safe risk because fire jobs are pretty secure, he said.

In addition to CalPERS programs, there have been others that offer officers incentive to move to blighted, low-income neighborhoods. But, as Atlas pointed out, there has been no effort that he knows of to move officers, except for high-ranking ones, such as chiefs, to upper-income areas.

According to Smedlund, some agencies in the county offer recruitment incentives that give bonuses to officers who recruit other officers. But, Miles said, it's so expensive to live in Santa Clara County that the bonuses pale in comparison to the cost of owning a home locally.

The fire district has found one way to alleviate the commuting problem for its firefighters. The district recently bought the Contempo Realty Inc., office behind its current building on Saratoga Avenue, and in the summer, or fall, of this year, the district will move there temporarily.

The current building will be torn down and replaced with a newer, bigger one, which should be ready to move into by fall 2002, or spring 2003, Kraule said. The Contempo building is about 4,500 square feet, and will have a kitchen and five bedrooms so that firefighters who live outside the county can sleep there between workdays. After the district moves into the new building, it will still keep the Contempo building to use for training rooms and bedrooms, Kraule said.

The state Assembly is considering legislation that could make it easier for public service workers to own homes. Assembly Bill 905, which passed out of the committee on housing and community development and is going to appropriation, would create the public safety downpayment assistance program to assist public safety officers. Assembly Bill 820, which the housing committee is scheduled to hear on April 25, would enact the public homebuyer assistance program to help state and local public employees get loans for homes in the counties where they work. The California Housing Finance Agency would administer this program.
Rebecca Ray

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