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The Downside of Upscale

people waiting

As real estate booms, families fight for affordable rentals

By Cecily Barnes

EVERY THURSDAY AT NOON the Housing Authority stacks the lobby with an ever-shortening list of available low-income housing, including the names of landlords who will accept federally subsidized housing, known as Section 8. Shortly following, packs of desperate, tattered and disheartened individuals stampede into the office, hoping to beat the competition to an available rental.

"I tell my sister to be ready with her car so I can just jump in," says Cecilia Ybarra. Added Dolores, Cecilia's sister, "One time I took her, and I'm seeing all these people running out and jumping into their cars, and I'm thinking, 'Oh God there's a bomb scare or something,' "

"People get their lists and they're right there calling," Ybarra explains. "And the other ones jump into their cars and go to the nearest phone booth. I do that, too. I have to." Ybarra is learning the rules of the housing game--a real-life game where there's literally no room to be polite and no time to spare.

Cecilia Ybarra, 49, a full-time employee at the Brandon House Emergency Shelter, recently found herself not only a Brandon House employee, but an eligible client. Enticed by the burgeoning real estate market at the start of summer, her previous landlords decided to cash in their home last May, leaving Ybarra and her three children (ages 7, 10 and 18) to search for affordable housing, in a county with a 1 to 2 percent vacancy rate. Ybarra, homeless for at least three months, has found the search all but futile, despite a daily routine of scouring the classifieds and pleading with landlords. Ybarra's story is becoming increasingly typical.

As landlords eye a lucrative market--where hordes of gainfully employed yuppies "apply" for rentals much as they would apply for a job--less desirable, lower-income tenants are being forced out of their homes. The county sheriff's office has issued approximately 1,000 more evictions this year than in 1993, says sheriff's spokeswoman Henrietta DeBrouwer.

IN A BOOM YEAR when Silicon Valley enlisted 42,400 new jobs (according to a report by UC-Berkeley's Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics), housing construction has decreased dramatically, some 37 percent since 1993. Santa Clara County has proven incapable of digesting this colossal migration of apartment-seeking corporateers.

As a result, housing prices have jumped 4.5 percent, and the cost of rentals by 11 percent, the report states. Where the average cost of a two-bedroom rental was about $800 in 1990, it has now jumped up to almost $950. (As a reference, the same space runs between $800 and $850 in San Francisco.)

With available, affordable housing virtually nonexistent, more and more evictees are ending up on the streets. "All of the county's homeless shelters have been full all year," comments Maury Kendall, communications manager of the Emergency Housing Consortium (EHC). This is largely because, "once in the shelters," Kendall says, "there is nowhere for them to go." Like searching for a needle in a haystack, the unyielding house hunt has left many families demoralized and hopeless.

Family-shelter participants now coming into the system are "almost always first-time shelter users," Kendall points out. One such example is first-time shelter patron Pamela Frazier. Working as a full-time security guard at Van Guard Security, Frazier tried everything before moving with her partner, David, and three teenage children (17, 15 and 12) to San Jose's Family Shelter. "I went down to housing, tried to get my name on Section 8, tried to get low-income housing, tried to get something I could afford, and I was hitting brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. And so I said, 'Fine I'll just make my decision. I have to go into the shelter situation.'" Despite a combined income of $39,000 a year, (a salary higher than most journalists make), Frazier's three-month house-hunt from the shelter's pay phone has yielded nothing.

THROWING SALT on an already stinging wound, HUD's 1995 Section 8 policy changes promise to yank recipients' privileges if they have three months of no luck. (Section 8 is a federally funded rent subsidy program which allows tenants to pay 30 percent of their income in rent--and then makes up for the difference.) Now, HUD "gives families who have Section 8 certificates 120 days maximum to find housing," says Santa Clara County Housing Authority's Art Carabajal.

These changes have thrown Ybarra and her children further out into the street than they already are. As a Section 8 recipient, Ybarra's three months expired before she was able to find a house, and not for lack of trying. "I've been getting the paper every single day. I go down the entire list, and the first word out of their mouth is always, 'No, we don't accept Section 8,' " says a wearied Ybarra. Apparently, the remaining federal safety nets hold little weight when landlords have yuppies lining up out their doors.

Ybarra's three-month safari of combing the county for Section 8­friendly landlords became even worse once struck from Section 8's register. "I'm very concerned," Ybarra confesses. "I don't want to be left out in the cold."

Housing Authority's Carabajal recognizes the problem of landlords being disdainful of Section 8 renters. "If someone's name comes up on the list, we call them in and issue them the Section 8 vouchers. What we don't have control over is whether the landlord will say 'Yes, I will take the voucher right now.'" And while Carabajal claims that "very few [landlords] have actually dropped out" of Section 8, he adds, "We have seen a definite reduction in the number of new landlords willing to go with the program."

More and more people are fleeing to the sanctuary of the Housing Authority, where the Section 8 waiting list is closed indefinitely (and has been since 1988), and, Carabajal says, there is very little which can be offered as an alternative. "There are still a lot of people out there that are not experiencing the economic boom, that are experiencing the adverse effects of it. And these are the people we see here," Carabajal says solemnly. "It is very difficult for our on-line staff to be constantly saying, 'Sorry, no, no, no.' "

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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