Alameda's Seniors Face Soaring Housing Costs

Charlie Edwards' model train layout in his Alameda apartment.  (Jenee Darden/KQED)

Charlie Edwards, 76, is a retired gardener who loves trains, and in his Alameda apartment he has built an amazing model layout that covers his entire living room and dining area. But over the past year, the future of his model train has come to be in doubt, since new owners of the building where he lives raised his rent 24 percent last June.

Edwards now pays $1,300 a month, and says he spends most of his retirement benefits and Social Security on rent.  After that, he’s left with just a few hundred dollars for the remainder of his monthly costs.

The rent hike has changed his life.

“I go to the food bank and right now it’s very stressful,” said Edwards. “I’m just kind of beside myself because I didn’t move in here with a sleeping bag and backpack, you know? And I just don’t know what to do now.”

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In the battle for affordable housing  in Alameda, some of the residents on the front line are seniors. The City Council recently gave preliminary approval to a measure limiting rent hikes to once a year. For increases above 5 percent, landlords must notify a city review committee for mediation. Landlords are also required to assist tenants with moving costs in certain types of evictions.

According to a study from BAE Urban Economics, more than half of Alameda’s households are rentals. Google recently announced a plan to expand its office on Alameda’s former naval base and bring 150 more jobs to the island. Some tenants fear rents will go even higher.

Seniors like Edwards say that moving is a lot tougher when you get old. There are health issues. Finding work this late in life is a challenge. Moving costs are high. Getting assistance to pack and transport their things is another obstacle. This goes especially for people who are both elderly and living with disabilities. Plus, there’s been no increase in Social Security benefits this year.

Tight-Knit Community Threatened

April Squires is a retired schoolteacher. She is part of the Alameda Renters Coalition, a group of tenants fighting for rent stabilization. Squires sits on the Senior and Disability Action Committee. I met with her and other committee members. Many of them have lived in Alameda for decades. They said some of the perks to living here in their golden years are the flat terrain that makes navigating the island easier on their bodies, and the small, tight-knit community.

“At this time of our lives we have chosen the community we want to be in for the rest of our lives,” Squires said. “The whole psychological upheaval can be crushing.”

Even more crushing is sleeping on the streets. According to a UCSF study, more than 50 percent of America’s homeless are over 50.  Many elderly spend more than half of their income on rent.  Struggling to pay for housing, along with other needs, puts seniors at greater risk for homelessness.

Subsidized housing is an option in Alameda, but in this market the competition is astounding.

“We opened our Section 8 voucher program list for the first time in 11 years and we got 36,000 applications,” said Vanessa Cooper, executive director for the City of Alameda Housing Authority. “We actually could only take 750 of those individuals onto the list. The vast majority of those applications were from the Oakland/Alameda area. We know that the need is very high. “

Cooper described five affordable housing developments that are in the works.

She said, “The difficulty, of course, is that they won’t help people who are searching now because it takes two to three years to actually build those units.”

The city of Alameda requires new developers to designate 15 percent of their units for people with very low to moderate incomes. But Charlie Edwards doesn’t have a few years to wait. I asked him if he had a backup plan and he responded, “No. One lady I talked to said, ‘Where am I supposed to move, the ocean? There are other places doing the same thing they’re doing here.’ ”

The Alameda Renters Coalition is working to get a rent stabilization measure on the November ballot.