Oakland tenants live with uncertainty in tight market

Saturday, January 7, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle – By: Rachel Swanson

Blocks away from the fire-gutted Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland sits a tiny, two-bedroom in-law unit with mildewed walls and no heat, perched atop a rickety garage. Water pools beneath chipped bathroom tiles, and mold forms spiderweb patterns amid the dog posters and Baby-Sitters Club books in an otherwise tidy girl’s bedroom.

Home to a family of three, it’s among many illegal dwellings that have existed for years in the Fruitvale district, becoming more prevalent as rents escalate and a perennial housing shortage squeezes out the poor.

“Right now people are really desperate. They’re living on the edge of homelessness,” said City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents Fruitvale. He’s hoping that last month’s Ghost Ship fire, which prompted an outcry over the hazardous living conditions of many artist warehouses, will also spotlight other forms of shoddy housing.

Gallo recently visited the two-bedroom in-law unit with the family of three, on a quiet block of 29th Avenue where the houses are wide and weather-beaten. Many of them conceal similarly makeshift granny flats, sheds or garages, where low-income families live in the shadows.

Paper snowflakes and Christmas stockings lined the walls of the in-law unit, where Clyde — a stay-at-home mom who declined to give her last name — stood bundled in a knit cap, sweatshirt and scarf. Clyde described her family’s six years in their home as an ongoing struggle. She and her 10-year-old daughter both have asthma, which is exacerbated by mold, the woman said. And the cold air, she said, makes her back muscles ache.

“I have to heat the house with the (gas) stove,” she said. “I get up an hour before my daughter every day and turn it on.”

Despite those discomforts and health complications, Clyde had always been reluctant to leave the $900-a-month unit, which is cheaper than most other rentals in the gradually gentrifying neighborhood. But now her family has no choice: Their landlord evicted them in September, and they have until mid-January to vacate.

“We’re left in the middle of the ocean with nothing,” she said, fighting tears.

Many other families face the same quandary, said Jesse Newmark, an attorney at the immigrant-focused law nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza. He said the problem of substandard housing is particularly widespread in Fruitvale, where some tenants are stymied not only by their lack of income, but also by their immigration status. Low-cost housing is a scarce commodity in the booming Bay Area, and the options are narrower for people who lack a credit score and a Social Security number or who are inhibited by language barriers.

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