Family of 5 shares 1 bedroom apartment with family of 3

For low-income families who do not, or cannot, eave the Bay Area, their housing options are limited. Many families are forced to downsize, packing more people into smaller homes to make ends meet. 

That is the situation for Cindy, 15, her 18-year-old-sister, and her 20-year-old brother who all live with her mother, Marbella, and father. The family of five live in the living room, of a 500-square-foot apartment in East Palo Alto. The family does not want their last name made public, for fear the property owner where they live will learn about their unusual housing situation and evict them. 

Cindy gave us a tour of her family's "home" showing the family's sleeping arrangements with the fold-out mattress on the floor. 

"We unfold it. I lay here, my sister there, and my mom lays here. And my dad, he sleeps on the ground," she explained. 

The family has their children's graduation photos on the wall, next to the family's shared dresser. Toiletries and toothbrushes are neatly stored on the counter. 

"It's hard because every morning when I get up for school, I have to hurry up really fast. I have to get up really early so I can change in the kitchen," said Cindy.

Cindy and her family used to live in a three bedroom house in East Palo Alto. Four years ago they paid $2,900 a month to live there. Within three years rent rose to $4,200. When the rent spiked to $6,200 in March -  the cost forced the family to downsize.

With nowhere else to go, a family friend took them in. That friend, and her two teenage kids live in the apartment's only bedroom. 

Cindy's family contributes $1,000 a month to their friend, to offset the costs of eight people living in a one bedroom, one bath apartment.

When asked if it's hard to sleep in tight quarters Cindy said;  "I do get woken up a lot. And then it's hard to go back to sleep. But I just think to myself, you have to make sacrifices so that everyone is ok."

Cindy's mom, Marbella has lived in East Palo Alto for 20 years. Her kids were born and raised here. She's never had trouble finding a new place to live - until now.

Marbella and her family have applied to live in eight different apartment complexes over the past six months and were rejected, because of the family's low income. She said she was told she needs proof the family makes at least $10,000 a month to qualify for those apartments, and the family's income falls short. She's not eligible to rent a single bedroom apartment, because there are five people in her family. 

Marbella's husband has worked for the same landscaping company for twenty years and makes $17 an hour. She works a minimum wage part-time job. Her older son, works as a house-painter. Her middle daughter is a student in community college, and Cindy, her youngest, is a sophomore in high school.

"It came down to a choice between, do we give our kids a place to live? Or food to eat?" she said.

The problem is not limited to East Palo Alto, of course. Bay Area-wide, over the past 7 years, the cost of rent has out-paced incomes.

According to data collected by real estate website, Zillow, between 2010 and 2017, median incomes in the San Francisco Metro area rose 43 percent.

During the same period, median rent prices rose higher than that in most Bay Area cities. Urban areas on the Peninsula and in the East Bay had the largest increases in median rent.

From 2010 to 2017, Emeryville had a 74-percent jump in median rent. East Palo Alto, a 67 percent increase. And in Walnut Creek, San Rafael, San Leandro and Berkeley, the median rent grew at least 50 percent or more in the past seven years.

"It is a crisis," said, Julio Garcia, Program Director for Nuestra Casa, a non-profit community group in San Mateo County. 

He says Cindy and Marbella's living situation is not unique. 

"Dozens of families are downsizing, or sharing apartments."

Garcia said city and county leaders need to think beyond the term, "affordable housing." In San Mateo and other Bay Area counties, affordable housing is prices for people who make more than $100,000 a year. 

"Here [East Palo Alto] there are a lot of people who make $35,000, $45,000 a year. People who work in the service industry, a dishwasher, a cook or gardener," Garcia said.

He said if you drive through many East Palo Alto neighborhoods and look outside: "A lot of those apartments, two or three families are living in them.” 

Some of their stories - including Marbella's - were part of a public photo exhibit in San Mateo County about downsizing due to rent costs.

"In a few years there will no longer be people in East Palo Alto who've been here for 20, 30 years. They won't be able to afford it," said Marbella. 

She said moving out of the Bay Area would come with its own financial costs. It would also mean leaving her community and the low-pay but steady job her husband's had for two decades.

Her younger daughter, Cindy, knows this is the family's reality for now. She said she wants to join the military when she graduates.

"It's a very complicated thing. And I don't try to bring myself down or bring other people down, because there are people who don't even have a roof over their heads. So, I should be grateful for this," Cindy said.