SAN MATEO -- Araselis Marte and her two daughters have lived in their small two-bedroom apartment on Grant Street for nine years. But now they face a stark choice: pay for a 77 percent rent increase or find somewhere else to live.
Suddenly the working-class family is questioning whether they can afford to live in San Mateo, or anywhere else on the Peninsula. It's an increasingly common dilemma, say affordable housing advocates, who are redoubling their calls for cities in San Mateo County to pursue rent control and other policies protecting tenants who can't keep pace with the Bay Area's skyrocketing rental market.
The county's rental rates ascended to record highs in the second quarter of 2014 and stand as the second-highest in California behind San Francisco, according to real Answers, a Novato-based firm formerly known as RealFacts. The average rent for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment reached $2,501, up 16 percent in just two years. Joshua Hugg, program manager for the nonprofit Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, said he's getting calls nearly every day from low and even middle-income people who are being forced out of the county's drum-tight housing market.
"It's like watching a slow-moving train wreck," said Hugg, who serves on the San Mateo Planning Commission. "There has to be a more aggressive response on the part of the communities in this county."
The four-unit building where Marte, 47, lives is charmless and poorly maintained. The backyard looks like a vacant lot, aside from a vegetable garden planted by residents. Marte's neighbor has had a hole in her bedroom ceiling for more than a year.
Still, it was one of the few cheap apartments left in San Mateo. Marte's rent is just $1,300, well below the market average. But with the owner planning to renovate the building and possibly sell it, Marte's rent will jump $1,000 on Sept. 1, and maybe more in coming months.
Marte, who works for the county's Fair Oaks Health Center in Redwood City, fears she will have to move to the East Bay by the end of the year, perhaps Richmond, which would turn her commute into a costly slog. Her younger daughter, Kayla, just started the ninth grade at Aragon High School, one of the top public schools in the county. Her education hangs in the balance.
"We've reached out for help that isn't available. Everyone seems to just say, 'Good luck,'" Marte said. "Something has to happen. You can't just snap your fingers and disrupt a family's life that easily."
Aracely Mondragon, a community organizer with San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action, has been advising Marte and nearly two dozen other Grant Street tenants facing displacement. The organization is one of several recommending San Mateo and other cities take a hard look at tenant protections -- from rent control, which limits yearly rent increases, to just cause evictions, which restrict the ability of landlords to toss out unwanted residents.
"These families work in San Mateo, their churches are there, their children go to school there," Mondragon said. "So it's really heartbreaking for them to have to leave and for us as a community to lose them."
Tenant protections are rare in San Mateo County. East Palo Alto is the only city with rent control and just cause eviction policies on the books, according to the City/County Association of Governments.
One of the leading opponents of rent stabilization is the San Mateo County Association of Realtors. Steve Blanton, the group's CEO, claims rent control creates disincentives for developers to build affordable units. The solution to the housing shortage, he said, is to increase the supply.
But housing advocates claim the amount of affordable housing in the county is so low that new construction cannot satisfy the high demand. In San Mateo, for instance, the waiting list for 165 affordable rental units built under the city's affordable housing development program recently topped 1,000 people.
Kate Comfort Harr, executive director of San Mateo County nonprofit HIP Housing, said a combination of several factors -- an imbalance between the surging jobs market and tight housing market; investors looking to flip rental properties; and the dissolution of California's redevelopment agencies, which had spurred affordable housing development -- has created a perfect storm.
"We have all these things colliding to create this new crisis that we've never seen before," said Harr, whose organization provides housing for low-income people. "What we're seeing is people pushed into poverty as a result of incredibly high housing costs."
Still, it's unclear whether the crisis will lead cities to embrace tenant protections. In San Mateo, the City Council has taken notice of the plight of low-income renters, but so far it hasn't committed to any policy changes.
San Mateo City Councilman Jack Matthews said he has long opposed rent control, believing that housing prices are best left to the free market. But he acknowledged that lately it seems the market has spun out of control.
"I probably wouldn't have considered any form of rent control or rent stabilization in the past, because I don't think it works," Matthews said. "But we're getting to a situation where it is such a crisis that we really need to do something about it. I don't know what that thing is."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
--There are slightly more than 35,000 households in San Mateo County that bring in less than half the county's median household income, but only about 12,000 rental units that are truly affordable for them, according to a new report from the California Housing Partnership Corporation. The median income for a four-person household in San Mateo County is $97,100, according to the report.
--The CHPC report found that state and federal funding for affordable homes has fallen by 85 percent since 2008. To view the report, visit http://chpc.net.