SAN MATEO — Annie Sadler, a longtime resident of Hillsdale Garden Apartments, just saw the rent for her two-bedroom apartment jump by 22 percent, but she considers herself lucky.

For one thing, some of her neighbors in the 697-unit apartment complex have faced increases of more than 30 percent. More importantly, she has a Section 8 housing voucher, which means the San Mateo County Housing Authority pays $760 of her monthly rent.

But for residents of Hillsdale Garden who either do not qualify or have not applied for housing subsidies, the steep rent increases imposed by the complex's new owners have led to economic hardship.

Sadler is one of many residents at the complex — bought for $97.3 million in September by Essex Property Trust, a publicly traded company — who are retired and living on fixed incomes.

Sadler and others report that the rent hikes have forced numerous tenants, particularly seniors, to move out of their apartments, the county and even the state in recent months.

"They're going to move out of the county because there's no rent control here," said Sadler, who sits on the county's Commission on Aging (East Palo Alto is the only city in the county that has a rent control policy).

The situation at HillsdaleGarden has caught the notice of the Beresford Hillsdale Neighborhood Association, some of whose members are alarmed by the exodus taking place there.


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There is also growing resentment against Essex among residents, some of whom feel the company's tactics are draconian.

"My feeling is that if the city is really concerned about affordable housing, they should be paying some attention to what's happening at Hillsdale," said Mark Albertson, a member of the neighborhood association's board of directors.

Mike Germano, president of the board, called Essex's actions "bad business and socially irresponsible."

The rent hikes are prompting some residents to call for a rent control ordinance. There are similar rumblings in Belmont, where Essex owns three apartment buildings, Belmont Community Development Director Carlos de Melo said.

San Mateo Mayor Jack Matthews said that while he does not support rent control and thinks it's a bad policy, he is concerned about the tenants at Hillsdale Garden and will talk to City Manager Arne Croce about whether the city can play a mediation role between Essex and frustrated renters.

Essex maintains that rents at Hillsdale Garden, many of which had fallen well below market rate under the previous owner, are merely being brought up to levels even with prevailing rates throughout the area.

"What we're doing is we're actually gradually increasing them," said Nicole Culbertson, a representative with Essex's investor-relations department.

But some Hillsdale residents feel rent increases of $300-$400 are far from gradual.

"They could have done it incrementally," said Susan Churchill, a Hillsdale Garden resident who ran for City Council in 2005. "It's just that type of corporation that doesn't have any respect for the individual."

Churchill is considering a second campaign for council, this time with a platform emphasizing rent control.

One Hillsdale Garden resident who asked not to be named said she is anxiously awaiting her lease renewal later this year. A senior living on a fixed income, she knows the rent she's paying is well below-market, and she fears her increase could amount to several hundred dollars.

The resident has put her name on the waiting lists at a couple of below-market-rate apartment complexes, but she doesn't know whether she'll have any success in finding something she can afford in the area.

"This is something I should have taken care of a long time ago, but it just didn't work out that way," she said. "I can't really blame anyone but myself for not really finding something more realistic a long time ago."

Duane Bay, director of the county's Department of Housing, said Hillsdale Garden tenants who are feeling pinched and cannot find an apartment in their price range have several options. 

They can put themselves on the waiting list for the county's 4,300 housing vouchers, although moving up the list can take years. In order to be eligible, their income must be less than 50 percent of the median income for households in the area.

Bay said those searching for affordable housing should also look into below-market housing units, often run by nonprofits like HIP Housing and the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition.

The county maintains a master list of roughly 3,000 below-market units on its Web site. The document provides contact information and the status of waiting lists for all apartment complexes that offer below-market-rate housing.

The Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County maintains a similar list on its Web site.

The city of San Mateo has a master waiting list for low- and moderate-income families looking for housing. Applications are available on the Neighborhood Improvement and Housing section of the city's Web site.

Matthews said the city "doesn't have any control over existing private development," but is aggressively working to create new below-market-rate housing in San Mateo. For instance, roughly 200 of these units are expected to be built as part of the second phase of the Bay Meadows development.

"I'm sympathetic to people who can't live in the places they've lived for many, many years," Matthews said of Hillsdale Garden residents.

"If we build more housing, there won't be a housing shortage, and the housing won't be pushed out of the range of people with modest incomes."

For now, Hillsdale Garden residents who cannot afford to stay will have to find something in their range or find a new area to live.

"If rental rates go up to a point where young families can't afford to be a part of our community, I'd be concerned about (our) future," Albertson said.

Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302 or at akinney@sanmateocountytimes.com.