July 27, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle: Facebook cafeteria workers living in garage with 3 kids—What it says about Silicon Valley living


Low income workers continue to struggle to get by in Silicon Valley. As housing prices continue to rise, many Bay Area residents are forced into smaller and smaller spaces in order to make ends meet. SV@Home Executive Director Leslye Corsiglia offered a perspective on the story of two cafeteria workers at Facebook living in a Menlo Park garage with their three kids.

See the original story at SFGATE.

Facebook cafeteria workers living in garage with 3 kids: What it says about Silicon Valley living

By Amy Graff

A provocative story in the Guardian profiles a couple who work in the Facebook cafeteria and are raising their three children in a two-car garage blocks from the tech company’s Menlo Park campus.

Victor and Nicole, whose last names aren’t included in the story, are living in the tight space next to Victor’s mother’s house because they can’t afford the high price of rent, even an apartment with a kitchen and a bathroom, in the Silicon Valley.

Nicole earns $19.85 an hour as a shift lead, and Victor brings in $17.85 an hour, and the Guardian offers insight into their economic struggle even though they work for a profitable Bay Area tech company and make well above California’s minimum wage of $10.50 an hour.

“They earn too much to qualify for state healthcare, but not enough to afford the health insurance offered by their employer. They frequently struggle to find enough money for basics like food and clothes for their children. Victor recently borrowed money from his mother to hold a birthday party for one of his daughters, and from a friend to pay for a dentist appointment.”

A Facebook spokesperson says the couple are employed by San Jose contractor Flagship Facility Services. Facebook asks its vendors to meet a set of standards of benefits for its contractors that include a $15 minimum wage and a minimum of 15 days paid leave, some of which are already mandated by state law.

“Our vendor workers are valued members of our community. We are committed to providing a safe, fair, work environment to everyone who helps Facebook bring the world closer together, including contractors,” reads a statement provided by Facebook in response to the Guardian article.

In corporate America, it’s unusual to require vendors to offer these benefits. But a movement for better pay for contractors is happening in Silicon Valley. Microsoft mandated a $15 minimum wage for its contractors in 2015.

However, Nicole and Victor’s situation shows the perks aren’t nearly enough to allow some workers to afford adequate housing.

More affordable housing in the pipeline for Menlo Park

The benefits could get better. Facebook announced plans earlier this month to turn a 56-acre plot of Menlo Park land it bought in 2015 into its own village with housing for anyone living in the community.

If the city approves the project, 1,500 housing units would be built with about 15 percent — or about 225 units — offered at below-market rates

What’s more, the Menlo Park City Council approved in June moving forward with an affordable housing project with up to 141 units. It would be the largest in the city’s history, according to Jim Cogan, the housing and economic development manager for the City of Menlo Park.

Council members decided apartments will be designated for families making less than 60 percent of the area median income, “which means an income maximum of $78,960 for a family of four, based on this year’s San Mateo County data,” the Almanac reports.

Menlo Park is a community predominantly made up of single-family homes and this complex of two- and three-bedroom apartments is a step to add more affordable apartments.

The complex will be built within a block of Facebook in the Belle Haven neighborhood where Nicole and Victor live, and Cogan says families living in this area will be given the first opportunity to rent the new units.

“The family in in the Guardian story, assuming they’ve lived or worked in Menlo Park, will have the top priority at the new development,” Cogan says. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been built yet.”

More projects like these could be in the city’s future. The council also approved a general plan update to allow up to 4,500 housing units to be built in the area around Facebook between University Avenue and Marsh Road and between Highway 101 and the bay.

“The entire city recognizes that affordable housing is a big problem,” Cogan says. “We have a great council and mayor who are focused on that. It’s going to take time to address it unfortunately.”

Affordable housing is lacking and the cost of living is soaring in the Bay Area

As Menlo Park and cities around Silicon Valley try to address the issue of affordable housing, the story of people turning to alternative forms of housing is becoming more familiar.

A single mother paid $1,000 a month to live in a garage with her new baby in San Mateo and shared her struggles with affording a more suitable living space with news media in 2015.

That same year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on tech bus drivers living in their cars to make ends meet. There’ve also been stories of people living more affordably in RVsvans, a box truck and even a wooden box. And there’s the tale of a Google employee who secretly lived on the tech company’s campus before moving into a truck.

None of this is surprising, with affordable housing lacking and the cost of living soaring in the Bay Area. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., has a cost of living calculator to estimate the annual income families need to live comfortably in certain cities. The amount a family of five needs in the S.F. metro area (this includes Menlo Park) is $116,485. If Nicole and Victor are working full-time, together they’re bringing in $78,000 at most based on their hourly wages.

Housing is the main reason the cost of living in the Bay Area is sky-high. The median rent per month for a two-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park is around $4,000 a month, according to real estate sites Zillow and Zumper.

“We have been under-building affordable housing in the Bay Area for years,” says Leslye Corsiglia, executive director of SV@Home, a nonprofit advocating for more affordable housing. “We’ve got a situation where people who work here have limited choices, either to pay really high rents that may take up a considerable amount of their monthly income, to overcrowd living spaces, to live in unsafe places, or to live far away and commute for work.”

As more companies prosper in Silicon Valley, offering a wide variety of jobs with a range of pay scales, housing hasn’t kept up with demand.

According to the 2016 Joint Venture Silicon Valley Indicators report, in 2015 Silicon Valley created more than 64,000 jobs but only 5,000 housing units.

The reasons for the lack of housing are many and complicated, and Corsiglia says Gov. Jerry Brown‘s elimination of redevelopment agencies (overseeing urban renewal in blighted areas and  funded through property taxes) in 2011 is among them.

She adds that the state has seen a reduction in spending on affordable housing by about 60 to 80 percent over the last five to seven years due to budget cuts at both the state and federal levels.

“We have been really stymied in recent years to provide affordable housing to families like the one in the Guardian article,” Corsiglia says.

Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.