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Bay Area home sharing the new norm as housing costs soar

An-Li Herring/Peninsula Press
Mountain View High School teacher Nicole Higley, left, chats with colleague and roommate Evan Smith in their Mountain View apartment after school last month. Higley and Smith decided to find an apartment together after confronting the steep cost of living in Silicon Valley.

Nicole Higley couldn’t afford to rent her own apartment when she began teaching Japanese at Mountain View High School three years ago. So she did what many other Bay Area residents are doing: look for a roommate.

Evan Smith, who has taught math at Mountain View High for 13 years, meanwhile, was looking for an apartment at the same time. Although he owns a house in Santa Clara, he had leased it for a reduced price to a family of five, choosing to rent an apartment until the family’s three children finish elementary school. During a coffee break one day at school, Smith and Higley decided to find housing together, and they now rent a two-bedroom apartment in Mountain View for $2,495.

Confronting an acute housing shortage, a disparate group of Bay Area residents, some of whom would easily be able to afford their own apartments in other regions, have found roommates to share the cost of rent.

While co-living arrangements are not unusual among senior citizens and college students, full-time professionals are increasingly boarding with roommates to afford the steep cost of living in Silicon Valley. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Mountain View is $2,553, according to real estate website Zillow. On Craigs- list, two-bedroom apartments in downtown Palo Alto rent for $4,000 or more.

Although the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District pays the highest teacher salary in California on average – $103,172 during the 2012-2013 school year according to the most recent, publicly available state data – teachers with the least tenure earn far less. Higley and Smith are not alone among their colleagues in opting to live together.

Three of their colleagues share an apartment in Belmont, and Marie Thuillier, a French teacher, moved in with a colleague after she and her husband separated.

Thuillier was jarred by the cost of renting her own unit.

“The prices were ridiculous. I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “I didn’t have time to look for a place, so my colleague offered her place.”

Housing shortage

The severe housing shortage on the Peninsula has affected young professionals in other sectors as well. Jeremy Hoffman, a software engineer who has worked at Google Inc. for seven years, explained that tech workers for companies such as Google and Palantir Technologies Inc., a data systems software company, regularly share single-family homes.

“What I see my younger friends still doing is sort of just piling into whatever housing is available,” Hoffman said.

He added that his wife, who also works for Google, used to live with five people in a three-bedroom home with an in-law unit.

Startup employee Elena Stamatakos saves on rent by living in a housing cooperative called Ithaka, located a few blocks from downtown Palo Alto. Stamatakos became head of logistics at Feeding Forward, a food conservation startup, after earning a master’s degree at Stanford University. She said she wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment in Palo Alto unless she were to share it with “at least five people.”

Occupying three separate structures, Ithaka’s 20 residents lower their expenses by purchasing food in bulk, splitting utility bills and leveraging diverse skill sets. When the co-op’s television stopped working, one resident was able to replace a broken part at a fraction of the cost of a new TV.

“Within Palo Alto, I don’t know of any people paying as cheap of rent as I do,” Stamatakos said.

She emphasized, however, that she most values the community within Ithaka: “We take care of each other.”

While finding a roommate offers one solution to quickly rising rents, increased development is another answer to the limited housing stock in Silicon Valley. A majority of city council members in Mountain View, for example, favor further development. In its November update, the city’s planning division listed nearly 1,300 new apartment units being constructed or slated for construction.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View, also supports increased home building and has encouraged local jurisdictions to take an inventory of public lands where they can construct more housing.

Eshoo, however, acknowledged that housing development is not a short-term solution.

“This isn’t an issue where you can take this cup,” Eshoo said lifting her Starbucks cup, “and put it in the microwave and, in 60 seconds or less, the coffee is heated and the water is boiling. It just doesn’t work that way.”

In the meantime, Eshoo worries that fewer public service employees will be able to live in the Silicon Valley communities they serve.

“If the only people that can live in our communities are wealthy people,” she said, “Then, you’re pushing out … police, fire(fighters), government workers, garbage collectors, nurses, teachers.”

This article originally was published by Peninsula Press, a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.

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