North Fair Oaks renters facing eviction as developer plans building upgrade

 

Norma Corvera moved to Buckingham Apartments in North Fair Oaks in March after being evicted from another apartment nearby. Now, she might have to move again.

Trion Properties, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm, spent $15 million to buy Buckingham Apartments in July. The building has 48 units, about 250 people and is predominantly lower-income Latino. Trion Properties plans to remodel the building to attract higher-paid tech workers, with its marketing materials highlighting the building’s close proximity to Facebook, Google, Oracle and other nearby tech companies.

Trion has sent out at least 12 eviction notices to residents of Buckingham Apartments since September, according to Daniel Saver, a lawyer representing some of the families. So far, nine families have moved out without relocation compensation.

North Fair Oaks doesn’t have tenants’ protection law and rent control, and landlords are not required to provide any relocation assistance to tenants, even when they evict the tenants for no reason, according to District 4 San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum, who represents North Fair Oaks. In Buckingham’s case, Trion started with evicting tenants whose leases are expiring.

This ongoing eviction and Corvera’s plight reflect the gentrification that is hitting lower-income neighborhoods in the Bay Area, including North Fair Oaks. North Fair Oaks is an unincorporated residential area of San Mateo County, between Atherton and Redwood City, with a large Latino population and is known locally as “Little Mexico.”

“A lot of people are in popular imaginations that North Fair Oaks is a lower-income, working-class community of color, and they are not facing the same housing pressure that everyone else is,” said Saver, staff attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. “This case demonstrates that to be very incorrect. North Fair Oaks is experiencing extreme pressures, and the neighborhood is already undergoing a process of gentrification rapidly.”

Saver is representing eight families in talks with Trion Properties, which he hopes will lead to compensation and more time for relocation.

Christina Heltsley, who works at the nonprofit Saint Francis Center across from Buckingham Apartments, said she had witnessed people moving over and over again due to increased rents, and many of them have no place else to go.

“People who can pay a little bit more came in, and then they have to move, and then another group has to move,” Heltsley said.

Now, before raising rent again, Trion Properties is evicting tenants with expiring leases. The eviction notices just said, “your lease is terminated,” without explaining why, according to Diana Reddy, member of the Tenants’ Coalition of Buckingham Apartments. Reddy said she expects every family to be evicted when their lease expires.

That is exactly what Corvera and her 9-year-old son Edwar are afraid of happening to them. Edwar just changed his school by moving into Buckingham Apartments. “I really like the school and new friends I made here, and I don’t want to leave again,” Edwar said. Corvera’s family have not received an eviction notice yet, but she is concerned she will eventually get one because every apartment needs to be renovated.

According to a Trion pamphlet, average rents for a one-bedroom in Buckingham are currently $1,670. Post-renovation, the company plans to raise that by around 40 percent. Trion plans to complete renovations by the end of next year.

“We can’t control it, it’s up to Trion, there are legal limits of what we can and can’t do,” Slocum said. Slocum offered to buy the property from Trion using a San Mateo County $10-million affordable housing preservation fund, money that the county can tap to buy affordable apartment complexes that show up in the market.

But Trion declined to consider Slocum’s offer, he said. Trion’s director of acquisition Farhan Mahmood declined to comment on issues related to Buckingham Apartments when reached by phone. Other executives and employees of Trion didn’t respond to multiple e-mail and telephone requests for an interview.

Saint Francis Center, which has been located across from the Buckingham Apartments for 30 years, works with low-income families. When they opened a kindergarten last year, 15 families enrolled. Since then, five who lived at Buckingham Apartments have moved away. “They moved too far away to come back,” Heltsley said.

“I have no problem with people making money, this is America. But I have a lot of problems with people making money on the backs of the poor,” Heltsley said. “The Peninsula needs the services of these good, hard-working people. If you look along the Peninsula you’ll see now hiring everywhere for nanny, housekeeper, Taco Bell workers … but our families can’t work those jobs because they live so far away, otherwise they need to pay 80 percent of their income to live here.”

About 300 local residents joined a march on Oct. 21 near the Buckingham Apartments to protest forced evictions of the building.

“Only smart people who know how to negotiate get compensation, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Tom Linebarger, a retiree who took part in the demonstration. “The problem is that we need everybody here. We need nurses, teachers, we need our police, firemen, we need them to live here. If we have an emergency, we can’t have people drive from outside of the area to serve the area.”

Saver said rent stabilization, just cause for eviction and relocation assistance are the “only solution that is going to have a meaningful impact on the families who are currently the most vulnerable to displacement pressures.”

He said he sees these policies have worked in places like East Palo Alto, where there is rent control. “You don’t see buildings full of people being evicted in East Palo Alto, because that’s illegal,” Saver said.