Behind the RVs lining El Camino: Palo Alto’s affordable housing crisis

Nov. 14, 2017, 12:57 a.m.

Galvez Street crosses El Camino Real a couple hundred yards past the edge of the football stadium. Walking through dirt overflow lots to the game, it’s easy for fans to think the line of RV’s stretching along the intersection is just another tailgate. The chocked wheels and deflated tires aren’t easily visible from the edge of campus, and it is difficult to imagine a trailer park cutting along Stanford’s border.

Silicon Valley is known for bountiful wealth and cutting edge technology, but even billionaires need people to clean the toilets and wash the dishes, and these people need places to live.

“The costs keep going up, and that’s a challenge,” said Pamela Law, property manager of the Palo Alto Opportunities Center, a shelter that serves the Santa Clara homeless population and those who are at serious risk of becoming homeless.

Average Palo Alto home prices climbed from $1,315,000 to $2,279,000 from 2010 to 2015, according to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) submitted by Stanford University as part of its General Use Permit.

Households earning more than $150,000 a year have “greatly increased their share of the total number of households in the region,” the EIR states.

Such gentrification has increased prices to disproportionately hurt low-income workers. The EIR notes that between 1990 and 2015 the number of Bay Area households increased by 20 percent, but the number of residences earning between $35,000 and $149,999 has remained stagnant.

Escalating costs have driven many workers from the Bay Area, contributing to hours-long commutes. Not everyone can tolerate the commutes, and the last resort for some is parking an RV along El Camino Real.

Many residents of the RVs were reluctant to be interviewed and more wary still of providing their names.

One RV resident, a government supervisor who works in Palo Alto, spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job and housing as a result of talking to a reporter. He said he moved into the RV from an apartment in Stockton after his five-hour daily commute became unbearable.

Apartments in Palo Alto start at around $3,200 a month, he said, and with student loan debt from an associate’s degree in nutrition, such high rents weren’t feasible for him.

Like many living in the RV’s, the government supervisor is gainfully employed. Even those who hold down two jobs can still have difficulty affording Palo Alto rents.

“Tech companies need to stop and realize it’s not only top executives but also secretaries who work, and they can’t afford to live here,” the supervisor said.

He mentioned a family with two working parents holding down four jobs between both of them, who couldn’t afford an apartment. One of the jobs was at Google.

One the other side of El Camino Real, the Opportunity Center is offering a model to help fix the housing shortage.

“[The center] is built on the housing first model,” property manager Law said. “When people have a safe place to live, they can thrive and move forward with their life goals.”

Those goals are rarely achieved overnight, and leases on the Center’s apartments start at one year. Residents are welcome to stay for as long as needed, and some have lived there since the Center opened in 2006. Residents are able to afford to live in the center because rent is subsidized by state and local grants and is largely based on the renters’ income.

In Palo Alto, regular housing prices can be out of range even for those with full-time jobs.

“There are some people who are working regularly and have good jobs, but it’s hard for all of us to pay rent around here,” Law said.

She guessed that some of the center’s residents would be in regular housing if rents hadn’t spiked in the last 20 years.

“It’s clear to me having lived here myself for more than 40 years that [tech] has changed the demographic,” Law said. “It has changed the economy, so even regular people with a good job hard find it hard to live here.”

There are 90 people on the waitlist to live in the Center’s 88 apartments.

Stanford has combatted high rents through a series of construction projects aimed at providing students and faculty with affordable housing. These include the 2,000-unit expansion of Escondido Village, which starting next fall will allow Stanford to provide housing for 75 percent of its graduate population. University Terrace, Mayfield Place and the Colonnade all offer below-market rates to Stanford faculty and staff. Menlo Park recently approved Stanford’s request to add 215 apartments to the Middle Plaza complex, an apartment complex for Stanford faculty and staff.

“We know that housing availability and affordability is a major concern for our community, and we intend to continue making progress on it,” Jean McCown, assistant vice president and director of community relations, wrote in an email to The Daily.

She noted that the RV park is on El Camino Real, a highway, and falls under Caltrans’ responsibility.

The University also sponsors commute programs for workers, providing Caltrain passes, VTA tickets and free carpool parking. The construction projects and transportation subsidization are all methods to ameliorate the ever-increasing costs of housing.

The EIR also notes that the working population of Palo Alto is three times its residential population. Such a large discrepancy forces many workers into long commutes or into the trailers along El Camino Real.

“It’s certainly a big challenge, but I know lots of people who are working very hard to fix it,” said Law.

The county of Santa Clara subsidizes 55 of the Opportunities Center’s apartments and has expressed interest in building more shelters with the housing first model.

For now though, the permanent tailgate along El Camino Real doesn’t show any signs of going away.

“[The housing situation is] getting worse and worse,” the government supervisor said.


Contact Nicholas Midler at [email protected].


An earlier version of this article stated that the RV park falls under Caltrain’s responsibility rather than Caltrans’. The Daily regrets this editing error. 

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