A Love Story About California Housing–Part 1

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

No house on earth means more to me than my paternal grandparents’ small blue home near the bottom of a windswept hill in the Bay Area city of San Mateo.

I’ve visited the place thousands of times; I even lived there for a few months when I was 7. But this visit will be different.

While 420 Voelker Drive still belongs to my family, my grandparents have died and my uncle has moved in. He has a roommate, a generous woman who will greet me warmly and make dinner, but isn’t a relative. Before she and her son moved in with my uncle, they didn’t have a home.

This is a love story about California housing.

In this state, homes and the California dream have always been emotionally intertwined. Now the dream of owning a house is out of reach for many: Housing of all kinds has become too scarce and too expensive. As a member of the fourth generation of my California clan to make a home here, I worry about what this may mean for our future and for our families.

In 2011, I took on a big mortgage to buy a small, rundown 1905 house in the San Gabriel Valley. Keeping up the place has been a struggle, but it caused me to see something new about California housing: Our existing houses and apartments are very old.
The median age of a California dwelling is 46 years, while the national median age is 37. Our houses have faded and flipped, had their value destroyed by recession and natural disaster, and become rundown and been remodeled. Over time, many of our homes have come to feel less like benefits and more like burdens.

Sometimes, our houses break our hearts.

To get an intimate understanding of Californians’ changing relationship with our homes, I realized that I needed to see the houses themselves. So this fall, I returned to six different homes that have been owned by my extended family over the last century.

The two sides of my family represent different strands of the California Dream. My dad’s side migrated here early in the 20th century to seek fortunes and serve the military; over a century, that middle-class family has produced teachers, journalists, and other educated professionals. My mom’s even bigger clan of Dust Bowl Okies toiled in the orange packing houses and aerospace factories of Southern California, and now they are mostly truck drivers, caregivers, and office workers.

On this personal journey, I would often find myself asking: Do we still own our houses and the dreams they embody?

Or do they now own us?

Of the six houses I visited, the San Mateo home comes closest to embodying the California dream of the house that can see your family through to a better, richer life.

Tom and Frances Mathews bought the house new, in 1952, for $15,000. Today, the place is not much bigger—they added one small bathroom, a deck and a tiny den—but worth $2 million. And that’s not because of anything that my grandparents, a civilian Navy employee and a public schoolteacher, did. It’s because they had the dumb luck to buy a house in a region that would become the world capital of global technology, Silicon Valley.

They also put the home in a family trust, which allowed my father and my uncle to inherit it cheaply. Indeed, 420 Voelker –with two bedrooms, two baths, and 1,230 square feet—is by the most valuable thing that anyone in my family owns.

Of course, my grandparents’ lucky circumstance was based on another, more disquieting one. For 40 years, Californians have let houses rule our state. Since 1978, we’ve organized our governance around Prop 13, which limits taxation and centralizes government power, all in the name of keeping property taxes low so families aren’t forced out of their houses. But, Prop 13 has raised the costs of housing for newer homeowners like me, thus cutting into the amount of money we have to maintain our own houses.

With the house paid for and Prop 13 keeping taxes low (less than $1,700), 420 Voelker sat empty for the most of the last decade, as my grandmother spent her final days in a board-and-care home. My parents and I visited as much as possible, but it felt like a sin: an empty house in the Bay Area, where people were desperate for any housing at all.

The place also weathered, the old carpet frayed, the heating system sometimes didn’t work and the apple trees under which we once spread my grandfather’s ashes died, leaving the backyard barren. The path behind the house down to Laurel Creek had eroded so that my children couldn’t climb down and put toy boats in the water, as I did as a kid.

Fortunately, the house now has new life.

On my visit, I was warmly greeted by my Uncle Jim—my dad’s younger brother—and Gina Cooper, 45.

Gina and her son Dante used to live in her mother’s house in Belmont, just south of San Mateo on the peninsula. But after her mother died, Gina lost her residence. By 2012, she and Dante were homeless, moving through the booming area’s shelters for about a year.

“When you become homeless and you’re looking at your 12-year-old, that is the most horrible feeling—you’re responsible, and you’ve reduced his life to homelessness,” she says.

Eventually, Gina found work for a shelter she’d stayed in. She was coming to the end of her term in a non-profit’s temporary housing when she gave a talk about being homeless at my uncle’s church.

Gina and Dante needed housing. Jim required a walker and needed help getting around his condo. So they formed an arrangement called “house sharing,” in which a homeowner brings in a roommate who handles some house duties and receives a reduced rent.

In 2016, as my grandmother was dying, Jim retired from the local school district, where he ran computer labs, and decided to move out of his condo and back into my grandparents’ house at 420 Voelker. Jim asked Gina, Dante and their dog Kona to move with him.

Essentially, they all take care of each other.

Gina helps out with home expenses, at about $1,000 a month. Gina and Jim each have their own bedroom and Dante sleeps on the couch in the living room. Gina makes coffee each morning, changes Jim’s sheets when he’s at church on Sundays, and cooks dinner six nights a week. She’s improved his health. When I joined them for dinner, I was shocked to discover my hamburger-loving uncle eating kale.

Jim says, “I’ve been single all my life, and I never really had a female influence over how I was living. I wish I had figured out to do this 10 years ago.”

Meanwhile, the stability of home has allowed Gina to secure a job and begin a career with the city of San Mateo, while continuing her education. “Once I found Jim, I could take risks, and try a new job,” she says.

This spring Dante graduated from Hillsdale High—my father and uncle’s alma mater—and is now in a union apprenticeship program for mechanics. Gina and Jim say their daily conversations are crucial to their health; they are each other’s sounding boards.

Gina tells me she has saved money and put herself on a list for a city program that helps public employees buy below-market rate housing. The waiting list is about two years long.

Programs like this can be valuable, and they represent one common official solution to this state’s difficulties with housing people. But policy often moves too slow to respond to our housing realities.

When Gina and Jim met, she needed housing, and he needed a family—right away. They succeeded because they embraced each other, combining their dreams and their households in the same old home.

Gina and Jim’s spirit is what California needs now. A state built on fusion of peoples and cultures and technologies must apply its powers of mixing and creation to its old housing stock.

This will require a new California dream of housing renewal—and a social transformation. Our laws, finances, and customs, make it so hard to transform our homes that too many of us become prisoners in them.

If California housing and dreams are to remain intertwined, then we need to rethink the very idea of home, with the goal of ensuring that our changing dreams and our shifting needs, not our aging houses, come first.

I thank Gina for dinner and take one last look around. Memories flood back—of painting the side fence with my brother, of long talks with my grandmother, of squeezing my grandfather’s old Cadillac into the tiny garage.

The house is much cleaner than when my grandmother, who never cared for housework, was alive. But it’s 66 years old, and I notice the broken garage door, a window that needs fixing, and a half-dozen other small repairs to be done.

As I leave, I feel the most exquisite California heartbreak: to look at a house you love and to know it will never love you back.

 

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