Every Sunday my eight-year-old daughter asks, “Is today a Navigators Day?” She loves church and Children’s Religious Education, but the best Sundays of all are the weeks she puts on her green kerchief and goes to Navigators. She wouldn’t have those if it weren’t for Nathan Harris.
Nathan started coming to our church three years ago when he and his then-seven-year-old daughter, Sage, were new to the area and looking for a community they could call home. They found it at our church, and what they didn’t find ready-made, Nathan helped create. He started a unicycle club, and we soon saw UU Unicyclists all over the parking lots and paths of the church. He learned about Navigators USA, a bias-free, co-ed scouting program, and asked our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, how to go about starting a chapter. It wasn’t long before Chapter 42 was born, and my daughter and a dozen other kids were camping on the church grounds, hiking, learning how to split wood and build a fire, geocaching, cooking, sending up rockets, you name it.
Now Nathan is about to leave the area. He doesn’t want to; he likes his job as a school psychologist in East Palo Alto, the church community, the friends he and his daughter have made. But the rent on their tiny apartment–he calls it “the hotel room”–is rising by 10%, and he can’t find anything else.
When he moves away, someone else will have to co-lead Our Whole Lives (OWL), our sexuality education program for middle schoolers in and beyond our congregation—or maybe we won’t be able to find a replacement. Someone else will have to lead the five-mile hike, if they can keep up with an energetic bunch of 7-10-year-olds. Sage’s friend who looks so much like her that we call them doppelgangers will have to say goodbye to his twin.
This has happened in our church more times than I can count. Someone who is a small-group leader, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a singer in the choir, a Board member, reluctantly pulls up roots and moves to somewhere with affordable housing. It happens to property owners, though more often to renters; it happens to professionals like Nathan, though more often to those with lower-paying or part-time jobs. They want to stay, and we want them to, but they can’t. Our public policies are forcing them to leave, hitting our community with loss upon loss.
In our church, our big annual fundraiser is an auction of goods, services, and hosted events. An auction makes a great fundraiser. It makes a terrible system for delivering the necessities of life.
Yet that is how we sell and rent housing: to the highest bidder. And the highest bidders around here have such deep pockets that those who manage to offer what the seller is asking have little chance of winning the bid. Think of all the times you’ve heard of a would-be buyer offering considerably more than was asked, yet losing out to someone who could pay cash. And renters: when has your rent gone down, or even simply kept pace with inflation? In the past year, Bay Area average rents have risen over 14%. Those of us who didn’t get a 14% pay raise, such as Nathan: where are they supposed to live?
The answer we’ve given is clear: they’re supposed to go away.
And when they’ve gone, who will be the psychologists in our schools? Who will be the teachers, the police officers, the store managers, much less the gardeners, the cooks, the janitors? Who will create our scouting programs or volunteer in our schools?
With our housing-only-for-the-highest-bidder system, we have made our community increasingly hostile to anyone in the mere 99%. That is not sustainable for our families, our earth (many people burn fossil fuels for 20 or more hours every week driving to work here from their affordable homes in the Central Valley), or the quality of life of our communities.
These market forces aren’t all to the bad, and in many times and places, they have served most people. They aren’t serving us. They are ripping us apart. We need cities to stabilize rents and preserve enough housing that’s affordable to the people who make our communities run—who are our communities.
My daughter was hoping Nathan would teach her to ride a unicycle. She’s got a few more weeks to learn. Then he and Sage are off to Sacramento. I wish them luck. And I wish us luck too. But we’ll have to make our own luck, by summoning the political will to make some changes, now, before the next Nathan and Sage are driven out of our lives.
Note: I wrote this in May, 2015, and submitted it as an op-ed piece to various newspapers in our housing-strapped region. I’m sure many other local communities, from workplace teams to PTAs to altar guilds, experience similar losses and stresses as their members are forced to be transient, but alas, none of the papers chose to run it. So here it is, a bit past the time. Nathan and Sage are now settled in to their new lives in a home they can afford and that has a lot more space; our loss, Sacramento’s gain. Someone else will have to teach Munchkin to ride a unicycle, if they know how.