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Opinion: Renters need a broad coalition to unite

A bicyclist rides past the Park Plaza apartments at 195 Page Mill Road, a mixed-use development that features 82 apartments above office space.

I am a renter, along with 46% of other Palo Altans. With the city's population nearing 50% resident renters, I am far from alone.

A single mom, I am raising my school-age children as fourth-generation Palo Altans. We relocated here in 2014, when there was a less than 1% vacancy in the city's rental market. We came from the poorest county in northern California and landed in the richest.

Liz Gardner. Courtesy photo.

For two years after relocating here, I was pinching myself in happiness. My kids were part of Palo Alto history: Their Quaker great-grandmother, a German immigrant, voluntarily found relocation housing and jobs for Japanese Americans and German Jews after World War II.

I initially thought that small children never got upset or threw sand at our wonderful city playgrounds. I had "arrived" and my kids too would be healthy here.

Fast forward to the pandemic, inflation, soaring fuel prices. It's all been downhill. My kids are very worried. Will we have housing tomorrow? No one thrives when a community dies from a loss of support for real solutions.

Our new normal not only deserves but demands collaborative solutions, and I am proposing an informational, navigational fair/workshop/seminar for Palo Alto renters. This event is needed to help, assist and elevate what is being done for the rental community to thrive.

It's been done already, on a small scale. Avenidas had a senior citizen workshop on how to get on a housing waitlist a few months back. But it filled up too quickly and interested late-comers were waitlisted. Ironic, eh?

Over my professional career, I have worked for many tiny and mid-sized nonprofits for the good of people, all for pennies on the hour. I believe that nonprofits, together with county and city governments, for-profit organizations, affordable-housing agencies and developers, need to actively educate, invite, inform rental residents and others on what is available now, what will be in the future and how to become part of the solution.

What are local cities, counties and the state doing to ensure the maintenance, safety and development of quality, inclusive, equitable housing opportunities that are right-sized to meet the moment and within reach of our city's borders?

We have to work as one for the purpose of everyone for a safe, quality, equitable, livable, thriving community. The public must see that this is a collective voice of the good. I would invite the following to collaborate on this rental fair: From the city of Palo Alto, the Human Relations Commission, staff from the development and planning departments and the Parks and Recreation Commission. Governmental units like Santa Clara County's Housing Authority (which owns the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park) and Palo Alto Unified School District.

Nonprofits including Palo Alto Community Child Care, Project Sentinel, Avenidas, Life Moves, Opportunity Center, Alta Housing, Charities Housing, Bridge Housing, MidPen Housing, SV@Home, Palo Alto Forward and the affiliated Palo Alto Renters' Association. Developers and developments like The Sobrato Organization, Greystar, Stanford University and Mayfield Place. Transportation groups like Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, Caltrain, Safe Routes to School and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

Every one of the above groups lists housing as a No. 1 priority and yet streamlined resources are few and far between. The longer all of the above work separately, their results are just "one offs" and confusing for us in the 46%. Maybe these agencies are competing against one another for contracts or Cares Act dollars?

'Our new normal not only deserves but demands collaborative solutions, and I am proposing an informational, navigational fair/workshop/seminar for Palo Alto renters.'

-Liz Gardner, housing advocate

Why a collaborative fair? As I keep reiterating: The maze of organizations' websites, drop-down menus and apps all lead down rabbit holes and only give access to a limited number of "educated" people as opposed to those who are seriously in need and the most vulnerable, stressed and desperate including the elderly, children, the unhoused, the differently abled. It takes a group of like-minded individuals and entities to get things done. A coalition of good.

Surely any of the very smart board members of the city, Palo Alto Renters' Association, Palo Alto Forward, Life Moves, Stanford, PAUSD, etc., could apply for grant funding to budget and plan such a great event for the 46% of us who rent. Did not Coach Steve Kerr who has led the Golden State Warriors to four NBA championship titles say in 2014 that winning is about "strength in numbers"?

Yet I truly worry. Are these board members really representative of renters? Or are they all single-family-home owners, beyond understanding the real cost of scraping by in a wealthy community? Many who serve on the various city/county boards, commissions are also crossbreeding other agencies, with the same individuals serving on multiple boards. These are very powerful invested persons and groups who are steering the wheels of progress. Or are they?

It often feels like a hole has been ripped into the hull of a ship in which we 46% are trapped below deck. But it doesn't have to be that way, and we can start by setting a goal of organizing a collaborative informational rental housing fair/workshop.

Let's get started, and let's invite everyone. I am all in. Are you?

Liz Gardner is a former commissioner for the Santa Clara County Housing Authority and a housing advocate. She can be emailed at

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