Elsa Stevens and her husband, David, at Heritage Park at Hilltop, an affordable housing development, in Richmond, Calif., on April 26. A special report shows how the housing crisis is likely to be especially dire for aging Californians.

Audrey Jenkins’ apartment isn’t fancy or large. Although she’s had mold and leaks, her place is tidy and packed with almost two decades’ worth of mementos from a full life.

On a recent visit to her home in the East Bay community of Richmond, California, she was proud to show off her latest project: a huge family quilt, one person per square, tracing her lineage back to 1841. Also close at hand was a poster board-sized “Thank you” card from the preschoolers she taught at the nearby YMCA until she retired two years ago.

At 82, Jenkins said having to move all that would be devastating. She doesn’t know where she would go.

But that’s a problem she and other tenants of Heritage Park at Hilltop, a complex for low-income seniors, could face if rents continue to rise.

“I’ve never had to think about living on the street,” she said. “And, believe me, that’s in the back of my mind.”

Unlike many in the Bay Area, Heritage Park residents are not being displaced from longtime homes to make way for a high-rise or a tech startup’s open-plan headquarters, and suburban Richmond is still a far cry from the Mission District in San Francisco.

Instead, experts say the situation at the complex illustrates a troubling gap in efforts to get a handle on the state’s consuming housing crisis: The fixed incomes of many senior tenants aren’t keeping up with even smaller, incremental rent increases.

As a result, they would likely fall outside the provisions of one of the highest-profile tenant-protection proposals that legislators have considered this year, Assembly Bill 1482.

Heritage Park residents said they first became alarmed about a year ago when they received notices that their rents would increase by as much as 12%.

Tenants started meeting with one another about heading off the change and got help from organizers with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

After some work with Richmond city officials, the rent increase was reduced to closer to 3%. Residents — who must be at least 55 to live in the 192-unit complex — told me they were left feeling on edge, so they poured their energy into activism.

They took bus trips to Sacramento, where they camped out in lawmakers’ offices and carried handmade signs advocating a suite of bills, including AB 1482, aimed at protecting tenants like themselves.

Then, late last month, residents were sent notice that their rents would increase again, on Aug. 1, by an average of almost 5%.

For Jenkins, who has a two-bedroom, that translates to $1,465 in rent, up from $1,396, which itself was a difficult jump to make in 2018, from $1,351. Her income is about $2,800 per month — an annuity from a government job she worked for 30 years.

Geoff Brown is the president and chief executive of USA Properties Fund, the Roseville-based company that owns and manages Heritage Park. He said the company’s hands were tied. Maintenance and insurance are getting more expensive, he said, as are regulatory costs associated with building new housing.

That, he said, is where legislators need to focus: encouraging the building of supply.

He emphasized the rent increases at Heritage Park were within legal bounds, both according to the city of Richmond and according to rent limits for government-subsidized affordable housing. Those limits are tied to a regional area median income determined by the federal government.

Officials at Richmond Rent Program said Heritage Park rent increases were technically in compliance, since the development is not subject to local rent controls.

But Paige Roosa, the program’s deputy director, said there’s a broader disconnect between what the Department of Housing and Urban Development deems affordable for Richmond’s low-income renters and what they can actually pay.

“The way their formula works is not really taking into consideration the local situation,” she said, noting that Richmond’s incomes are lumped in with those of Walnut Creek, a wealthy East Bay bedroom community, and Oakland, which is grappling with its own wave of tech-fueled gentrification.

Case in point: The median family income in the Oakland-Fremont metro area that HUD is using this year is $111,700. That includes Richmond. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Richmond is $61,045.

That’s near the core of a looming problem for communities across the state, said Nari Rhee, the director of the retirement security research program at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

Just because high rents are legally defensible and are supported by the market doesn’t mean they are sustainable for a fast-growing and increasingly vulnerable senior population, she said.

Research she has worked on has shown more Californians, especially women and people of color, are retiring with fewer resources. And there’s almost no way that the state will be able to build enough below-market rate homes for them.

“We always talk about the housing crisis, but it’s going to be really dire for seniors,” Rhee said.

According to a 2015 report Rhee edited, well more than half of Bay Area seniors 65 and older who were renters did not have enough income to meet their basic needs. Those numbers were projected to get worse.

Assemblyman David Chiu, the author of AB 1482, said he knew the bill was not a complete fix.

The proposal aimed to bar rent hikes of more than 7% plus inflation or 10% — whichever is lower — and was recently amended to require landlords to show “just cause” for evictions.

But the law would sunset after three years, and that 7%-plus-inflation figure represents a compromise that at least one group described as watered down to the point of being counterproductive. And lobbying groups for landlords have opposed it, saying extra regulation could discourage crucial new development.

Still, Chiu said the shelving of Senate Bill 50, the controversial proposal to boost housing supply, has made tenant protections even more urgent.

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