My family and I have been part of the East Palo Alto (EPA) community for 21 years and I have witnessed the change brought on by tech companies in EPA and neighboring cities. I remember being 13 years old when I was hearing Facebook employees coming to my school to make presentations about a new exciting headquarters we would be living next to. As a naive low-income student, it definitely felt amazing to hear that and to be later on allowed to have a tour of this headquarters, but as the years pass on you notice the effects that these economic developments have on your community that you love.
In 2012 when Facebook moved its headquarters into “East '' Menlo Park little did its mainly Latinx and African American community realize what threat it would mean to them and their neighboring cities. People in this community assumed that economic development that was occurring nearby would be a positive change for all, but they soon realized the opposite. Cities in the Bay Area like East Palo Alto, are suffering due to these tech companies because of a sudden burst of economic development. This has led to heavy gentrification and displacement as long-time residents cannot keep up in what is a historically low-income community that no one would invest in. In the last decades, large companies such as Facebook have taken advantage of low-income communities because of the cheap land in order to expand their headquarters. Tech companies who move into the area are not reaching out to the local community to address the needs that they have. Their expansion harms the local community by forced displacement.
EPA has been known for years as a city with a large low-income community filled with working-class residents. A city where crime rates were so high that no one would invest in it. For years, it had been ignored by top businesses in Silicon Valley and today that is now changing. From 2011-2017 the median monthly rate in EPA rose from $1,300 to $3,500 meanwhile if we look at Palo Alto it rose from $2,300 to $6,115 (News, 2019). It has been reported from some around EPA that their rent took drastic hits on being increased by $400 or higher per month. In 2015, it was found that the median earnings for residents in EPA were roughly about $33,500 meanwhile in Palo Alto the earnings being $119,000 or higher (News, 2019). These numbers directly demonstrates how financially there is a major economic strain between low-income and those who are wealthier.
Facebook continues to expand their new headquarters and is inspiring Google and Apple to follow the same path. As part of their incentives, Facebook offers an employee bonus of $10,000 for those who decide to move closer to the company. The “move is designed to make things easier for its employees” and by doing so, it has led to employees being more productive by cutting their commuting time (Boitnott, 2015). A $10,000 bonus can pay for almost 3 full months of rent, something that low-income families cannot afford since they mostly rely on their weekly paychecks. These tech companies come into low-income communities for the economic benefits of their company and employees, with little consideration of their impact on low-income families. Ever since Facebook moved its headquarters to Menlo Park, there has been an increase in Tech employees in the area resulting in displacement and tension from residents in both cities.
A Resident’s Life
Evita Flores and her husband were immigrants from El Salvador and now U.S. citizens who were able to purchase their home in EPA years before this new economic development had begun. Evita lives in a light blue house with a large front and back yard that has allowed her to have a hammock and a few dogs running around. Flowers and trees can be seen surrounding the house that gives sense of how life was for her and her husband in rural El Salvador. Evita likes to cook traditional Salvadoran foods on an open fire pit as a way to connect to her home country. In their EPA home, they have managed to recreate a little El Salvador in East Palo Alto.
I was able to sit down and interview Evita who has lived in EPA for 35 years. She is a direct witness of the displacement these economic developments are creating as she has seen all the changes throughout her life in East Palo Alto.. She first bought her house with her husband in 1989, “the price they were asking for at that time was $113,000 for a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom.” Now thinking of today’s market value, I asked Evita how much she thought her own house was worth in today’s economy and she commented that realtors have mentioned her home is now worth “$1 million if not $1.5 million since the property offers enough space to add more rooms to the house.” Her home has so many stories of her life that it is too valuable for her to simply just sell and move somewhere else.
Reflecting with her about EPA and how much it has changed, Evita became a little bittersweet. She recalls that EPA has changed a lot in the thirty-five years that she has lived in the area. Even though it was an extremely dangerous area, it was what Evita normalized and became familiar with in her daily life. The biggest factor of this rapid change is the tech company, Facebook. When Facebook moved in 2012 to “East” Menlo Park it slowly started to displace many of Evita’s loved ones and other residents. EPA has attempted to cover this up with the construction of “low-income housing,”that according to Evita, this “low-income housing” does not apply to the people living here, “they want teachers, nurses, police officers, but regular low-income people are not wanted, because we do not qualify.” What Evita means by “qualify” is that the income guidelines to apply are much higher than what an actual low-income person earns. Even though Evita is lucky to have her home, it hurts her to see her loved ones and others of the community have to suffer displacement and economic hardship since she cannot help them in their situations.
This leads into asking where Evita's loved ones and neighbors are heading towards if they are leaving Silicon Valley. According to her, many have moved to either Tracy, Modesto or Stockton because of the cheaper living spaces, since many of them “cannot afford to pay $3,000 for a small 2 bedroom apartment.” Renting out a garage can cost more than $1,500 in EPA and people are desperate to make sure their families are living comfortably. Evita also mentioned that many of her friends had faced discrimination when attempting to purchase a home because “realtors will specifically appeal more to another person who is not us (Latino/African American).” The situation continues to worsen to the point that some loved ones have resorted to living in RVs in cramped conditions, just so they can stay in the area and earn the same amount of money compared to somewhere else.
I asked Evita what she personally thought of Facebook, her response was one that I was getting from most residents living in EPA or “East” Menlo Park. She felt that Facebook, in particular, was not aware of the damage they are inflicting on communities that have been historically neglected, now also by so-called progressive companies like Facebook and Google. Evita felt that a possible solution to this problem was if Facebook and other tech companies got involved in these low-income communities and reached out to find out about their needs. What these companies can do is “help many people being affected by gentrification would be make low-income housing that is actually for people who qualify as low housing, not teachers, or police officers. For those of us with landscaping and house cleaning jobs what we make is not enough,” With the amount of money that these companies are generating it is enough to be able to create a solution where all people can remain and thrive in this area.
Is It Really Okay?
The $10,000 bonus Facebook has given is a direct link on how gentrification is being forced upon these communities. Month after month you will see moving trucks for people who are leaving the area and the 101 freeway filled with buses bringing in employees from all around the Bay Area to their jobs. Meanwhile regular low-income people commute longer or simply look for jobs that are not paying the same amount as they earned in the Bay Area. Facebook's slogan used to be ‘bring the world closer’, but not everyone feels like this applies to what they are doing. These low-income communities are being hurt from the rapid economic development that Facebook has started and it does not seem like it will stop anytime soon. Evita and her husband are few who have been able to capture and understand the harsh reality their loved ones and possibly themselves in the future may face. Once the ball starts rolling in Silicon Valley it is very hard to stop it. Evita is just one example of a direct witness who is able to tell their story of their community and the drastic changes that are occurring with rapid economic development.
- Boitnott, J. (2015, December 22). Why Facebook Is Offering Employees $10,000 to Live Near HQ. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from Entrepreneur.com
- News, B. C. (2019, September 11). East Palo Alto Continues To Struggle Amidst Tech Boom. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from Patch.com