Sacrificing for Success: Survival strategies

How low-income Pleasanton school parents make ends meet

There's a cost that comes with living in a town with more yoga studios than food pantries.

Pleasanton is mostly home to affluent, well-off or comfortably middle-class families, but a small contingent of the population is parents who live below the poverty line and struggle to stay in town so they can send their children to the high-achieving Pleasanton public school district.

Those that do so spend the majority of their income on rent in order to keep their kids in the district and in a city that is among the safer municipalities of the Bay Area -- Pleasanton has only had two homicides since 2012.

But that peace of mind comes at a price when traditional services such as food pantries, rent-controlled housing and low-income medical care are in short supply due to a perceived lack of demand and a real lack of funding.

"They're kind of hidden in the wealth that's around here. When you think of Pleasanton and this area, you wouldn't think that a clinic like ours would be bursting at the seams," said Dr. Divya Raj, a chief medical officer at Axis Community Health in downtown Pleasanton, which provides low-cost medical services. "But we do have a lot of patients."

"Right now, I basically spend all I have in my retirement to be able to keep them in an apartment with two bedrooms so they can have their own bedroom," said Miguel Ornelas, a Pleasanton Unified School District parent who scrapes together his family's meager income to afford their apartment. "If you have family, you want to do what's best for them."

Pleasanton Unified parent liaison Rosa Torre said the district has been slowly losing some of their low-income families as parents are priced out of their homes. Ultimately, she said, their children are the ones who suffer.

"They go to Modesto; they go to Tracy. The lucky ones, they go to Livermore where they can afford rent," she said. "There's not the same support that we have here."

The Tri-Valley has other resources, such as hot meals, food pantries and legal services, but they are typically only provided by one or two organizations.

Most services of this nature are available in Hayward, San Leandro and Oakland, but Pleasanton has only one large hot-meal service organization, and the closest food bank is in Livermore.

Open Heart Kitchen provides hot meals across the city, and Tri-Valley Haven offers food at its food pantry in Livermore, plus two mobile food pantries on the first Wednesday of the month in Pleasanton.

Tri-Valley Haven has seen a decrease in families coming to its food pantry in recent years. Over the organization's 2012-13 fiscal year, 1,838 families came to the pantry, while 1,457 used those services in fiscal year 2014-15, according to Tri-Valley Haven.

Spojmie Nasiri, a Pleasanton immigration lawyer who provides discounted services, said it can be difficult for her clients to travel to Oakland or other communities for services -- some rely on buses for transportation, and some have to ration gas to get to work.

"I'm always shocked that so many people come in from Pleasanton and Livermore," she said. "There's no relief for them."

A place to call home

Stephanie Kelly, a case manager at Axis Community Health, said she often points low-income Pleasanton residents toward below-market rate apartments. But when it comes to getting into those apartments, the need far outweighs the available options.

"It's absolutely horrendous. There's nothing here. There are a few websites I use to search for housing, but honestly the closest we're looking at is Tracy or Modesto," she said. "Either the waiting lists for that are closed or if they're open, they're like two or three years long. There's just so many people."

And for Pleasanton Unified parents who are banking on keeping their Pleasanton address so their kids can attend high-achieving public schools, that means they're often left paying market rate.

Many families rent out spare bedrooms to strangers, and these parents -- some of whom can't find full-time jobs because they are undereducated or undocumented -- cobble together several part-time jobs in housekeeping, food service, landscaping or construction to make ends meet.

"The need for affordable units is obviously great throughout the Tri-Valley and the Bay Area in general. I think the demand and the need is greater than any city in the Bay Area is able to provide. I get calls and walk-ins every day looking for affordable housing resources," city housing specialist Fran Reisner said.

Per state requirements, Pleasanton has to maintain the zoning for properties from now until 2022 to allow for the construction of at least 2,067 total below-market rate units citywide. There are no state requirements that mandate how many below-market units are to be built each year, city associate planner Jennifer Hagen said.

The city currently has about 1,020 of those units, plus about 420 that are being built. Reisner said the city requires any new developments to include affordable housing units or face a fee, which is used by the city for affordable housing projects.

Out of the city's roughly two-dozen apartment complexes, five offer below-market rate housing that isn't specifically for elderly, disabled or special-needs individuals.

Among those five complexes, 305 apartments are rented at below market rate.

An additional 565 units are spread out across the city for below-market rate apartments for seniors, and a few organizations such as REACH offer 22 units for special-needs and disabled adults. In addition, 10 developments offer 131 homes that can be bought for lower than market rate with first-time buyer programs with a mortgage based upon monthly income.

About 10 apartment complexes accept Section 8 vouchers, which are federal rental subsidies, but the demand for those vouchers is so high that they are often quickly depleted, and the available apartments fill up fast.

Kelly said she had a case where one woman waited seven years to get a Section 8 voucher to use in Livermore. She said 45,000 people applied for a recent countywide Section 8 lottery for 5,000 vouchers.

A regular, market rate one-bedroom apartment rents for roughly $1,770 to $2,050 a month in Pleasanton, while a below-market-rate one-bedroom unit may rent for $1,100 to $1,440 monthly. Rental prices for low-income units are ultimately based upon the applicant's average monthly income.

Civic Square Apartments on Bernal Avenue doesn't keep a wait list, opting for a "first come, first served" approach when a below-market-rate unit is available.

Other complexes do keep wait lists which are filled with hundreds of families. Kensington Apartments in southwest Pleasanton has a waitlist of about 100 people for each type of apartment (one-, two- and three-bedroom) and Park Hacienda on Owens Drive has between 200 and 300 people on its wait list, office managers at the apartment complexes said.

At Anton Hacienda, a new apartment complex on West Las Positas Boulevard which opened in July, more than 400 people put their names in a lottery for 35 below-market rate units, according to property manager Michelle Bensusen.

"I've applied, but I've been on the list for a couple of years," said Ornelas, who pays $2,300 a month for a two-bedroom apartment while he waits for a spot in The Promenade apartment complex to open up. "By law, they're supposed to have a certain amount of apartments, but it's just not enough."

Access to health

In her small clinic exam room, Raj hears the sort of stories that will keep a person up a night.

Her patients at Axis Community Health on Railroad Avenue in downtown Pleasanton have lost family members to violence, some have escaped countries enveloped in war and a few were once CEOs but lost everything and live out of their cars.

Some are mothers and fathers like Gabina Sanchez, a Pleasanton Unified mother who sees an Axis doctor because she can't afford anything else. Almost all of the income that comes from her part-time jobs goes toward rent and groceries.

"The stories you hear on a regular basis from a lot of our patients is that of struggle. They're just trying to keep their head up on a daily basis and keep food on the table and a place to stay through the night," Raj said. "We have a high demand of patients, and we don't have enough space, which results in not everyone being able to be seen as quickly. ... A lot of them have not seen a doctor in years."

Liz Perez-Howe, chief of clinic services at Axis, said situations at home often affect patients' health. The clinic offers caseworkers who help guide patients through the maze of applications for housing, food stamps and other services.

"That's just the reality of who we serve. In order to get them on a path of complete wholeness, we can't ignore these factors. They can't regulate their diabetes if they have no food at home," she said.

Sacrificing for school

When it comes to school -- the very reason some Pleasanton Unified parents work long hours and save every penny -- being poor can set some students back.

Students who don't have a natural talent for certain subjects can't afford after-school tutoring, and some families don't have computers at home for online research.

Erica, an undocumented resident who asked her last name not be used, said her children usually do well in school, but it's tough when one is struggling. She knows homework help is crucial, but she also has to work many nights. And besides, she didn't get a full education as a child in Mexico, so calculus and French conjugations are too much to ask of her.

Statistically, low-income students don't score as well or graduate as often as students from economically stable households. In 2014, the district's overall graduation rate was 95.7%, while the graduation rate for socio-economically disadvantaged students was 77%, according to district data.

When it comes to getting ready for college, only 31.8% of the district's socio-economically disadvantaged students had completed the courses necessary to get into Cal State or UC schools, according to 2014 district data, while the overall district statistic was 65.6%.

Pleasanton Unified keeps a staff of caseworkers, who are called parent liaisons, who work with individual families to make sure they're getting the resources they need.

Torre said the district runs several programs -- some aimed at behavior intervention, some focused on homework support -- to help low-income parents fill the gap in students' education that would otherwise be filled by private tutoring or counseling.

Parents like Sanchez say the kindness and empathy shown by individual teachers are what keep them going on the hard days. When her 11-year-old son struggled with math, a few of his current and former teachers took time to help him.

"He doesn't want to go to any other school," Sanchez said.

Torre said while many of the children she works with have known no other home but Pleasanton, a few were born in Mexico and moved here as young children.

She said she remembers a 10-year-old telling her how grateful he was to be in the city. "He said, 'I can study. I can live in peace. I can feel safe.'"

"He was a good student. He was excited," she said, remembering the spark in that boy's eyes. "When you see that light, you don't know what is going to happen, but that possibility is amazing."

"There are some people who say it (poverty) doesn't exist here, but it does," she said. "It's here. It's next door, and they need us."

Editor's note: This story is the second in a three-part series, "Sacrificing for Success," about low-income residents in Pleasanton who sacrifice to keep their children in the Pleasanton Unified School District.

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8 people like this
Posted by Becky
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Feb 16, 2016 at 8:36 pm

Valley Bible Church has a food pantry in Pleasanton as well. It's open every Thursday night and located on Johnson Drive near Clubsport. It's open to the community. You do not have to attend the church.

23 people like this
Posted by Juan Valdez
a resident of Amador Estates
on Feb 18, 2016 at 6:13 am

So, illegal aliens are scamming the Pleasanton public school system at the expense of Pleasanton tax payers and that is somehow a good thing?

11 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Oak Hill
on Feb 18, 2016 at 8:07 am

This series of articles is subtitled "How low-income Pleasanton school parents make ends meet", but it is really about how low-income illegal immigrant parents make ends meet. There is not one mention about low-income white, black, or Asian parents in either of the two articles thus far. Why? Is it the reporter's contention that the only low-income parents in Pleasanton are all illegal immigrants (or to use her politically correct term, "undocumented")? Or has the reporter simply overlooked the fact that there are low-income families of other ethnic groups?

8 people like this
Posted by Meredith Bauer
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2016 at 8:29 am

@Sam -- Reporter here to address your question. In my first part of the series, I go more into depth how school officials stated the majority of the PUSD low-income community is Hispanic. They told me a few (maybe five to 10 families out of hundreds) are Asian, African-American or white, but the vast majority are Hispanic, which is why I focused on them. However, not all (and not even most) are undocumented. Many are citizens or have visas or green cards. One of the three parents I focused on is undocumented, though, which is where this confusion may be coming from.

Hope that clears things up!

9 people like this
Posted by Map
a resident of Del Prado
on Feb 18, 2016 at 9:12 am

Undocumented is still ILLEGAL, quit trying to sugar coat it!! Come in through the front door and we might show a little more compassion, I'm wondering if other towns like Danville and Alamo are building and providing cheap housing and other freebies, plenty of good schools there too!

12 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Oak Hill
on Feb 18, 2016 at 9:32 am

@Meredith Bauer

Thank you for the information. Here's where I'm coming from: In your articles you seem to be using low-income Hispanic families as examples of the fact that "Statistically, low-income students don't score as well or graduate as often as students from economically stable households." without acknowledging the fact that this statistic casts a very wide net and that children of low-income Hispanic families have unique problems of their own concerning education. You are of course aware of the fact that the children of many low-income immigrant families from parts of Asia and Eastern Europe often excel at academics and go on to attend top-tier colleges and universities. (I am personally aware of many such cases.) So by focusing on the plight of low-income Hispanic parents in regards to the education of their children (whether or not focusing on Hispanic parents was your original intent when you first decided to write about low-income parents), and attributing their educational woes all to their low income status and making no mention at all of other factors, I think that this series of articles doesn't give a full and accurate picture of what the problem is.

Bottom Line: (1) If you want to write about the plight of low-income families in Pleasanton in regards to education, then the series needs to cover the common problems endured by families of all ethnic groups due to their low-income status. (2) If you want to write specifically about the plight of low-income Hispanic families in regards to education, then that is quite a different topic and involves much more than just their low-income status. It sounds like you started off intending to write about (1) and then were diverted to writing about (2) but then never expanded the scope of the article beyond the focus on low income.

17 people like this
Posted by Wilma
a resident of Ironwood
on Feb 19, 2016 at 9:56 am

I am more concerned that government funds are diverted from providing assistance to senior citizens in need who have lived here their entire lives and paid into SSI. Something really wrong about preference for undocumented families over people who are aging US citizens and need help with health care and housing.

4 people like this
Posted by Laurie
a resident of Downtown
on Feb 19, 2016 at 4:56 pm

I think its a tragedy that you are all missing the context of the article!

There is not enough low cost housing for people (no matter what color/race/religion, etc. you are) who can not afford to pay the high rates for rental housing in the immediate area, i.e. Pleasanton.

There is a storm coming people! Wake up! Who do you think cleans your houses? Who takes care of your yards? Who Cleans the business's and hotels and washes the dishes and cooks the meals in town? Not us! The lower income folks do these tasks and they just want to live and work in the same community as the rest of us, is this too much too ask?

I make a good salary and I rent and I'm scared about the cost of housing and my future... I can only imagine how those who are raising a family and living at the poverty level feel.

Be compassionate people, we all come from somewhere other than here unless you are a Native American.

15 people like this
Posted by BobB
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm

"Who do you think cleans your houses"

I, and the rest of my family.

"Who takes care of your yards?"

Yard? It isn't that big, so we do it.

"... cooks the meals in town?"

Again, me and my family.

"I can only imagine how those who are raising a family and living at the poverty level feel."


I'm not saying you don't have a point about compassion, but think you might be over-generalizing about Pleasanton residents.

9 people like this
Posted by Pete
a resident of Downtown
on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:32 pm

Well yes there is something wrong. We can't all live where we work. I used to work by Green Street in SF but couldn't afford to live there so I commuted.

Like this comment
Posted by Pete
a resident of Downtown
on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:33 pm

And the Native American migrated from Asia.

18 people like this
Posted by Wilma
a resident of Ironwood
on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:51 pm

We are still about undocumented workers or inhabitants? Again, sorry but provide rental assistance to USA citizens in need first. Then go with a lottery for non-citizen next. We know people who ere born here and need help but they don't get preference because they are not a minority or have kids. By the way, what is a minority in Pleasanton these days. I see a lot of Asians moving here on work visas and sponsor extended family members who move into subsidized senior housing. I'm just asking, but do life time citizens pay the majority of social services for immigrants? Check out the City of Pleasanton Kottinger Senior subsidized apartments. The majority of residents are Asians who kids moved them here but live in big expensive Pleasanton homes themselves after moving here on worker visa themselves.

4 people like this
Posted by ResidentSince1973
a resident of Birdland
on Feb 20, 2016 at 9:39 am

You lost me at "undocumented"

8 people like this
Posted by DKHSK
a resident of Bridle Creek
on Feb 20, 2016 at 10:34 am

DKHSK is a registered user.

From Meredith-- "However, not all (and not even most) are undocumented. Many are citizens or have visas or green cards."

What are the numbers, exactly? Seems that might be an important fact to report, yes?

So waiting lists are created for housing and citizens just get in line behind everyone else and wait the same amount of time?

This should not be the case, EVER!

13 people like this
Posted by Liz Paul
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Feb 20, 2016 at 1:36 pm

Liz Paul is a registered user.

Meredith, thank you for creating this interesting series of articles about low income families striving to live in Pleasanton.

I do have to say that I find it ironic that during this same time these articles were publishes people in our area mobilized to raise $11,000 in 4 hours to support an injured baby horse and meanwhile the people profiled in this article do not receive the same compassion.

To quote one of my heroes - "Be kind to one another" - Ellen Degeneres

10 people like this
Posted by Wilma
a resident of Ironwood
on Feb 26, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Liz, I don't know anything about an injured poney, but please get down off your high horse. I grew up in a crappy apartment in a rough neighborhood in L A , raised by a single mom. I know hard work and sacrifice as well as compassion. I'm pissed off when people over stay visas and come here illegally and use benefits that most is us will need when we age. Housing and medical care for life time USA citizens who have paid into the system all of their lives come first.

7 people like this
Posted by Map
a resident of Del Prado
on Feb 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm

@wilma- Correct call on all points you have made, all legal citizens should be at the front of the line as we age out, quit giving this country away to everybody that can't bother to come here legally. I commuted for years before I could afford to live here, nobody gave me any "handouts"!!! I wonder if the landlords know about the illegal sub-letting going on at these apartments?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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