What Facebook's expansion means for East Palo Alto

Jul 7, 2015

 

When Menlo Park city leaders wanted to add services for residents in their Belle Haven neighborhood, Facebook pitched in to fund a community center.  It’s located in a shopping strip behind the new Facebook west Campus, next to a Japanese restaurant.  

 

The center’s staffed by officers from the Menlo Park police department. "This specific area of town has a higher crime rate, I would say, and it keeps us little bit busier than other areas of town,” says officer Mary Ferguson. “Having a substation here is like a hub for the police officers. "

 

Ferguson says the idea is to offer the community a place to have positive interactions with the police. "If anyone wants to make a report or if they are having any issues, or just want to talk to a police officer, or have their kids meet us, it provides that opportunity and opens the line of communication which is nice," she says.

 

Ferguson is employed by the city of Menlo Park, but her salary is paid by Facebook. Her beat is truancy. When a kid skips school, she goes to their house and knocks on the door to find out what’s going on.

 

"I like to know, are there two parents in the home? Are they struggling, do they have multiple children, are they in different schools all around, have they moved several times, is there a gang problem, drug use?” she says. “I mean just trying to see the full picture so I can figure out what I can do to help this kid."

 

Another way she tries to help kids is by teaching a weekly life skills class at nearby Belle Haven Community School. Students come from both Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

 

When we arrive, the 6th graders file into the classroom and sit at tables arranged in groupings of four or six seats. A teacher closes the blinds and cuts off the lights. Officer Ferguson cues up a trailer for Pay it Forward, a  movie from the year 2000 about a boy whose school assignment inspires him to make the world a better place.

 

When the lights come back on, it’s clear right off the bat these kids are carrying heavy loads.

 

“Do you all have something in the world that you want to change?” asks Ferguson. Nine-year-old Jason Alvarez pipes up, without raising his hand, that he wishes his dad could get out of jail so that they could spend time together. When Ferguson presses, asking if Alvarez is willing to write letters to his dad to work on the relationship, he answers in one word: “Naw.”

Ferguson gives the kids an assignment to think about and write down three ways to change the world. Alvarez and his classmate Jonathan Paola have ideas. Paola wants to change the behavior of gangsters. “They gotta stop killing people,” he says.

Alvarez chimes in, “I see some bad people and I just don’t go close to them. Like if you go down East Palo Alto, in the park, there’s always people smoking, and I just want to change that.”

Bigger challenges

 

East Palo Alto is a small, new city -- it was only incorporated in 1983. Its residents are primarily low-income, and the population is mostly African American, Pacific Islander or Latino. The households here have a median income of just $50,000 compared to $112,000 in neighboring Menlo Park. Housing prices are going up, which has city leaders worried.

“The principals in the school will tell you they start seeing the [changing] behavior of some of the young kids who are in transition because now they're gonna have to move or they can't quite pay the rent,” says East Palo Alto city councilmember Ruben Abrica. “And they hear that from their parents and they're on the edge. It has a lot of repercussions.”

 

Abrica has a long history here. He was a city councilmember, then the mayor, before becoming a city councilmember again. He takes me to O’Keefe street on the west side of East Palo Alto illustrates how things are changing. This part of town has the most rental units in the city and this one block stretch of O’Keefe has more than 40 apartment buildings, lining both sides of the street.

 

Abrica says this area is valuable for two reasons. First, it’s really close to Menlo Park. Second, these apartments are protected by rent control. There used to be more rent-controlled units, but over the past 10 years different property owners have tried to get around those laws.

 

“They fought us in court and they filed lawsuits,” says Abrica. “They evicted a lot of tenants.”

 

Once a unit is vacant, the owner can legally raise the rent on it, taking it up to market rate. Abrica says big property owners do this because Facebook is nearby. They want to rent to the company’s highly-paid employees, not the East Palo Alto residents who need rent control.

 

“It affects so many people, and you don't hear about it very much but a lot of people suffer every day,” he says. “They end up homeless, they pile up with their relatives, they move away to the Central Valley or other places and it just creates havoc in their lives.”

Facebook’s responsibility?

 

Abrica is one of a lot of people who wishes Facebook would do more to ease the housing pressure. The company’s new campus is just 10 minutes away.

 

It’s a 10 acre building topped by a green roof with walking trails dotted by more than 400 trees. Inside the building, designed to hold close to 3000 workers, I meet with Susan Gonzales, director of Facebook’s Community Engagement program. She doesn’t give me any specifics about plans the company has to create housing, but says they’ve talked to local leaders and know area residents are feeling the squeeze.

 

“They have concerns about the impact of growth,” says Gonzales. “And the way we address that is to continue the dialogue and to be very transparent in what our growth plans are and to continue the conversation about what's important to them and how can our growth have a positive impact in their community.”

 

Some of the programs they’ve launched include quarterly job training events, nonprofit fairs where employees can sign up to volunteer or tutor, campus tours for students that encourage them to pursue STEM careers, and the Facebook Local Community Fund, which makes grants available to nonprofits in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Gonzales says this relationship is still young, “I always look at it as, we're still in the first inning,” she says.

 

But the second inning can’t come soon enough for people like Tameeka Bennett, Executive Director at Youth United for Community Action.

 

At a cafe in Menlo Park near the Facebook-funded community center -- the same one that has the police substation, Bennett tells me she’s been priced out. “I was in East Palo Alto for 28 years,” she says. “I just moved to Oakland because I was priced out of San Mateo county.”

 

Until recently, she sat on the East Palo Alto Planning Commission, but she had to give up her seat when she moved away.

 

“I was totally sad and heartbroken to leave East Palo Alto because I've been here my entire life,” Bennett says. “I work here, I go to church here. So it was really hard to leave, really hard.”

 

According to the city of Menlo Park, Facebook has proposed building housing somewhere on the commercial lands that they own, but how much, and whether it will be market rate or affordable housing, is still up in the air.