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The Neighborhood That Google Swallowed

Santiago Villa was once a community for retirees. Now it’s a weekday home for Silicon Valley workers.

Alyssa Bereznak/Ringer illustration
Alyssa Bereznak/Ringer illustration

Walking through Santiago Villa, a 358-unit manufactured-home park surrounded by Google office buildings in Mountain View, California, Alexander Brown couldn’t help but recall that Malvina Reynolds song about the suburbs.

“Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky,” he recited, imitating Reynolds’s sing-songy tune as we passed identical beige homes that were built at a factory and recently installed on the concrete lot by the park management. “Yeah, that song hits close to home.”

That’s because this manufactured-home park is where Brown lives. The bespectacled 26-year-old bought a home here three years ago, when he moved from Arizona to work at Google as a software engineer. The perks of its North Bayshore location were just too great to pass up: a walking commute that allows him to bypass the typically horrendous U.S. 101 traffic (the bane of Silicon Valley workers’ daily lives), closeness to the campus’s cafeterias and wellness center, and the ability to ride a Google bike back and forth to deal with around-the-clock home renovations.

Lately, however, he has recognized that many of the same things that drew him to the park may also be responsible for its undoing. Santiago Villa was built in the 1960s as an affordable retirement community for those 55 and older, long before tech companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Google set up shop in the area. Though the community’s population has since been opened up to families, it wasn’t until Silicon Valley’s recent job-market boom — which has caused rent to spike and traffic conditions to worsen — that older residents began to feel the effect of their corporate neighbors.

<em>Alyssa Bereznak</em>
Alyssa Bereznak

Now, as more and more Google employees move into the park (marked by the handful of unattended primary-color bikes parked on the streets on any given day), there is an increasing feeling among longtime residents that their neighborhood is slowly being colonized by the tech company.

“A lot of the residents blame Google for all the issues,” Brown, who has made an effort to get to know people, said. “They hate Google in the abstract, but they give residents the benefit of the doubt. At least, they have for me.”

Since the second dot-com frenzy, real estate prices in the Bay Area’s sleepy suburbs have reached a special level of absurdity. A fair asking price for a 70-year-old two-bedroom cottage in Mountain View, for instance, hovered around $1.1 million in 2013. And at least one artist has resorted to building a small, $400-a-month pod in his friend’s living room so he can afford to live in San Francisco. But considering that Santiago Villa is flanked by three major tech company campuses, the park is a perfect microcosm for the fast-changing side effects of a booming tech market. And as Google moves forward with an ambitious 10-building development in the area, the future of the park’s older, longtime residents is becoming tenuous.

Though the mobile-home park was originally ideal for someone on a tight monthly budget, some Santiago Villa residents are discovering that their reliance on such sought-after property now puts them at a disadvantage. Unlike apartment renters or homeowners, park residents pay a monthly “space rent” — a fee that allows them to keep their manufactured homes on top of small plots of concrete within the area. When Santiago Villa was first built, rent was relatively affordable for residents on a fixed income and rarely increased, making the park ideal for seniors on a fixed income. But recently, the property’s management has made several moves that some people in the park say are designed to push out older residents in favor of temporary renters who can afford higher prices. (And who are, according to several residents I interviewed, often Google employees.)

In February, for instance, park management notified several Santiago Villa residents by letter that, if they did not make certain changes to the exteriors of their homes within a week, they risked eviction. According to the local paper, the Mountain View Voice, the requested changes ranged from superficial (removing Tibetan flag decorations or excessive animal fur) to pricey (repainting a home’s exterior or resealing a driveway). The demands were a sign to some residents that park owners were looking to either heighten the neighborhood’s appeal to younger, more affluent renters or find reasons to push out older hangers-on. For some retired residents, the requests were so costly that they pleaded for assistance at a City Council meeting.

“Does the city have a heart and soul for those out in the North Bayshore?” Santiago Villa resident Christine Cray asked the council at a meeting in March. “Where will I go if I don’t repair my home in seven days? I’ll be pushing a cart like an old lady on the street.”

In addition to surprise repair requests, park management has upped the space rent for new residents, making it difficult for homeowners to sell their property, thereby dramatically lowering the value of their homes.

“The really unique thing is they have one of the highest space rent increases ever,” said one Silicon Valley real estate agent who has brokered sales in the park, and preferred to remain anonymous to avoid conflict with its managers. “They went from $900 to $2,000 a month. That creates a certain disparity between the owner’s equity and the price.”

<em>Alyssa Bereznak</em>
Alyssa Bereznak

According to the agent and other residents I spoke to, the park management has used this rent increase as a mechanism to lure younger, more affluent renters. Because prospective buyers are typically scared off by high space rent, many residents have been unable to sell their homes at their desired asking price. In many cases, park management then buys the homes at a heavy discount, replaces them with one of several models (there are a few options, but they are largely identical, resulting in those personality-less boxes made of ticky tacky that Brown has noticed popping up lately), and rents them out at a higher-than-usual price, often to groups of Google employees. Brown, for instance, knows of contractors at the company who are both colleagues on the same team and roommates at a home in the park. In March, the park owned a little over 50 of the 358 units in the park, according to the Voice.

(Santiago Villa general manager Maria Ahmad, who did not respond to my request for comment, told the Voice at a community meeting in March that some of the money raised from the higher rents was being reinvested in the park. She did not offer specifics.)

The pitch to live in these flipped homes is convincing for Google employees, if not a little bleak. One Craigslist entry (now deleted), which appears to be posted by the park management, advertises the property as “Walking Distance to Google.” Another posting (also now deleted) advertised a private bedroom for $834 — a steal compared to other shared situations that reach into the thousands. “It’s very close to Google, Microsoft, and CMU Silicon Valley Campus,” the ad reads. “The space is very big and with good daylight. Now we have two guys living in 2 bedrooms, and one guy living in the living room on weekdays.” According to the real estate agent, a setup like this is not uncommon among tech workers.

What widens the chasm between the community’s renters is that for some of the younger Silicon Valley employees, this is just their workweek home. “It’s a midweek commuter home,” the agent told me. “Instead of commuting every day to their job, they find a home they live in through the week. On the weekends they go home to their main home, their bigger home.”

Though residents are upset with management over these changes, some recognize the slow push to move them out of the neighborhood as an inevitable byproduct of tech campus sprawl.

“We’re just starting to feel some of the effects of it with rising rents and increasing traffic,” 36-year-old Bjorn Berg, a newer resident in the park who does not work at Google, told me when I visited Santiago Villa last week. “We have meetings about it. We’re worried about it. But it kind of seems like a foregone conclusion.”

For Brown, however, it’s the uniformity of the management’s redecorating that is especially eerie.

“It feels like it’s being taken over, Stepford Wives–style,” he told me, as we walked by yet another identical beige home. “They’re being transformed into perfect little places.”

As I was leaving, two Google employees pulled up on those same primary-colored bikes to peek at a home for sale on the corner. One checked its price tag. “Two-hundred and thirty K,” he said to his friend. “That’s a steal.”