When she met him, a cute out-of-towner at the bar, she could already picture their life together. An ensuing long-distance courtship kindled the notion into reality. On the one-way drive from her hometown in Washington to his in Silicon Valley, that imagined future began to take shape.
She transferred her course credits to San Jose State University and worked three jobs to save up while living with his overbearing mom for a year-and-a-half. By 2014, they had enough to move into a one-bedroom Japantown flat.
For a month—a brief, blissful month—she could breathe. She felt at home; he felt like family. “That’s all I got,” says Amanda, 26, an environmental science major who asked to withhold her real name for fear of eviction. “One whole month of happiness.”
Before long, her boyfriend went from affectionate to detached. He got cagey. Stress over his new job, she figured. He locked his phone and began impulsively tilting the screen away from her line of sight. She didn’t dwell on it. School and work kept her busy from dawn to 10 most nights.
On a rare evening off, she invited her closest friend to the apartment to bake jam-topped cookies over wine, cheese and gossip. Amanda’s usually sullen boyfriend suddenly seemed sociable, taking a keen interest in the visitor, who happened to have dated a close friend of his. “We’re hanging out and he keeps filling our wine glasses,” Amanda says. “Mostly, he just flirted with her, looking through her overnight bag and jokingly telling her to put makeup on him. They’re laughing and I’m sitting there uncomfortably.”
Confused and feeling disrespected, she told her boyfriend to leave them alone. Some sense of guilt prompted her to call him back, as long he behaved. The trio called an awkward truce and watched a movie, with Amanda in the middle. Then, her boyfriend reached across to caress her friend, who kissed Amanda’s cheek.
“What is happening right now?” Amanda recalls asking, jerking herself away from the unwelcome attempt at a three-way.
She marched into the bathroom to cry, half-hoping one of them would come after her to apologize. Nothing. Sobbing, she packed a bag. On her way to the front door she saw her friend straddling her boyfriend. In a few-minute span, he fucked and finished. He later expressed remorse, but more for the brevity than the infidelity.
In a sane world, that would merit a clean break. But there’s nothing sane about Silicon Valley’s astronomical housing costs. Amanda couch-surfed, scoured ads for a room to rent on her meager budget and spent one night sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
With classes and an internship to worry about, she resolved to tough it out with her ex for another 18 months and counting.
Put Up or Shut Up
The cost of living in Silicon Valley takes more than just a financial toll—it’s often deeply, painfully personal. Skyrocketing rents give the housing market a compulsory family planning effect. People limit the number of kids they have or hold off entirely. Couples delay moving in together for fear of losing a rent-controlled unit. Or they shack up too quickly because of a rent hike. They never leave or move back in with parents, doubling or tripling generations in a single home.
People put up with smaller, stranger accommodations, such as shared rooms, converted sheds, backyard tents and couches or subdivided common areas.
If a relationship falls apart, there’s often nowhere else to go for months, even years. Exes demoted to housemates have to navigate a post-breakup reality that prevents them from moving on. That can become more than just awkward. Increasingly, people put up with toxic relationships or outright physical, financial or emotional abuse because they simply can’t afford to leave.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t need to be housing experts,” says Colsaria Henderson, program director for Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. “But housing has become the key issue with our survivors. I would say it’s paramount. We never really anticipated seeing survivors priced out of everything, or seeing so many of them make that decision to remain with an abuser or risk homelessness.”
Next Door Solutions, Santa Clara County’s largest service provider for victims of domestic violence, turned away 77 women and 87 children from its battered women’s shelter in April. “These are all women we would have taken into our shelter, these are people who have exhausted all their options,” she says. “There’s just no room.”
Katie Taylor, 28, has achieved a tense equilibrium with her ex by creating some emotional distance despite their physical proximity.
“We try to work together to help each other out and to be friends,” says Taylor, a Michigan transplant who lives in one of downtown San Jose’s myriad subdivided Victorians. “I get free food from work but I don’t have a car, so I barter with him by giving him food for a ride. But when we’re in the car together, we’ll argue again.”
At least she moved out, she says, even if she didn’t get that far. Last fall, she left their shared room—where they spent months aggravating seven housemates with late-night shouting matches that sometimes descended into physical fights—for a $425-a-month space on the second floor. It wasn’t her first choice.
“I was telling myself for a really long time that I wasn’t staying there because I needed a place to live,” Taylor says. “I kept telling myself that I could leave if I wanted to.”
Scouting for a new home, however, made it all but impossible to live in denial. The only options within her price range included dank, windowless basements for $650 a month or party houses with washed-up townies or 19-year-old college students.
“After months of looking for somewhere to live, it all came crashing down,” she says. “I realized that I’m totally fucked. I got really depressed. I would lay in bed all day and cry.”
San Jose rents rose to historic heights in the last decade, while million-dollar homes became commonplace.
The average going rate for a two-bedroom apartment went from $1,775 in 2010 to $2,960 this past February, according to Rent Jungle. That’s a 67 percent jump. The average one-bedroom saw a 77 percent increase from $1,330 to $2,362 in the same timeframe.
More than half of the city’s tenants are considered “rent burdened,” which means they spend at least a third of their income on housing. Among those, 27 percent pay at least half of their earnings to keep a roof over their heads.
As a cook at a grocery store, there’s no chance Taylor would be able to afford anything but a place with a partner or several roommates, or both. Regardless, her more immediate anxieties involve cohabiting with an erstwhile lover, which she says prevents her from bringing a date home. The last time a guy spent the night led to a weird, tearful encounter in the bathroom.
On the bright side, the less-than-ideal housing arrangement has forced her to become more diplomatic. “I’m learning good communication skills,” she says. “Now I’m the person who’s saying, ‘OK, let’s work together to clean this place up,’ maybe get on the landlord’s good side.”
Melanie Cauble, a family therapist based in Willow Glen, says there’s a cultural expectation that breaking up means ceasing all contact. For people with kids, divorcees with mutual property or live-in partners who can’t up and leave, a clean break can be all but impossible.
“Sometimes you have to learn how to cope,” she says. “People have this mentality that when they break up they never talk to each other again, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. We’re in this stage in our society where it doesn’t have to be black and white, where exes can be friends or at least remain civil with each other.”
Cauble would know. For a year after divorcing her husband of two years and partner of 10, they lived in the same house. She managed to date and live the single life while summoning the financial wherewithal to strike it out on her own.
“It’s challenging,” she says. “And it doesn’t always work.”
On the flip side of these unwanted relationships is Paul Gee, a 39-year-old local landlord who lives with his ex two years after the split.
“I actually feel guilty about how the rental market is, so I let her stay,” he says. “She can’t really afford to move out. I know that. But it’s awkward, there’s always tension and it wasn’t a completely friendly breakup.”
In a two-bedroom cottage, they share a bathroom and, if they can stand it, the living room. To avoid each other they often stay in their own rooms. Underscoring the absurdity of the situation, Gee says, he’s grateful for long work hours and snarled commutes that keep him out of the house.
Though he owns the place, he’s just as stuck.
“Neither one of us can move forward,” Gee says. “I can’t even imagine bringing anyone else over. I’m basically in this impossible situation where I have nowhere to go and she has nowhere to go. But I also totally get where she’s coming from.”
The predicament clouds his future.
“It’s hard to see beyond this,” he says. “I don’t see a way out.”
Nowhere to Turn
For Darlisha Matthews, coping was no longer an option. For a decade, she endured beatings, sexual assault and emotional abuse at the hands of her boyfriend because she had nowhere else to go with four kids and a single income. Affordable housing is tapped out, public subsidies come with 12-year waiting lists and shelters exceed capacity.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Matthews evicted her abuser after he threatened to kill her. But without his portion of the rent, she could no longer afford $1,450 a month. Her landlord was unsympathetic.
In the thick of a white-hot rental market and the wake of her grandmother’s death, Matthews made what she calls “a terrible choice that no one should have to make.” With her two young daughters and one son—the other went to live with his dad—she bunked in their Honda Odyssey or shelters, when there was room. If she scraped together enough cash, she rented cheap motel rooms so they could stretch their legs. Too many nights spent sleeping upright causes the calves to swell, painfully and sometimes permanently.
Most days, Matthews had no clue where they would sleep, where they would shower. Some days, she wanted to die. Despite the chaos, she kept her kids in school and landed a part-time job. She filled out countless applications for apartment waiting lists, shelters and services that might get her family off the streets.
“I was just praying, because I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “I would ask the Lord, I would ask my grandmother, ‘What can I do? Where can I get help? Where are you going to guide me to?’”
Finally, she went to HomeFirst, the South Bay’s largest homeless services provider, which found her a subsidized apartment. Since March, her family has had some semblance of stability. “It takes some getting used to,” says Matthews, 32, from the dining room table of her sunlit breakfast nook. “Some days I wake up and tell the girls, ‘Get up, we got to leave, we got to go.’ And they’re like, ‘No we don’t, mom.’”
It takes a conscious effort to keep her mind from racing and calmly tell her kids, “good morning,” instead of “hurry up, wake up, get going.” However, unless HomeFirst extends their lease, Matthews will need to find a new place within two years.
Most domestic violence shelters limit stays from one to a few months and transitional housing to a year or two. But finding a room or apartment to rent often requires a year or more of searching, according to domestic violence nonprofits.
Women, like Matthews, fall into what’s called the “shelter shuffle,” making the circuit from one nonprofit to the other to stay off the streets. Meanwhile, short-term apartments have run out of room as people slated to move out extend their stay for lack of options.
“Transitional housing, in many cases, is no longer transitional,” says Perla Flores, program director for Community Solutions, another local nonprofit that helps abuse survivors. “They’re permanent, or indefinite, which is good for the people who have them but difficult for everyone else.”
It can take years for people in abusive relationships to summon the strength to leave, Matthews says, but faced with the prospect of homelessness, they can lose their resolve.
“Everyone tells you to leave,” she says. “But when you’re finally ready to take that step, nobody knows where you can go.”
People in controlling relationships tend to have bad credit, rental and job histories as a result of their abuse. Factor in a host of inequities, like the gender pay gap that limits a woman’s spending power, and it’s little wonder that women and other marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by rental-relationship woes.
About half of all homeless women say violence at home forced them onto the streets, according to a 2013 survey by the National Center on Family Homelessness. Among homeless mothers with children, that figure rises to more than 80 percent.
Women in Silicon Valley fare far worse than the rest of the country. While the national homeless population counts three times as many men as women, the South Bay’s is evenly divided between genders with women more likely to experience persistent homelessness. That local gender disparity only recently came to light in a 2015 study by housing nonprofit Destination: Home, which urged policymakers to investigate the region’s unusually high female homeless population.
“As a movement, we built shelters to provide a safe place for people to get on their feet,” says Henderson, who has worked in the field for the better part of two decades. “We were a little blindsided by the woman who wanted to leave her abuser but couldn’t.”
Until policymakers stitch up gaping holes in the social safety net, domestic violence victims will continue to weigh their abuse against the prospect of losing shelter. “People do what they can to survive,” says Nohemi Nogueda, a coordinator for Next Door Solution who worked with a single mom criminally prosecuted for trading sex for shelter. “There’s a lot of pressure when you feel you have no choice.”
Nogueda doesn’t know whether the landlord got busted for what legally amounts to prostitution. But a quick scroll through Craigslist shows plenty of men in Silicon Valley trying to capitalize on down-and-out women looking for a cheap place to stay.
The GF Experience
Market forces that keep exes together long after they break up also compel people to strike up relationships they would never consider otherwise. This creates a type of sex work that flourishes in a housing crisis.
Most of the sex-for-rent ads on Craigslist’s South Bay listings seek female roommates and a selfie. One asks for “young, big, well-built, live-in house boy.” Some openly solicit “tenants with benefits.”
“I don’t want to rent to just anyone,” a self-described “sober/professional” landlord in San Jose wrote in a Craigslist ad. “I would prefer a ‘mutually beneficial arrangement.’”
I responded to a few ads to learn about what these landlords expect from sex-for-rent deals. One of them tells me he owns an auto dealership on Stevens Creek Boulevard. He wants to talk about the arrangement in person but can only meet after 9pm at his office or an upscale wine bar in Santana Row. Others say they won’t disclose the details until I send them a selfie.
A guy from Willow Glen sends a photo of himself first, angling for reciprocation. He says he’s 49 years old and lives alone in a clean, quaint second-story apartment with an orange tabby named Hugo.
“There’s only one bedroom,” he says, apologetically. “But I was hoping for more of a live-in girlfriend, just so we’re clear.”
If someone bites, he continues, this would mark the second time in the past few years that he’s offered shelter for “the girlfriend experience.”
“She was young and beautiful and horny all the time,” he says. “But she was also a thief. Found $500 of mine in her purse so I cut her loose. … I chalked it up to experience.”
“Yeah,” I reply, “seems like a gamble, taking in strangers.”
“Loneliness makes one do incredibly stupid things,” he admits. “But just having someone to come home to at night and cuddle with would make it all worth it.”
I ask what he’s looking for in a tenant-with-benefits. One of two types of women, he answers: someone his age or “a young, cute girl who just loves sex.”
“But I’m a realistic thinking person,” he continues, “and I know my limitations and capabilities, so I don’t get my hopes up too high. It would be nice to trade in a little reality sometimes for a little fantasy.”
At the First Presbyterian Church San Jose’s Women’s Gathering Place, which offers meals and a living room-like space for unsheltered women to rest during the day, the attendees tell each other to look out for sex-for-shelter ads.
“The men think they can get a woman who’s desperate but still looks like a model,” says Sally Claridge, 65, who’s lived on the streets since being priced out of her Willow Glen apartment of two decades in 2012. “That’s what they’re looking for.”
Granted, they’ll take what they can get, she says. A year ago, still naïve to the catch, she responded to one such ad.
“Over the phone, he says, ‘It’s yours if you pee on my face,’” she says. “I said, ‘Oh no,’ and hung up.”
Another homeless woman, 59-year-old Frenchie Rogers, laughs at the absurdity but urges caution. At least an escort can leave her client at the end of the hour, she notes, but a live-in sex-on-demand tenant?
“Trapped,” she says, shaking her head. “I tell other women about Craigslist. I tell them, ‘You gotta be careful out there. You gotta be safe.’”
Next year, Amanda graduates. She hopes to land a better job with better pay that could finally give her the economic independence to break free of the failed relationship that tethers her to the past. Though she lost friendships and a love interest, she feels more resilient for what she’s been through.
“I’m mostly a lone wolf,” Amanda says. When she broke up with her boyfriend, she tried to change that by going out by herself, meeting new people, forming a social life without him. “I mean, you do feel like your life’s on hold,” she says. “I’ve survived each day with this person, I wake up with this person just trying to avoid an argument. But I’ve learned to be happy elsewhere.
“I can see the light.”