A Garage and Kind Landlords Launched My Dream

by GDixon,

32 years ago I lived in a cheaply-converted one-car garage. I was a Business Major at Cal Poly. That modest 10x20 foot rental wasn't much, but it was all MINE. To afford that drafty, sagging, spider-magnet studio, I worked full time throughout college. I was young, engaged to be married, and thrilled to have my own place. Be it ever so humble, there was no place like (my own, tiny) home.

On December 9th of that year, I brought my newborn son home from the hospital to live in that converted garage. My Old SLO Mission priest discouraged me from rushing into marriage before the baby was born. He was right. I decided not to marry at all. My infant son and I were happy, healthy, and thriving in our humble little garage home. Five days per week, I brought my baby to an overnight daycare at 9pm. I worked 11pm-7am as a Madonna Inn Night Auditor, then attended Cal Poly classes 8-11am. After class, I picked up my son and brought him to campus for exercise. We both had a good long nap at 1pm. Every hour was planned, every dollar budgeted.

To make rent, I minimized and aggressively negotiated all expenses; including childcare, rent, and food. I worked nights while my infant slept. I negotiated a low "sleeping childcare rate" from 9pm-7am, and a discounted 7-11am rate while I attended morning classes. I convinced my landlord to reduce my monthly rent $100 by slowly eroding my "last month plus security" deposits. When $0 deposits were left at year end, I refueled the agreement with my annual tax refund. I only ate food given me free while working my 8 hour shift at Madonna Inn (a full meal, including their famous cake. I was well-fed!). I thoughtfully curated a list of ways my toddler and I could entertain ourselves without spending any money. The "Free Fun" list was posted prominently on my fridge, packed up with every move, and it is still on my fridge 32 years later. I took every step necessary to ensure my son and I had our own home. After my son's birth, I earned straight A's. I grew up fast. I was hyper-motivated to succeed for both of us. His father remained in college for several more years, so I never received any child support. I decided never to pursue it.

Upon graduation, Macy's recruited me and moved me to the Bay Area. I graduated with an "A" average from a well-respected university, landed an executive position with an esteemed retailer, but I was paid only $26,500 per year. In order to pay Bay Area rent, plus childcare and college loans, I asked my San Francisco-based brother if we could share an apartment. My brother agreed to pause his bachelor lifestyle so my toddler and I could live near my work. My salary increased yearly, but not enough for Bay Area rent, childcare, college loans, and basic living expenses.

As my son approached school age, I explored areas with great schools, excellent transit, low crime, and where I could afford to rent independently. It was time to let my brother go back to his bachelor lifestyle. I purchased a book (these were the pre-internet days!) that listed cities with excellent schools, high test scores, low crime, and multiple transit options. Lafayette checked all the boxes, and then some. Lafayette's small-town charm, creeks, mountain views, and hills were like San Luis Obispo, plus arboreal beauty and the ability to walk from one "end of town" to the other. Lafayette was the ideal place to raise my son, and for him to fondly remember as his hometown.

Finding housing in Lafayette was much tougher than I had ever imagined. I was now a Macy's Senior Executive, with 17 stores across the country, including Union Square and Mall of America. But I was only 4 years out of college, and retail did not pay very well. I was still considered low income, as a "head of household" single parent. Regardless, I knew how to make a good first impression, and the landlords let me proceed to "step 2" after the initial interviews. Each time, I was ultimately denied housing because I had checked the "child" box on the application. Many rentals allowed pets, but not children. I finally found a kind landlord in an unexpected place; an 88-year-old jazz guitarist who had performed with the greats like Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Elvis Presley. (By the way, this man lived to be 103.) He was either just worldly-wise enough, kind enough, enlightened enough, or cool jazz musician enough to welcome me, a young single mom. Who knows why? Maybe it helped that he still gave daily music lessons. The sound of a child next door just added to the constant hum of humanity. Nevertheless, he let me rent the unit attached to his home, a "unique" East End Lafayette cottage, complete with leaking roof, thread-bare carpet, sloping foundation, with the washer/dryer hooked up outside on the broken patio. Those shabby things did not matter to me. I had a reliable job, and my son could now attend Lafayette schools!

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that it was not easy to fit in. On the East End, there were no parks within walking distance for my son to play, exercise, or meet new friends. We had no yard for exercise. I could not afford the member fees or volunteer time required for swim team, soccer team, Little League, or Boy Scouts, let alone the time off to take him to daily practices or weekly meetings. I was in my 20's, socially naïve, zero spending money, and not much in common with the other moms at night-time school events. I was an outlier. I worked full time, had a 5 year-old, and was not married. I could not volunteer in his classroom, or attend daytime PTA meetings. Feeling like we had no way to connect socially was rough on both of us. Fortunately, some of that has changed since the 90's.

Eventually I saved enough, and began earning enough, to qualify for a jumbo mortgage (with a jumbo-sized interest rate). My son and I spent our weekends walking neighborhoods and "stalking" for any signs that homes were about to be listed. You know, trucks hauling decades of junk, estate sales, and that famous low-cost remodel, "painting." I was the first in line for an Open House at 3460 Monroe, and landed my circa 1953, 2BD/1BA 903 square foot "Trails Neighborhood" cottage for $465,000. That's $515/square foot 20 years ago! The house had zero insulation, no central heat, and no air conditioning. Still, I felt like I won the lottery. For the first time in my son's life, at 12 years old, he could play in his own back yard. I walked to BART and he walked to school. We were in heaven. As the years went by, my property value increased. I was able to qualify for progressively lower interest rate loans. I now had more discretionary funds. I eventually quit my corporate job. I opened my own successful home-based preschool and after care business that was wildly successful for 18 years, due in part to my location. I more than doubled my corporate salary, re-financed, and added 546 square feet. In addition, I was able to nurture a generation of Lafayette's children. I married my amazing husband when I was 40 years old. He is disabled, due to 4 major back surgeries and fusions. Despite his disability, he began his Lafayette home-based computer business, which thrives to this day, serving more than 1,000 local residents and small businesses. My son attended Lafayette schools and went on to graduate cum laude from St. Mary's College in Moraga. He qualified for reduced tuition, and lived at home to cut housing costs. Now he has manageable college loans as he begins his own housing story near D.C.!

My housing story is filled with extremely humble rentals owned by kind-hearted, open-minded people who trusted me and gave me a chance. Without them, I would not own my own home today, which has more than tripled in value in 20 years. Thanks to our fellow Lafayette residents, my husband and I each began our own small businesses. We provided crucial services to our local community, who in turn paid us well. We lived, and continue to live, "the dream." But all of our success began with access to housing. To thank Lafayette for our chance at prosperity, we have served multiple non-profits on boards of directors, including Town Hall Theatre and the Lafayette Community Foundation. Together, we taught Sunday School at St. Perpetua, volunteered at many annual Chamber of Commerce events, and donated countless hours and funds to our local schools. I also serve on the Parks, Trails, and Recreation Commission and on the Lafayette School District's Bond Oversight Committee. My husband works six days per week, and is thankful for the consistent, ample local business from grateful clients.

I was embarrassed to write my personal housing story. It is humbling and scary to admit to my past as a young single mom without enough money or proper housing. I decided it was important to share my experiences, to shed light on challenges, and show how we may ultimately contribute to our communities. Low income people come in all ages, abilities, races, beliefs, education levels, and ethnicities. The City of Lafayette has approved more lower-income housing recently, and gotten backlash. Some local opinions towards single parents, low-income families, and children need to change. A low-income family may look like this photo of my son and me from 18 years ago. Housing solutions needs to incorporate educating and shifting local resident perceptions before real progress is made. As I go about my errands, I try to imagine the daily lives of the many people I encounter in service, retail, non-profit, performing arts, construction, and teaching occupations. They are everywhere. They work in modestly paying jobs, or are seniors on a fixed income, or are raising small children. They may face challenges unfamiliar or unseen to many, but they all strive to overcome them. They all want and deserve a home, a safe neighborhood, equitable access to green space and recreation, and excellent schools for their children. In that way, we are all the same. Thank you for letting me share my housing story.

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