"I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a place to live.”
Parent, substitute teacher reflects on the struggles of being a renter
She hung the moon on her window.
A crescent moon and star, haloed by a string of lights, faced the cul-de-sac. The new moon is the symbol of the beginning of Ramadan, a Muslim holiday in which she and her family will fast from dawn to sunset for one month. They will spend every day focusing on spirituality and charity, and at night, after they’ve had the dessert she’s spent the day planning, they will go to the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara — her favorite mosque — to pray.
Outside, on his porch, her neighbor is frowning at this decoration: he’s never seen anything like it before.
On June 18, at the beginning of this year’s Ramadan, it had been only one month and three days since Eman Hamwi and her family — husband, father and three sons — moved into their third home in Cupertino. Already, she missed the trees at her previous complex, the Stonebridge apartments on Stevens Creek Boulevard. There, she had felt more connected nature. To nature and to her neighbors.
“In my old house, I had a friend, but she had to leave. She moved to Redwood City because her [family] wanted to buy a house, and she told me, ‘I don’t want to be a renter anymore,’” Hamwi said. “She was my family. Her girls and my boys were always together. We gave birth together. She was like my sister. Then she moved.”
To her, neighbors are often the same thing as family. Once, when her neighbor’s husband was sick, she immediately helped take care of him.
And she never allows anyone to leave her home without first offering them something: water, mango juice, a date-filled cookie. Even her home exudes a kind of warmth: her red sundress matches a woven rug pooling against the maple floors, the red-and-gold throw pillows overlap on the sofa.
She wants her home to be a welcome place. A permanent place.
But Hamwi has known the stress of being a renter in Cupertino, where housing costs have increased nearly 50 percent in the past two years.
When her landlord at Stonebridge told her that she had to find somewhere else to live because he wanted the home for his son, Hamwi’s greatest fear was that her boys would no longer be able to attend MVHS.
“I moved here for the education,” she said. “Education is the key to success. [People here] want to give it to their kids, and that’s why people come to Cupertino.” All three of her sons, the oldest of whom is 24 and studying to be a nurse at Foothill College, have attended MVHS. And though she didn’t want to move her family in the middle of May, she didn’t have a choice.
“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a place to live,” she said. So she attended every open house she could find, and was often appalled by the quality of the homes.
“You wouldn’t believe it, for how much they cost, but so many houses in Cupertino are nasty,” she said. Every time a landlord lowered the rent, a new flood of prospective renters would fill the doorways and the halls, even if the house was small or simply unclean. Even arriving at an open house at 10:30 a.m. could mean squeezing into the house with fifteen other people, each as eager as the last.
“When the prices go to 4500 or 4600 a month...” Hamwi said, pausing. She snaps her fingers and swoops her arm. “People are just like that.”
But the prices hardly ever stay low. Her rent has increased 20 percent since the previous year. On top of that, landowners now demand higher deposits and four to six month’s rent in advance. But there was nowhere better she could go.
“It is so expensive, and people are becoming greedy,” Hamwi said. She recalls her past two homes, both of which she rented for eight years. At her first home, before she moved in, the landlord would replace the carpet and paint the house.
At her second home, Stonebrook, the landlord agreed to repair a broken fence. And that was that. Hamwi had expected this new house to be freshly painted, but she knows now that it doesn’t matter so much anymore.
“[Landlords] know that there is high demand, that people don’t care whether the house is painted or not,” Hamwi said. “Whether it’s good or not [for the renters].”
So Hamwi settled in, a few cardboard boxes still stacked on her living room floor, a few more things left to fold away. But things haven’t been entirely comfortable yet, especially when as a renter, she always feels like she has something to prove.
“When [owners] see you are a renter,” Hamwi said, “They think you should honor them because they are owners. They are the leaders, the masters, and we should follow them.” She flexes her arms, hunches over with a low growl and mimes a frown.
“They act like this and tell you, ‘I was the first one in this cul-de-sac! 20 years ago. I was the first one to move here!’ Always they have this attitude,” she said, laughing. “They think it’s their territory. They don’t like change, and they don’t like strangers.”
She relaxes again, smiling. “You have to show them that you are bigger,” she said.
One day, as she was getting ready to go on an after-dinner walk with her father, her sons skateboarding out of the cul-de-sac to visit a friend’s house, her landlord Stan Tsing confronted her, insisting that they were too loud, that they had been disrupting the neighborhood.
For Hamwi, this was not anything new. So she looked him in the eye and told him that they weren’t doing anything illegal, and that if he kept acting like this, she would call the police. She told him it was harassment.
And after that, she never heard from him again. She goes about her life uninterrupted, though sometimes she wants something more.
“We had a rich culture together [in the old complexes.] Other neighborhoods were smaller and cozier,” Hamwi said. Here, she believes, people are afraid. Only one neighborhood welcomed her the traditional way: Lillian Tsing had arrived at her doorstep with a blueberry muffin and a tea bag — something Hamwi used to expect as the norm.
Hamwi once had neighbors who were Pakistani, Iranian and Arabic, now she is surrounded by mostly Chinese and Indian families.
“It is nice [to see] decorations for other holidays, like Chinese New Year and Diwali,” she said. “But it was much more diverse before.” She notices that the newcomers she has seen have been mostly educated Indian and Chinese families, and that Cupertino has become more and more sectionalized.
“Things are categorized now,” she said. “My old complex is now Chinese and white, the other is mostly Indian. There are now places that are [all] Chinese, all Indian.”
When Hamwi first considered living in Cupertino, she had been told that it had the highest concentration of Chinese residents outside of Chinatown, and she came to accept this as part of its fabric. But with new waves of highly-educated tech employees, mostly Chinese and now Indian, it’s become harder and harder to fill lower-paying jobs in Cupertino.
“I have started to work [as] a substitute teacher these past two years,” Hamwi said. Her sons no longer needed to be chaperoned, and she noticed the high demand for English-speaking substitutes. Though she was worried about the CBEST English test, required for her credential, she managed to pass the composition portion, much to the surprise of other mothers who had had trouble.
Her supervisor eagerly told her to recruit more moms: the number of substitute teachers for the Cupertino High School District had plummeted from about 950 to 300.
“With [a substitute teacher’s] income, people cannot afford to live here,” Hamwi said. For her, the job’s pay was no problem: she wanted a job that was flexible above all, and of course they had immediately hired her.
And either way, in Cupertino, the income of a substitute teacher doesn’t go far. Still, she enjoys the work, a job that allows her to take care of her family. On the first day of Ramadan, her first Ramadan in this new house, she hangs up a crescent moon and star in her home, as well. For her sons to see. She does the same outside.
“You have to show them that you’re here, too,” Hamwi said. She refuses to change the way she’s always lived just because she is a renter. After all, she had also arrived in Cupertino intending to buy a house, all those 16 years ago. But it was the year 2000 then, and the economy had just begun to fail.
“We lost our stock. We lost our chance,” Hamwi said. “And since then, we have not been able to catch up.”