Feature story (Smal business)

Small businesses in Albany, CA are struggling to find employees: fewer and fewer people want to work for small companies.

Located at the intersection of Albany and Berkeley the Tokyo Fish Market is never empty. Customers buying salmon, sushi or Japanese rice desserts fill the large room, and workers carrying, cutting, and wrapping fish abound. Or so it seems.

The market needs more workers, said Li Nakamura, who has been running it since 1990.

“Every business has a hard time right now finding workers,” he said. “We do not know why.”

Up and down Albany’s commercial district of Solano and San Pablo, owners and managers talked of a tech boom that has brought more customers willing to spend more money. The problem is finding and keeping enough employees to serve them. Employers blame competition from other cities – workers can walk next door to Berkeley and get more money – and tech jobs like driving for Uber and Lyft.

Nakamura can’t remember a time like this. The minimum hourly wage in Albany is $11.93 with health benefits paid by the employer or $13.54 with no health benefits. That makes it one of the highest in the country, but “people still don’t want to work,” said Nakamura.

Tommy Ryan, a manager in Boss Burger, the popular public catering place on Solano Avenue, has been looking for a cashier for a month. No one had even shown up for an interview.

“I scheduled a bunch of interviews,” he said, adding that they never even bothered to call and cancel.

Ryan, who has been in the restaurant business for ten years said that five years ago it was easier to find workers. It hasn’t helped, he said, that this fall, Berkeley’s minimum wage went up to $15 an hour.

“Potential workers can walk down the street and get $15 an hour,” he said.

Mike Uong, who owns Royal Coffee Groundon Solano Avenue said he is likely to lose three workers soon because he can’t afford to pay more than Albany’s minimum wage.

“It is not only high competition in this neighborhood,” he said, it is also finding good workers. “I need someone who can work seven days a week, but I can’t pay enough for that,” he said.

That predicament pushed Koichi Endo to put his sushi bar Sugata up for sale. Now 74, he opened in 1984 and while his official reason is his retirement, his neighbors said that rising costs were also a likely factor.

Sangeeta Garcha, a grocery store owner at the intersection of San Pablo and Solano avenues – Albany’s leading commercial corridor – said workers who might have found small businesses an attractive employer, now have other options. Anyone with a car and driver’s license can work independently as an Uber and Lyft driver and earn good money.

“Everybody wants to be their own boss,” she said.  “I guess they just like to do their own thing instead of being confined by an eight-hour-job.”

Garcha recently hired two workers, but it wasn’t easy.

“I know people who work from 10 to 12 hours for Uber and Lyft, and they make $5000-6000 a month,” she said. “Even though we still pay over the minimum wage in the Bay Area, nobody still wants to do that.”

At least one small business has stayed open by becoming a one-person operation.

James Silva has made stained glass windows for houses for the last 15 years. Three years ago, Silva let his workers go and nowadays he does everything himself – from janitorial service to the accounting, fabrication, and sales.

“The Bay Area is unaffordable,” he said. “I have had employees, but instead of paying them living wage I work alone.”

Silva, who was raised in the Bay Area, said that the struggles of small businesses are just one part of the trend in which life is changing in bigger, more fundamental ways. “People who make a lot of money don’t understand what it takes for a town to be viable,” he said. Parking, bike lanes, and things like that are making it harder for customers to get to small businesses. “It is fundamentally changing the nature of what a town is.”




Feature Story (Families)

With housing prices continuing to rise more adult children are choosing to live at home.

Emma Sousa, 22, commutes twice a week from her parent’s house in Brentwood to UC Berkeley where she is studying English. Round trip, she spends three-four hours a day commuting.

Although she works part-time as an office manager in a construction company and makes $15 for an hour, she can’t afford to live near the campus – it is too expensive.

Sousa is not alone. Although the majority of adults who live with their parents come from Asian and Hispanic families where living at home is culturally accepted, the number of white and black Americans living with their parents has also grown.

Between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of black adults living at home rose to 25 percent from 24 percent and the for white adults the number rose to 17 percent from 15 percent.

Bay Area numbers are higher thanks to housing costs. California ranks second to New Jersey in the number of adult children living at home, according to census figures.

“I didn’t realize how expensive the Bay Area was until I moved back,” said Sousa who transferred from Mesa College in San Diego where she paid $625 a month.

One of her Berkeley friends lives in a shared house and pays $1,400 for a room with a shared bathroom. Another friend lives in a student house for $750 a month.

“That is more than I ever paid for my own room and bathroom in San Diego and I lived six blocks from the Ocean,” she said.

UC Berkeley began monitoring the number of students who live at home in 2011. Since then the percentage of students increased by 1.1 percent to 4.1 percent.

Another Berkeley student, Sarah Obasi, returned to her father’s home in Richmond this year after living on campus for two years. An undergraduate student in the School of Public Health, Obasi now lives with her dad, little sister and her 92-year-old grandfather in a large, seven-bedroom house.  She is saving the $16,000 a year she spent on housing.

Obasi graduates in 2020, and if she goes to grad school, she will probably remain at home. “I like to live with my dad,” she said laughing, “I am saving money, and there is always food.”

However, not all parents are happy with the arrangement. Sushma Magnuson lives in Albany with her husband and 24-year- old daughter, who finished graduate school earlier this year. She lived at home throughout school, and Magnuson said it is time for her to be on her own.  “We have given her time until March next year,” to find a job and move out, she said.

Magnuson left her parent’s home when she was younger than her daughter.

But, that was not unusual. In the 1980s households in which adults lived with their parents were decreasing: from 21 percent in the 1950s to 12 percent in the 1980s. That trend began to change in the 1990s when the share of multigenerational households in the United States was 14 percent. In 2016, one of the five households in America included two or more adult generations.

A parent of a grown-up child, who “thank god” lives separately, 60-year-old May Gee, who asked that her last name is withheld,  works at Bright Horizons childcare center in Berkeley. The majority of her coworkers are young people in their 20s, and most live at home with their parents.

“It makes me sad because to be a mature caregiver for children you have to be a mature adult,” she said adding that she recognizes the wages of $14-$18 an hour makes living independently difficult.  “My impression is that – they don’t seem to have a vision as far as moving out. Because it is the comfortable way to live,” she said.

React story


Berkeley students: We do not need anybody like that in any position of power.

For the women in University Village, many of whom come from abroad, the development this week of a woman accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attacking her 35 years ago, brought back memories of sexual harassment and abuse.

For them, it was entirely plausible that Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, had an incident that happened 35 years ago seared in her memory.

Maggie, a 31-year-old student at San Francisco State University, said she was seven and her sisters six and eight years old when a 30-years-old married uncle touched them inappropriately.

She told her parents what had happened, but her complaint fell on deaf ears, and her uncle denied the allegations. “He said we made it up, that we were lying,” she said.  “Maybe it’s just my family, but they believe they should avoid such kind of problems for family comfort.”

In Mexico, where she grew up, people tend to hide such cases.

Another woman, 31-year-old Polina said that In Russia, a false sense of shame prevents women from reporting cases of sexual harassment. She recalled an Instagram post, with the hashtag #metoo in which thousands of women left comments about their experiences of being sexually harassed.

“I had a feeling that girls in my country are afraid to talk about it,” she said.  “They simply do not have the confidence that they will be protected.”

She said that the Russians have had a lot of political scandals that involved sex and high officials, but no one’s ‘s career has been affected by such allegations.

A graduate student in Public Health, 35-years-old Lakshmi from India said that she was “shocked” such a high-level judge would be accused of such behavior.  India has had its share of scandals at the legislative level, but never for a high-ranking judge, she said.

“I believe the woman,” she said, “I do not think that any woman would want to “fame” herself this way and being in the public eye. She (Mrs. Ford) probably has gone through the trauma, rape or attempts to rape.”.

Metoo and related movements are also changing India, she said. The problem of rape is getting more attention, and people are at least beginning to report cases

No everyone viewed Ford in a positive light. Meiko, the 33-years old wife of a Berkeley law school student from Japan said Ford could have made up the incident. “Too much time has passed,” says she.

The MeToo movement is only slowly reaching Japan, she said, because there remains a national retisence to talk about such issues.

Nevertheless, she said, some actresses and TV-stars there have started to talk about it.

Erica, the 33-year-old partner of a Berkeley student, said she has a close friend, who was raped and experienced a second attempted rape.  Both incidents happened in college. “This is very hard for people to talk about it,” she said. “clearly, Kavanaugh shouldn’t be a Supreme Court justice he was nominated for. We do not need anybody like that in any position of power.”

On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has set a deadline of September 21 for Ford to decide whether she will testify. Earlier, both Kavanaugh and his accuser were called on to testify in Congress next Monday.

Feature story (New Real Estate)

New real estate managers who turned the flaw of the Tech Boom into an advantage, become trendsetters in the Bay Area.

Those who were fortunate enough to buy housing in the Bay Area before the Tech Boom, now are in good shape and even invest their money further in real estate.

A former taxi driver and restaurant worker Binod Tamang does not like to waste time. As he waits for his 9-year-old daughter to finish her Kung-Fu lesson in Albany, he looks through real estate ads and checks for any housing market news. Housing has become his main occupation – he owns four houses in Richmond and San Pablo, renting them out for $1500 to $2500 per month.

Retired school principal Raul Ramirez also found real estate late in life. He rents out a triplex in the San Joaquin Valley and a house in Redmond, Oregon for $850 to $1700 per month.

Tamang and Ramirez are among the beneficiaries of the tech boom – a small group of residents who had the foresight and money to buy before prices got too high and now enjoy new income from their rentals.  No one knows, how many residents this represents, but Daniel Faller, owner, and founder of “Apartment Owners Association of California” says “I do not see a trend taking place.”

The new real estate managers share some attributes – some have inherited houses that then became investment properties, or they merely bought early and have benefited from the increasing rise in rents.

Ramirez, who lives in the house his parents bought in 1967 for $16,000 (now worth $1.2 million according to Zillow), watched his parents purchase their first property on Acton Street in Berkeley in 1965 for $15,000.  For years, they rented it out and in 2015 sold it in 2015 for $620,000. He bought his first duplex in 1982.

Tamang, who moved to the United States from Nepal in 1999, bought his first house in 2009, a year after the great recession of 2008. “Property value was really bad then,” says Tamang, bringing down prices and making it possible to buy a two-bedroom house in Richmond for only $45,000.

The money came from the earnings he had made working any number of jobs including delivery driver, taxi driver, restaurant worker, and even owning and running a restaurant. Back then, the houses he purchased were cheap and needed work. He quickly became an expert in plumbing, electrical work, and roofing.

Since then he has bought five houses and mostly renovated them himself, only occasionally resorting to the help of hired workers. Tamang sold one of them. The price of remaining homes ranges from $300 000 to $700 000.

“This is the not a piece of cake, you know,” says Tamang, pointing that he has to pay a lot – a property taxes, expenses for insurance, garbage, etc. “But I try not to raise my rent because I do not have to pay a mortgage’.

He has done so well that he pays $1400 per month to live in Albany where his children can take advantage of the better school system.

“I worked pretty hard for that,” said Tamang smiling.

He says he has other friends who have done better buying and selling houses – at least two or three friends in the Bay Area who are “much wealthier than I am.”

Ramirez too has friends who have benefited from the housing market.  One, he said, was a custodian who began buying properties about 30 years ago. Now he owns seven houses – all rented out.

Meeting story

In the high and bright hall of the Albany City Council where 50 people could fit freely, barely 15 people sat and five or six of those were city staff.

Paving, it appeared, would be the only item on the seven items agenda that anyone had come to discuss and after some discussion, even that was postponed.

The item concerned the Washington Ave and Traffic Calming and Paving Project and its cost of more than $44,000.  At least three residents were not happy.

The project would create a raised crosswalk, speed humps, curb extension, information and directional signage and parking on the sidewalk on Washington Street between Pierce and Cerrito.

Michael, a bearded man in his early 50s, came armed with official documents. He failed to understand why the project called for so many new crosswalks including three on Cerrito Street where he lives.

“Where does it end? How do we end up with seven of these things?” To him – and the residents he said he represented – the work would fail to make the streets more accessible. Although he left the meeting before explaining, it appears that the ramps might actually make the street less accessible.

Another Albany resident Clovis Gott said he wanted to postpone the adoption of this project, because of “some ambiguity in the staff report, and some of the lack of awareness among other people on the Washington street.”

Polk street neighbors were also unwilling to give the project a pass and Debora Dann from Polk said the “neighborhood would like more input.” She questioned whether the city had really listened to them on earlier meetings in which they were offered a completely different vision of this plan.

Robert Gonzales, who is in charge of the project for the city, said he had indeed listened to the neighborhood’s input.

But at the end Council member Nick Pilch and Vice-mayor Rochelle Nason agreed that the item should be set aside while more neighborhood meetings were held.

Frustrated, Mayor McQuaid wanted it to move forward, but she could see that was not going to happen. “I think there are some more opportunities to discuss this,” she said.” I want to stop it now and have other conversations come back here.”s

Satisfied, the residents who had objected left the Meeting.