Heritage Park seniors in Richmond call rent hikes unaffordable, garner support from city

Zack Haber
6 min readDec 21, 2023
Left to right: Dolores Ferrell, Donald Roberts, Samuel Lewis, Elda Fontano, and Timothy Sykes stand in front of a Christmas Tree at Heritage Park at Hilltop Affordable Senior Apartments in Richmond on December 12. Photo by Zack Haber.

Some tenants at an affordable senior apartment facility in Richmond called Heritage Park at Hilltop have been speaking out against what they see as excessive rent increases. Low income tenants like 72 year old Elda Fontano worry that the 5% increase they received on December 1 could price them out of the facility. The tenants have garnered support from city officials, who are questioning if 5% rent increases are affordable for Richmond seniors.

“This 5% increase is killing me and eventually it’s going to send me right out the door,” said Fontano.

Richmond Councilmember Melvin Wills said that conversations with tenants have shown him that many are already struggling with rent costs and that he thinks the goal for affordable housing facilities should be “stabilizing the community at hand.”

“I know that technically [Heritage] is considered affordable housing for the region,” Willis said. “But if you’re going to be increasing rents knowing that people can’t afford it and it’s just going to open up the space for someone who can, I identify that as a problem even if it is legal.”

The rent increase is legal, but is still straining Heritage tenants

Heritage, which opened in the year 2000 and has 192 housing units, is owned and operated by the Roseville based USA Properties Fund, inc. The company receives federal funding for the facility through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and has just over 100 apartment complexes operating or under construction. Most of them are affordable facilities, and about half of them are senior apartment facilities, like Heritage, for those aged 55 and older.

A sign at Heritage Park at Hilltop that shows the layout of the facility. Photo by Zack Haber on December 12.

Rents at Heritage fall within what the state legally allows affordable housing providers to charge. The California Tax Credit Allocation Committee calculates and monitors maximum allowable rents for the low income housing program. According to a spokesperson for USA Properties, the committee has set Heritage’s maximum allowable rent based on income levels of 60% of the area median income. These limits are $1,909 for two bedroom apartments and $1,601 for one bedroom apartments. The spokesperson said on average, Heritage tenants are charged $1,523 for two bedroom apartments and $1,432 for one bedroom apartments. Other than providing these figures, no one from USA Properties provided further comment or answered questions for this article.

The formula that the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee uses to calculate maximum rent costs at affordable senior facilities poses difficulties for Richmond residents. It’s based largely on area median income at the county level. But census data show that, on average, Richmond residents make less money than the rest of the county. While the average per capita income for all of Contra Costa County between 2018 and 2022 was around $59,000 per year, the average per capita income in Richmond during that time was around $39,500 per year. The formula doesn’t account for fluctuations in income throughout a county, so the committee allows companies to charge Richmond residents as much in rental costs as those living in wealthier towns like Lafayette, whose per capital income is around $111,000 per year.

The comparatively high costs of rent are straining Heritage residents like Fontano and her neighbor, 62 year old Samuel Lewis. Both are on fixed incomes, can’t work because they have disabilities, and say they have trouble affording basic necessities like food. Fontano spends over half her monthly income on rent. Rent makes up over 70% of Lewis’s expenses.

City officials have recently supported Heritage residents. During a city council meeting on November 28, council members Cesar Zepeda and Melvin Willis asked staff to approve a letter asking USA Properties not to implement the 5% increase and to reevaluate future increases. The letter stated the increase could force residents “to sacrifice other needs to keep up with their housing cost” and possibly drive them to homelessness. The City Council unanimously agreed to send the letter, although USA Properties still raised the rents.

Affordability complaints are not new, nor is support from city officials

Complaints about affordability are not new at Heritage. According to a city report, around 30 Heritage tenants expressed concerns to Richmond’s Rent Board and City Council shortly after receiving word that their rent would increase much as 12 percent in March of 2018. Some tenants said they feared they would be left homeless or “unable to buy medication or enough food.” In response to their concerns, the City Council passed a resolution in June of 2018 that stated it was “in the best interest of the city” to take a stand against the rent increases at the facility. According to Willis, who also is an organizer with the grassroots housing justice group Alliance of Californias for Community Empowerment, tenants organized through that group to push back against the 12% increase. USA Properties agreed to lower the increases to 3%.

In February of 2019, the Richmond Rent Board adopted a resolution capping rent increases at Heritage at no more 5% a year. The resolution also covered all of the approximately 30 other housing facilities in Richmond that receive Low Income Housing Tax Credit funds. USA Properties increased Heritage tenants’ rent by 5% in 2019, then in 2020 and 2021, rent was not increased while Contra Costa County had a moratorium that banned residential rent increases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the 5% rent increases started up again in 2022 though, some residents again took their complaints to the city, saying the increases were now at too high a rate to be affordable. In August of that year, Heritage resident Laureen Lober told Richmond’s rent board in a public comment that due to the rent increase, “routine maintenance, utilities, cable, and internet might not be possible because living expenses are a struggle.”

In a November 7 of this year, shortly after receiving word that Heritage rents were again being raised 5%, Fontano submitted a public comment to City Council stating that the rent increase was especially burdensome as living expenses where rising while her and her neighbors incomes were stagnating.

“Please do whatever you can to help us or a lot of seniors in this affordable complex are going to end up homeless,” she wrote.

In their comments, both Lober and Fontano also complained of reductions in services and amenities as the rents were increasing. Lober complained that “dumpsters that residents were paying for have been removed causing an overflow of garbage,” while Fontano mentioned that a holiday event budget at the site was being reduced.

Tenants have begun meeting collectively about issues at Heritage

In response to affordability, service and amenity issues, tenants at Heritage formed a tenants association that began meeting last July. According to Lewis, about 30 people have been coming to the weekly meetings, and the association has had success in getting a trash service resumed that had been stopped. When a woman was temporarily displaced due to a habitability issue, the association was also able to inform her that USA Properties owed her a higher living expense stipend than the company had been paying, and she was then able to secure the higher stipend.

“We’re able to decimate information a lot more than in the past,” Lewis said about the association. “It’s a move in the right direction.”

Willis said he wants to continue to support the tenants. He feels the 5% rent increase cap at Heritage and other low income senior facilities may no longer be sufficient.

“With inflation going up and folks who are on fixed income or in debt because of COVID,” Willis said. “We may need to revisit the 5% cap rent increase and what the impact on residents is going to be.”

Note: A slightly different version of this story is slated to be published by the Post News Group.