Sherry Davis has lived all over Northern California, from a tree house in the Santa Cruz mountains during the 1970s, to a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, to a condo in Walnut Creek during the dotcom boom.
She never thought that winding road would lead her here — living out her retirement on the fringes of her beloved Bay Area community, far from her friends and fretting over the cost of simple pleasures, like her favorite brand of ginger ale.
"I kept following the cheaper rents," Davis said from the porch of her Vallejo mobile home. "And I don't want to go any further than this."
Davis, who has worked and saved her whole life, might seem an unlikely victim of the Bay Area's affordable housing shortage. She made a name for herself in the 90s when she landed a role announcing for the San Francisco Giants, becoming Major League Baseball's first female public address announcer. She's even featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as part of an exhibit about women in baseball.
But as rents rise to punishing heights throughout the region, even prominent residents like Davis are being pushed out of job hubs in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. These forced migrations are exacerbating the Bay Area's traffic woes as people commute longer distances, and taking an emotional toll on those like Davis who find themselves with no choice but to leave their familiar surroundings.
"It's a wakeup call to everyone," Eduardo Torres, East Bay organizer with Tenants Together, said of Davis' story. "Just because you're successful at one point doesn't mean you can't be forced out of your home eventually. It's very common."
A former actress who still can recite lines from one of her favorite theater roles — Alma in Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" — Davis fell in love with baseball shortly after moving to the Bay Area from Newport News, Va., in 1975. She drove across the country with a friend, and ended up living in a tree house in the redwoods of Ben Lomond, outside Santa Cruz. Five years later, she moved into a rent-controlled, studio apartment in San Francisco's Noe Valley, paying about $400 a month. She spent her nights performing with a comedy troupe in the city, and her days working as a legal secretary. During her free Saturday and Sunday afternoons, she discovered Candlestick Park. It was Chili Davis' rookie year, and Sherry Davis, who isn't related to the ballplayer, relished yelling "Chili, get a hit!" in her booming announcer's voice.
When the Giants announced open tryouts for an announcer in 1993, Davis, who had since left her comedy troupe and no longer acted regularly, showed up, mostly as an excuse to spend a beautiful day at the ballpark. She remembers seeing more than 500 people there to audition, but only eight women. When Davis got up and announced her two batters, the people listening applauded. She landed the job — and a place in history.
"I got a lot of wonderful letters from fathers of daughters, and young girls," said Davis, who qualifies as a "senior," but keeps her exact age a closely guarded secret. "It did my heart good."
For the next six years, Davis worked out of a special booth next to the press box, announcing the starting lineups, batters, changes in players and final score of each game over the stadium's public address system.
In 1993, during Davis' first year with the Giants, her mother died and left her a home in Virginia. When Davis sold the property, she moved to Walnut Creek and bought a one-bedroom condo for about $70,000, with a mortgage of roughly $800 a month. She was making about $5,000 a month as a legal secretary, on top of her work for the Giants. She declined to say how much the Giants paid her.
Davis' luck started to turn in 1999, when the Giants declined to renew her contract and replaced her with another woman — radio personality Renel Brooks-Moon, who still holds the job. Davis continued working as a legal secretary, but in 2005, her car was broadsided by a taxi and she suffered a major concussion. The accident landed her on disability for two years, and unemployed without an income for another two. That's when she lost her condo to foreclosure, and was forced to hunt for cheaper housing.
"It was really hard," she said. "I was looking in Oakland a lot, but at that time you couldn't find $800 apartments anywhere — or $900, or even $1000."
Davis started looking farther away, ultimately settling on a one-bedroom apartment in Concord for $800. "It was ... passable," Davis said, with a pause. The garbage disposal didn't work, the kitchen drawers kept falling out, and the appliances were ancient — but it was a price she could afford.
Until it wasn't. Davis' rent rose nearly 70 percent in five years. Concord is one of many cities in the Bay Area without rent control, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment there has climbed 19 percent since May 2015, according to RentCafe.
Davis' sole income is about $1,700 a month in Social Security payments — she burned through her retirement savings while she was unemployed after her 2005 car accident. When her rent hit $1,350 last year, Davis realized she'd have to pack up and move again, fleeing still farther from the center of the Bay Area.
"I was in the negative every month after it went up," Davis said. "I was scrambling. I was not eating well."
Davis isn't the only one struggling, said Kristi Laughlin, campaign director for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, which advocates for affordable housing and tenant protections. Laughlin has heard from countless residents displaced by high housing costs, which she says leads to stress, isolation and health problems.
"There's an epidemic," she said. "I don't understand why ... cities aren't doing something to deliver preventative care for this epidemic that is hurting families and making families and communities ill."
Davis has been on waitlists for government subsidized, low-income senior housing for more than three years, with no luck. She found a place last year in Vallejo's Carquinez Highlands, a peaceful mobile home park where tall, shady trees line winding roads dotted with quaint wooden street signs. Davis pays about $1,200 a month including water, sewage and garbage fees.
Davis likes her neighbors and loves her colorful garden. But it's lonely and unfamiliar. There's no Peet's Coffee or Trader Joe's, and she has yet to find a clique of fellow artists here. Her friends, who live in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Concord and San Mateo, have to endure long drives and at least one bridge toll to visit.
"Nobody wants to come out here," Davis said, sighing heavily. "I don't feel at home here, is the thing."
All over the Bay Area, seniors are retiring into uncertainty, or uprooting their lives to find places they can afford, Laughlin said. It's no longer just a problem of the poor, nor is it isolated to big cities.
"It's very alarming," Torres said. "People always think these issues with housing are just big city issues...but it's happening in suburbs, too, like Concord. And that should be alarming to anyone."
Davis knows she's more fortunate than many because she has a decent place to live. Her housing trials and tribulations have given her a newfound empathy for everyone who isn't so lucky.
"This has really taught me," Davis said. "It's been an eye-opener. I'm glad for the experience, but I'd like it to be over now, thank you very much."
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