Activists plan a San Jose community land trust for affordable housing
Silicon Valley renters and housing advocates demand more protections for tenants in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

Fed up with astronomical rents that are squeezing out families, San Jose housing advocates are taking matters into their own hands.

A trio of community groups have teamed up to form the first-ever community land trust in San Jose — an innovative strategy that would allow them to buy scarce land as a community and forever preserve it for affordable housing.

“It’s a good solution because it makes housing permanently affordable and takes it off the speculative market,” said Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network, one of three groups working to create the “South Bay Community Land Trust.” “We would use the land in the interests of the members of the community land trust — not for a political agenda.”

The first modern community land trust was created in 1969 in Georgia. Today there are more than 300 land trusts across the country, including seven in the Bay Area in cities like Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto.

The idea involves creating a community-controlled nonprofit that would acquire, own and manage the land. Using a Democratic process, the group then decides how to develop the land in the best interest of the community. That could mean a shopping center, a park or community center. In San Jose, Perry said, the land would specifically be prioritized for affordable housing.

Residents would lease units from the South Bay Community Land Trust, which would receive funding to buy land from grants and donations. Perry said his network is teaming up with Serve The People San José, a grassroots organization whose members chained themselves to seats inside City Hall to protest selling 11 acres of public land to Google for a new tech campus. Somos Mayfair also is exploring the idea of a community land trust, said executive director Camille Llanes-Fontanilla.

“At the same time we are organizing against Google, we are working on creating this new entity,” said Jocelin Hernandez of Serve The People San José. “In other cities, community land trusts have been an organizing tool against eviction. It’s a very flexible model so it can also look like acquiring an apartment building, single family homes, even businesses.”

Hernandez said the South Bay coalition has looked to the Oakland Community Land Trust as a model. Executive Director Steve King said the trust was formed a decade ago to tackle the foreclosure crisis, and today it owns 33 properties — including community gardens and artist housing — with a focus on smaller multi-unit buildings.

“We realized that there is this huge gap in the market,” King said. “If you live in a 8-unit building and it’s for sale or there’s eviction pressure, there is almost no alternatives for you. We really stepped into that space with a plan to work with tenants to preserve those units.”

Across the Bay, the San Francisco Community Land Trust owns 13 buildings with more than 100 units that house working families, nurses and teachers — people who couldn’t otherwise afford renting in the city, organizers said.

“It’s always a fight, but we’ve had incredible success,” said Megan Svoboda, outreach and education manager at the San Francisco Community Land Trust. “We’re pushing against what is considered the norm – everyone in America looks at land and sees it as something to be invested in and make profit off of. But when you have land that’s controlled and owned by the community, they’re able to look at the community and say, ‘What do we need?”

If the public land near Diridon Station in downtown San Jose had been given to a community land trust instead of Google, Svoboda said, it could’ve been used for low-income apartments, a child care center or park.

“If we don’t fight against our public land being sold to big corporations, we could just lose it all,” Svoboda said. “And that means people who are already making so much money and benefitting from the system are going to keep doing that and making more money off all of us.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow her @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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