Bustamante: Black and brown families can’t afford another giveaway to developers 
Residents takes part in a rally in San Jose to demand affordable housing. Photo courtesy of Athena Chow.

Today, the San José City Council faces a choice: Will they create thousands of much-needed affordable homes or will they hand yet another giveaway to corporate developers that write big campaign checks?

Right now, San Jose is the only major city in Santa Clara County that doesn’t have a commercial linkage fee — a fee that “links” the construction of new offices and commercial space to the corresponding need for more affordable homes.

When wealthy developers build new office towers and tech campuses, they drive our rents even higher, making it harder for working people to stay here. In fact, research commissioned by the city found that each square foot of new commercial space creates between $45 and $176 (depending on the type of building) in need for more affordable housing.

For people like Rosa Cordova, those rent hikes could mean being pushed out of San Jose. Cordova is a 16-year resident of San Jose, a mother of four and a community leader with the McLaughlin Tenants Association and Latinos United for a New America.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, making rent meant working 12- to 14- hour days, 7 days a week. With almost 30 million square feet of new high-end office projects being planned (more than all the planned project across the rest of Silicon Valley combined) aiming to lure tech companies to San Jose, Cordova says she is worried her family may not be able to afford to keep living in her neighborhood for much longer.

Cordova is far from alone. One in three Black and Latinx families in San Jose hand over more than half their income to their landlord each month. These are also the families most at risk from COVID-19, most likely to have lost jobs, to be at risk of eviction, to work in low-wage essential jobs and to live in overcrowded housing.

Now, the City Council has the chance to enact a strong commercial linkage fee that could be San Jose’s largest source of affordable housing funding, enough to build nearly 7,000 homes in the coming years. This fee is a chance to prevent mass displacement of Black and brown families and the loss of our culture and neighborhoods.

Yet instead of standing with families like Cordova’s, Mayor Sam Liccardo and his allies on the council proposed a lowball commercial linkage fee of $5 to $12 per square foot, even though the city’s own study says developers can afford to pay $25 to $42. It may not sound like a lot, but the difference could pay for nearly 4,500 affordable homes.

Why does the mayor seem to think it’s more important to pad the profits of billionaire developers that have continued to move forward with mega projects regardless of the pandemic?

In the months since shelter in place, office rents have actually gone up in San Jose. Developers have continued to propose new office projects, to begin construction on new office towers and buy nearly $1 billion in land for future projects — declaring the  strength of San Jose’s office market in their words and deeds.

So why such a low fee proposal? Turns out the backers of this lowball fee — Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and councilmembers Dev Davis, Lan Diep, and Pam Foley — have received more than $150,000 in campaign donations from the 10 speculative office developers with the most proposed square footage (either as direct donations or contributions to political committees working on their behalf since 2017).

Companies like Boston Properties, Urban Catalyst, KT Urban and Federal Realty stand to save millions of dollars from these lowball fees compared to what the city’s own consultants recommended in a city commissioned study.

At a time when our city is engaged in a critical conversation on how it lives out its commitments to racial equity, as communities of color continue to suffer from the pandemic and when so many are proclaiming Black and brown lives matter, should not the stability of Black and brown families who rent matter more to our elected officials than the profits of billionaire developers and corporate campaign donors?

If we want to be a city that welcomes and protects all of our residents regardless of race or ethnicity, if we want to prevent the displacement of families and of cultures, if we want to stand up for essential workers, we need a strong commercial linkage fee that ensures major office projects pay $20 to $42 per square foot.

Now is the time to take a stand together to stabilize Black and brown families and to build a more inclusive future where all of us have a safe, affordable place to call home.

Salvador Bustamante is the executive director of Latinos United for a New America (LUNA).

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