‘Cockroaches, mold, fraying carpets’: San Jose tenants protest living conditions
Margarito Gomez, a member of the KDF Tenants Association, speaks during a protest outside the Orchard Glen Apartments in San Jose on July 14, 2023. Gomez has lived at Orchard Glen for 17 years. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    A group of San Jose tenants are organizing to call out their corporate landlord for poor conditions and spiked rents across several low-income apartment complexes.

    The KDF Tenants Association represents more than 1,000 residents from four different affordable complexes in San Jose, which are owned by Newport Beach-based KDF Communities. Tenants picketed outside Orchard Glen Apartments in the Seven Trees neighborhood yesterday, and said previous efforts such as petitions and letters pushing KDF to improve conditions and lower rents have mostly failed.

    The real estate firm owns and runs thousands of affordable apartments across California, Washington and Colorado, and has been the target of lawsuits and complaints about fires and decrepit living conditions in its buildings.

    “I have seen my neighbors dealing with cockroaches, mold, fraying carpets and broken appliances. Even when they come to fix the problems, the repairs are rushed and low quality,” Orchard Glen Apartments resident Bertha Espinosa said through a translator while protesting outside the complex office.

    Espinosa said she recently had a three-foot hole open in her apartment ceiling, and after reporting it to management, didn’t hear back for several days—the hole wasn’t fixed for a week.

    Tenants from the KDF Tenants Association protest outside the Orchard Glen Apartments in San Jose. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Espinosa said her family uses about 80% of its monthly income to pay rent.

    “If this current negligence continues, it will only force more of my neighbors to move out,” she said.

    In addition to consistent increases in rent while tenants’ wages stagnate, organizers said KDF needs to update common areas and provide better security.

    Amanda Valderrama, a regional supervisor for VPM Management, which manages Orchard Glen for KDF, said apartments in the building priced as affordable for people earning 50% to 60% of the area median income received a rent increase of 6% to 7.5% this month. She said studio apartments did not see an increase in rent.

    A family of four at 60% of the area median income in Santa Clara County earns up to $107,000 annually. While rents are set based on that income level, any tenant who earns less than that can live in those restricted apartments, and tenants said the increases are harming their ability to stay in the city.

    “VPM Management has been in communication with the tenant association and continues to work with them,” Valderrama told San José Spotlight.

    KDF at one point last year tried to raise rents as much as 17% to 20% at its Valley Palms complex, but dropped it to 10% under pressure from city officials. About 100 residents and local organizers took to the streets in September to protest in response.

    Tenants’ last resort

    The tenants association, being formed with the support of the Regional Tenant Organizing Network, is a first of its kind for residents living in low-income buildings where ownership benefits from low-income housing tax credits.

    Affordable housing buildings are not subject to local rent laws like San Jose’s apartment rent ordinance or California’s Tenant Protection Act.

    The city had some success in forcing KDF to make renovations and improvements at Valley Palms in recent years by stepping in between the landlord and its tax credit funding, but other problems have persisted, tenants say.

    Doris Meneses, a member of the KDF Tenants Association and Cherry Creek Apartments resident, speaks during a protest outside the Orchard Glen Apartments in San Jose. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    James Huynh, director of the Regional Tenant Organizing Network, said tenants’ concerns have been ignored, and they have been harassed by management when they try to advocate for themselves. The group of tenants, largely immigrant families, has been told by city officials and private attorneys the steep rent increases are legal.

    “This is kind of their only option, to organize and make noise,” Huynh told San José Spotlight.

    Doris Meneses lives in the KDF-owned Cherry Creek Apartment complex with her daughter and son-in-law, and said her rent has increased more than $300 in the past year and a half.

    “Even with all of our incomes combined, we can barely afford the rent. I don’t understand how we live in a low-income apartment if it is so unaffordable for me and my family,” Meneses said.

    She told San José Spotlight she wants more tenants to join the association, even if they are scared, and hopes KDF will come to the negotiating table.

    San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz said he supports the tenants and hopes to amplify their voices.

    “The people who call San Jose home and work here, and provide services, like fast food workers, janitorial workers and security officers, they have a place here in Silicon Valley as well,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “If these property owners are being enabled by government tax credits, they should also be accountable to the people.”

    During the protest Friday, tenants chanted in Spanish, including “Inquilinos unidos jamás será vencido,” meaning “The tenants united will never be defeated,” and “Si, se puede,” meaning “Yes, it can be done,” a storied slogan rooted in the farmworker labor movement.

    The tenants also briefly filled up the apartment complex front office, chanting and holding signs, while Margarito Gomez, a 17-year resident of the building, delivered letters from the association to a building manager.

    “There’s a big debate in San Jose right now around what is causing homelessness,” Sandy Perry, president of the nonprofit Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, told San José Spotlight. “This is a perfect example of what is causing homelessness, if you listen to these people, and all the rent increases people are being asked to pay.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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