East San Jose leaders discuss how housing crisis impacts Latino community
East San Jose residents gathered at the Mexican Heritage Plaza to discuss displacement amid Silicon Valley's housing crisis. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

    A panel discussion on the housing crisis brought dozens of Spanish-speaking residents out to the heart of East San Jose Thursday night to talk about solutions to a problem affecting more than half of the city’s Latino community.

    Prominent voices from the city and Santa Clara County, as well as local leaders from community organizations, spoke at a forum at the historic Mexican Heritage Plaza in the Alum Rock neighborhood, home to the city’s largest Latino community of bilingual and Spanish-speaking residents.

    Hosted by nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, local residents trickled into the cultural center’s main room, waiting to hear solutions from three panelists: East San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, Michael Lane, deputy director for Silicon Valley at Home, and Consuelo Hernandez, division manager for Santa Clara County’s office of supportive housing.

    The crowded room Thursday night was filled with the saturated scent of tacos de canasta, a popular street food sold by vendors on the busy corridors of Mexico City and in some of Alum Rock’s most beloved taquerias. Residents greeted one another before hearing Lane’s presentation on the “three P’s” of housing policy –preservation, protection, and production –all strategies focused on solving the city’s affordability woes as cheerful folklorico music echoed from a nearby room.

    Lane explained how the region’s crisis started and why displacement and gentrification is affecting neighborhoods like Alum Rock. Currently, 24 percent of the county is being gentrified, while 12 percent is at risk of being displaced, he said. A recent anti-displacement study showed that communities of color face the highest risk of displacement, where at least 56 percent of Latino households, such as those in Alum Rock, are at risk of being displaced.

    Michael Lane, deputy executive director at SV at Home, speaks to Latino residents in East San Jose about displacement. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

    “Gentrification is a process where an area of the city changes because of a population with a higher income,” said Lane. “In this moment, cities in our region are not creating sufficient houses for moderate to low income households. There are many challenges to building housing — you have to have the land, the funding and the legal support for projects to get approved.

    “Now is the time to find and implement solutions for this crisis in San Jose and across the region,” he added.

    Jesus Flores, a local business owner and president of the Alum Rock Santa Clara Street Business Association, followed Lane’s presentation by moderating the panel — led entirely in Spanish. He asked each panelist a series of questions on what best practices can be implemented at the local level to mitigate the effects of displacement.

    Carrasco alongside community activists such as SOMOS Mayfair have long been advocating for stronger tenant and workplace protections, as the residents in the predominantly Latino barrio are being priced out of their neighborhoods. She added that antiquated policies rooted in redlining and discrimination have created fewer protections for Alum Rock residents over time, exacerbating the displacement that is now seen today.

    “In the past, people who looked like me couldn’t buy homes,” Carrasco said. “These policies where we couldn’t buy homes were intentional, pushing us into barrios, and because of previous policies we have had fewer protections.”

    During the panel, Carrasco said that just five years ago, the city’s east side had very little representation, which has led to poor policy decisions that have excluded the voices of communities of color. Now, Carrasco said, it’s important to prioritize policies rooted in preservation and protection, such as strong rent control protections like the enforcement of the Ellis Act and production policies that prioritize affordable housing.

    “I remember when five years ago, the few progressives on the council fought to cap how much rent could be increased throughout the city,” said Carrasco. “Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas and Sergio Jimenez are new, and half of the council is Latino for the first time. Half of the councilmembers are progressives, half of the council is fighting, but we’re a total of 11. We need six votes — that’s why local elections are so important. These are the policies that we need to pass.”

    As East San Jose becomes more appealing to developers with San Jose’s BART extension nearing and VTA’s rapid-service line construction along Alum Rock Avenue, some residents have worried these changes will bring dilution and displacement. Hernandez, who represents the county, said that if developers want to build a new development, they need to ask residents in those communities what goods and services are needed to win their support.

    “If there are property owners across the county who want to build in Alum Rock, I ask them, ‘Have you talked to the community organizations? What kinds of services and developments do they want?'” said Hernandez. “It’s important for us to know what the community is asking for and what they need in exchange of new development.”

    Carrasco added that the dream of owning a single family home in California no longer exists, and that cities need to start building multi-family units. Hernandez agreed, saying that cities need to increase their housing stock by also making it faster to build.

    Others at the meeting Thursday said tech companies need to take greater responsibility for the crises the region is facing, resulting from a growing population due to the economic boom in the region.

    Audience member Veronica Goei, executive director of East Side nonprofit Grail Family Services, said the effects of the housing crisis have caused greater traffic for the city, environmental concerns and longer commutes for residents.

    “This is an issue that is affecting all of us, not just this community, but all of San Jose,” said Goei, a resident of more than 25 years. “We really have to engage these companies not just through financial support, but in the planning process to really be a part of the solution. They’re starting to donate more money, but we need engagement, involvement and active participation.”

    Lane agreed, adding that local organizations such as his have been pushing tech companies to help find solutions, but it hasn’t come easy. Finding the right solutions has to be a coordinated effort between the private and public sectors, he said, to mitigate the effects of widening inequality between the classes.

    Lane proposed implementing fees on developers to raise more funds for affordable housing, speeding up the process for building new units and changing zoning requirements to allow more multi-unit development.

    “We are seeing companies in the tech sector barely start contributing to finding solutions, but we’ve been asking them for years,” Lane said. “We have a lot of people who earn a lot of money in this county and a lot of people who don’t earn enough — and no one in the middle.”  

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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