New South Bay Community Land Trust asks water district for land

A nonprofit group dedicated to securing land for affordable housing is asking the Santa Clara Valley Water District to donate some of its public land for low-income housing  — beginning with San Jose’s Mayfair district.

The South Bay Community Land Trust, the region’s first land trust for affordable housing, launched in late April and its leaders attended the water district’s homeless encampment committee meeting Monday afternoon to make the pitch for the public agency gifting the land to the community land trust.

“The purpose of the land trust is to combat deterioration, land speculation and displacement and expand housing and economic development opportunities for low-income and moderate income residents in the county,” South Bay Community Land Trust President Liz Gonzalez said during the meeting. “We strive to preserve the quality of life for residents throughout Santa Clara County, and foster leadership through a responsible and informed board of community members.”

Land trusts form with the intention of acquiring property and transforming it into something that benefits the community, such as affordable housing, a park or community garden. The trust secures property that may otherwise be scooped up by developers eager to turn a profit, effectively preserving it for low-income housing amid a scarcity of land. The model is used by roughly 300 groups across the country, with seven community land trusts in the Bay Area — including Oakland and San Francisco.

Similar to the new South Bay Community Land Trust, the other Bay Area land trusts focus on affordable housing. Oakland’s land trust — OakCLT — also supports development that serves low-income residents whether it be agricultural, commercial or open space.

During the Monday meeting, South Bay land trust members urged water district board members to enter into a long-term partnership in which the two groups would work together to identify affordable housing opportunities on surplus land. The group also asked specifically to make use of district-owned land located at 110 South Sunset Avenue — a vacant home that could be repurposed to house a large family or small group of homeless individuals.

“We do think it’s a wise use of your resources,” said land trust member Sandy Perry. “It will have a good, positive impact on your image and it will help solve one of San Jose’s most serious problems which is people who don’t have a decent place to live.”

The board responded by saying there are limitations for what the water district can do, and the request could be construed as a gifting of public funds — which is generally not permitted in government agencies.

“We’re not a social service industry,” said the district’s legal counsel Anthony Fulcher.

Fulcher added, however, that when the district does have surplus land it is required to first make it available for housing.

The group was encouraged to speak with Eli Serrano, the district’s real estate agent.

After the meeting, Perry said the land trust members won’t give up. They plan to return to subsequent meetings to convince Valley Water’s officials that their request for public land fits into the district’s overall mission of providing clean drinking water.

“If they want to keep the creek clean they’ve got to do something about the homeless crisis,” he said.

Perry says the group hasn’t identified additional agencies to acquire land from but plans to look into it.

Also on Monday, Valley Water’s board members discussed homeless sweeps and the district’s ability to keep up with clean-up efforts given limited funds.

Several members of the audience strongly opposed the homeless sweeps and claimed trash remains on site and unhoused residents are mistreated by officials. “They’re not cleaning up after the sweeps,” said San Jose resident Gail Osmer during public comment. “That trash has been there for a year.”

The committee’s homeless advocate, Robert Aguirre, suggested the water district work with homeless residents during clean-ups, providing them with trash bags to help with the efforts.

Committee Chair Richard Santos noted that while the board can’t condone people living near the creeks, it might work with the people who are residing in those sensitive habitats. Santos suggested that the board meet again in two months to put together a plan.

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Chief of External Affairs Rick Callender serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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