Op-ed: COPA is an idea whose time has come
Local nonprofits and residents rallied in front of San Jose City Hall on Dec. 15, 2021 in support of an anti-displacement housing policy. File photo.

    San Jose is experiencing a devastating displacement crisis. Low-income communities, primarily people of color, are being torn apart as rents and home values continue to rise, even during the pandemic.

    Over a million and a half people have moved out of the Bay Area in recent years, the overwhelming majority of them because they could no longer afford housing costs. Thousands of those who were unable to move became unhoused.

    As part of San Jose’s response to the human suffering caused by the crisis, the City Council directed its Housing Department to study and develop a proposal for a Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA). In the past year, they have convened numerous advisory committee meetings on COPA and held several community hearings.

    What is COPA? As its name suggests, COPA is a program to give tenants and/or nonprofit community organizations an opportunity to purchase rental housing whenever it is offered for sale. It gives tenants or community organizations the right to make the first offer, and the right to match the final offer. Contrary to some real estate industry propaganda, COPA does not ever require an owner to sell to a nonprofit, and does not even require them to sell their property at all.

    What are COPA’s benefits? Most importantly, it will help prevent the displacement of tenants when speculators purchase properties with the intent to “upgrade” them by increasing rents as fast as possible. Preventing displacement stabilizes neighborhoods, stabilizes the local workforce and helps children’s education by keeping them from having to move from school to school.

    By assisting purchases by tenants or mission-oriented nonprofits, it will allow the apartments included to remain permanently affordable for generations to come. COPA will also allow for tenant engagement and tenant empowerment, including the potential to actually purchase the apartments they live in, either by forming a limited equity co-op or by participating in a community land trust.

    Real estate lobbyists claim COPA will require a bureaucracy that will interfere with the real estate market. However, the only actual impact on the real estate industry will be to require, in some cases, a modest extension in the time it takes to complete a sale. This would barely be a blip on the radar screen of the hot Silicon Valley real estate market. More importantly, the real estate market, as it operates now, does not work at all for low-income tenants and aspiring first-time home buyers.

    When families are displaced, it can literally destroy their lives. It can separate them from their jobs, their community, their churches or temples, their schools and/or subject them to crushing commutes. In many cases, it forces people to move whole families into single rooms or converted garages, and sometimes causes them to become unhoused altogether. Interfering with this kind of displacement is not a bad thing, but a good thing.

    Displacement is so serious that we need to address it by every means available. New affordable homes are essential, but we also need to ensure preservation of so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing” as well, wherever it still exists. COPA can help us do this. A similar program in Washington, D.C. has saved some 1,400 units since 2015.

    The real estate industry claims COPA is a threat to property rights, but the truth is the opposite. COPA will help extend property rights to tenants who would otherwise never have the opportunity to purchase a home in San Jose.

    COPA is a rare opportunity for San Jose to help correct its historic support of racial exploitation and discrimination in housing by allowing renters, who are primarily people of color, the opportunity to become homeowners at last. The only people really threatened by COPA are the speculators looking for outsized profits with rapid-fire cash purchases. With all due respect, the San Jose City Council would do well to ignore their complaints, and listen instead to the tens of thousands of low-income tenants and essential workers teetering on the edge of survival.

    Sandy Perry is president of Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. Thao Le is a member of Việt Unity. Father Jon Pedigo is the priest of Diocese of San José and director of advocacy and community engagement of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. Lavere Foster is policy and advocacy coordinator of the African American Community Service Agency. Milan Balinton is executive director of the African American Community Service Agency.

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