Op-ed: Downtown West sets new standard for addressing displacement and community voice
Google headquarters in Mountain View are pictured in this file photo.

    Google’s San José Downtown West mixed-use plan will transform our city.

    With the City Council set to vote today on the development, much of the conversation has been around shiny renderings of taller buildings and new plazas. But the lasting legacy of this project will be more about our people than our skyline: will San Joseans—particularly brown and Black residents—be pushed out by higher rents and living costs, or will we have the power to invest millions in the things our communities need to stay and thrive here?

    When Google first announced its plans, our organizations set out to hear directly from residents. We hosted meetings in the downtown and eastside neighborhoods that will be most affected. We surveyed hundreds more, asking about their hopes and fears for the project.

    The overwhelming response was that the project must include affordable homes, protection from eviction and good jobs so renters, low-wage workers and people of color can remain in this city we’ve built together. Beyond these features, residents were adamant that this project should give a voice to those most impacted by displacement to play a role in decisions impacting their future, something that has often been missing in San Jose’s debates on development.

    The agreement City Council voted on Tuesday is the result of four years of organizing. It happened because residents came out to community meetings, signed onto our community vision for the project, marched with us through downtown and at Google’s headquarters, emailed city leaders and testified at City Council meetings and so much more. Young people and those most impacted pushed all our collective thinking to be bolder in crafting solutions.

    Together, we made clear that the project must not destabilize our communities. Together with the Latinos United for a New America, Working Partnerships USA, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, SOMOS Mayfair, Sacred Heart Community Services, Affordable Housing Network, PACT, South Bay Labor Council, UNITE HERE Local 19, SEIU-USWW, Teamsters and the Fight for $15, we organized to ensure this project would address the community’s greatest concerns and needs.

    City leaders and Google’s team listened. Google has committed to include 1,000 affordable units in the project, launched a $250 million regional affordable housing fund which has already helped to support over 500 affordable homes in San Jose, and taken steps that will allow thousands of blue collar workers who construct and operate this future campus to have a pathway to family-supporting union jobs.

    The city and Google worked with our coalition of housing advocates, community organizations and labor groups to find solutions to the community’s greatest concerns and to jointly design a grassroots-governed community fund, the largest ever of its kind, to tackle the root causes of our displacement crisis and to give the most impacted power over decisions.

    We collaborated to devise a process to review community benefit funds across the country, to consider best practices, to work with community members to reflect on a governance model that would intentionally address a history of racial, economic and political inequality.

    The result is a fund focused on directing resources into communities of color experiencing or at risk of displacement to tackle the root causes of racial injustice and displacement. The fund will help to support tenants facing eviction and abuse by slumlords to access legal services to ensure their rights to housing, to pilot new models of community owned housing like community land trusts, to support early childhood education and apprenticeship programs targeting neighborhoods most impacted by displacement.

    Instead of politics as usual, we were adamant that this community fund should be truly governed by our community: Grassroots leaders and people with firsthand experience facing eviction, working two minimum wage jobs or being denied a chance because of your name or accent.

    This board should be empowered with real authority over the fund’s strategic plans and yearly budgets, including training to equip all board members for the task of true community governance. And the city agreed.

    Such self-determination would be a strong step towards embedding racial justice throughout the work of the fund: Placing both resources and power in the hands of communities shaped by the scars of exploitation and exclusion—from redlining that kept Black and immigrant families from homeownership, to the Bracero program that used Mexican and Filipino farmworkers for grueling labor while denying them opportunities for integration into a wealthy society.

    With strong community governance, this fund sets an example for how tech corporations and developers should be working to empower the most impacted and knowledgeable members of the community to lead in implementing the plans we need to prevent displacement, so San Jose can remain the diverse, vibrant place we call home.

    Maria Noel Fernandez is the campaign director of Silicon Valley Rising. Camille Llanes-Fontanilla is the executive director of SOMOS Mayfair. Rev. Ray Montgomery is the executive director of PACT: People Acting in Community Together. Nadia Aziz is the housing directing attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

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