Pandemic stalls affordable housing plans but creates opportunities for South Bay land trust
Jocelin Hernandez leads a bilingual workshop held by the South Bay Community Land Trust. Photo courtesy of Sandy Perry.

    Luis Moreno knows the struggle for housing in Silicon Valley. His aunt, a single mother with three children, was homeless for three years.

    “We weren’t really able to help her,” Moreno said. “Nobody in our family really had the resources to say, ‘Hey, you can live here.'”

    Moreno says Silicon Valley, one of the richest regions in the nation, has failed to provide stable housing for people like his aunt, which is why he became involved with the South Bay Community Land Trust (SBCLT).

    Community land trusts are nonprofits founded by community members who acquire and manage land, and decide how it will be used. In Silicon Valley, land trusts have focused on providing affordable housing.

    The South Bay land trust was the first one formed in Silicon Valley in 2019, but two years later members admit the most important piece of the puzzle remains missing: acquiring land.

    “The idea to start is just to get one property,” said Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County and one of the co-founders of the land trust. “We haven’t started yet. We still have no property.”

    SBCLT came close before: The trust, which includes nine board members and 50 to 100 volunteers, asked the Santa Clara County Water District to donate land to its cause in August 2019, but the effort fizzled out.

    However, Perry said, the pandemic has created an opportunity for affordable housing with many buildings in urban areas being vacated. Like other local nonprofits, SBCLT has received COVID-19 response funds from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

    With a current budget of approximately $100,000 per year, according to Perry, the trust plans to launch a pilot project to preserve affordable housing projects in a partnership with East San Jose nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair and San Jose’s housing department.

    “There’s no way I can buy a house. There’s no way I can buy an apartment or anything here,” said Angelica Flores, a spokesperson with SOMOS Mayfair. “Being in a collective with your neighbors and with your community will be the only thing that can keep us in San Jose.”

    Preserving affordable housing is a practice used by organizations and cities to ensure units are not lost to developers or to commercial use. Land trusts also remodel existing affordable units to keep them from being demolished.

    “The problem with the mainstream housing market is that it sees housing as an investment — a property used for turning a profit,” said Tiffany Vuong, a tenant rights advocate in Milpitas. “Taking housing out of the speculative market and having it for the sole purpose of living in is key to ensuring that housing is a human right.”

    SBCLT had an ambitious timeline before the pandemic hit, said Liz Gonzalez, the trust’s president. But plans to purchase property were put mostly on hold in 2020 as the trust refocused on preventing COVID-related evictions by offering workshops for tenants.

    “Because of 2020, we did lose a little pep in our step,” Gonzalez said.

    Getting back on schedule is among the group’s priorities, Gonzalez said. The trust is closing in on hiring a consultant who has worked with other Bay Area land trusts. There are also logistics after acquiring land, such as finding public and private financial backers, recruiting community members to spread awareness of the unique housing model and finding small apartment complexes to purchase.

    Gonzalez said the trust is working with a sense of urgency due to COVID-19. Members fear the pandemic will uproot families and put properties at risk to be eaten up by investors for the next luxury development project. Or worse, abandoned properties will remain empty.

    “While we know we need to go slow and steady and build a solid foundation, the other side is that we know we have to act quick,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re thinking about people who can get on as collaborators and supporters to move other initiatives.”

    Since 2019, when SBCLT was founded with “no money and no experience and no 501(c)(3) nonprofit status,” the group has registered as a nonprofit and hired project managers to prepare for the first land purchase, whenever that may be.

    “It’s a fragile situation,” Moreno said. “Not just for my aunt, but for everybody.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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