The mayor of San Jose standing at a podium holding a microphone
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks Tuesday at the Boccardo Reception Center during a memorial for 201 unhoused people who died in Santa Clara County in 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

As Yogi Berra famously said, this is deja vu all over again.

San Jose is setting up a replay of the same budget battle it went through last year. Once again, Mayor Matt Mahan and his allies are floating a proposal to redirect Measure E funds away from permanent affordable housing and into emergency solutions for homelessness.

Once again, many of them are claiming that permanent affordable housing is too expensive and too slow to build. But the real answer to homelessness is the one repeatedly stressed in the Community Plan to End Homelessness, recently reaffirmed by the San Jose City Council. In addition to homelessness prevention, it is a combination of both permanent affordable housing and interim solutions.

Studies have proven over and over again that the primary cause of homelessness is unaffordable rents. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, every $100 increase in median rent in some 20 cities around the country was associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate. While interim solutions are absolutely necessary in the short term, we cannot make real progress unless we simultaneously take concrete steps to provide the affordable housing necessary to stop and reverse the rise in rents. We cannot kick the can of affordable housing down the road.

Everyone knows that in San Jose, for every unhoused family we house, nearly two other families become unhoused for the first time. Thinking we can solve homelessness by focusing only on housing the existing unhoused people, without addressing the systemic factors generating new unhoused people every day, is the definition of insanity. Emergency prevention measures are helpful and necessary, but insufficient to reverse the underlying trends pushing rents higher and higher and our families out into the streets.

Even for addressing the needs of the currently unhoused, permanent affordable housing is indispensable. Without a permanent place to move to, people in shelters or temporary housing are at high risk of returning to the streets when their interim time is over. People in shelters or interim homes are still considered unhoused, and their lives continue to be unstable and miserable.

Equally important, affordable housing is not just an issue for the unhoused, but also for the majority of San Jose residents — especially renters — who voted to pass Measure E in 2020. The city’s own December 2023 survey found that providing more affordable housing was the second highest priority of its residents, after addressing homelessness.

In Silicon Valley we have a fundamental mismatch between rents and working class incomes, especially in communities of color. About 48% of San Jose renter households are rent-burdened, and 22% are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on rent.

The mayor’s framing of the affordable housing issue as simply attracting investment in jobs and housing is misleading and needs to be changed. As his March budget message points out, investment in market-rate housing will only happen when “rents rise over time” — which is the opposite of affordability. Investment in affordable housing is typically only attracted when local funds are invested first, and in San Jose that will require that we stop any new diversion of Measure E housing funds to other uses.

The charge that affordable housing is too expensive and “unsustainable” has to stop. If people in the rest of the country heard us complaining that Silicon Valley is too poor to be able to house our own people, we would be the laughing stock of America. Of course new homes cost $1 million — that is the going rate for a house in San Jose these days. But Silicon Valley has the money.

What the critics fail to point out is that we as local taxpayers only pay a fraction of that cost. Our tax dollars leverage significant state, regional and federal funds that pay by far the largest part of the price tag. In fact, former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis wrote a recent article complaining that Santa Clara County residents are paying $198,000 per unit for the 4,800 homes being built by Measure A.

Nor is the solution displacement, as advocated by some landlords, real estate developers and their apologists. They tell rent-burdened residents to “just leave.” But a community is and has to be much more than a network of cash business transactions. It is a convergence of living and breathing families, neighbors, religious congregations, community organizations and common aspirations — with deep historic roots in many cases. No responsible urban scholar or policy maker advocates breaking this up.

Displacement destroys communities, reduces diversity, tears families apart, erases culture, damages the environment, ruins quality of life, undermines economic opportunity and increases inequality and homelessness. Displacement is not the solution in Silicon Valley, it is the problem.

Sandy Perry is vice president of South Bay Community Land Trust.

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