Production vs. preservation: San Jose leaders split on anti-displacement
Photo courtesy of Nadia Lopez.

Increasingly, more families and communities of color in San Jose are struggling to stay in their homes and keep their businesses.

As the city prospers amid an economic boom, vulnerable residents in low-income neighborhoods affected by a spike in development and increasing cost of living expenses are subject to higher rates of displacement in the city, forcing local lawmakers to scramble for solutions to the region’s heightening challenges.

In response to those challenges, city leaders on Tuesday held an hours-long study session on anti-displacement strategies, inviting a panel of local experts to speak and provide solutions rooted in the “three P’s” of housing policy — production, protection and preservation. Officials from the city’s Office of Economic Development and housing department alongside the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley also presented three studies on urban displacement to better understand how rapidly it’s affecting neighborhoods.

“We need to be very intentional about the impact on our vulnerable residents,” said Kim Walesh, director of the Office of Economic Development. “San Jose has always been changing and it will continue to change. Growth that is more inclusive is more sustainable over time.”

Alarmingly, city officials reported that at least 40 percent of San Jose’s residents are at risk of being displaced. That number drastically increases for people of color, where 57 percent of African American and 56 percent of Latino households are most at risk.

Anna Cash, project manager for UC Berkeley’s study on anti-displacement said displacement is caused by eviction, deterioration in housing quality, rent increases, Section 8 discrimination and restrictive zoning policies. While gentrification improves the neighborhood of some residents through improved access to parks, transit and neighborhood amenities, she added, those effects also increase the displacement of low-to-middle income families and businesses.

In San Jose, many low-to-middle income families have not seen an increase in wages, but have experienced a hike in rents. As a result, Cash said at least 57 percent of families earning less than $50,000 a year spend more than half of their income on rent.

Four panelists who spoke on these effects included Nadia Aziz, directing attorney of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, community organizer Victor Vasquez from SOMOS Mayfair, property manager Jeff Zell and Shawn Milligan of KT Urban.

The panelists each held different views on solving the region’s crises. While they concluded that the “three P’s” of housing policy were a step in the right direction, they differed on which “P” to hone in on.

“We have to start with the value that everyone deserves to stay in San Jose. Whatever policies that we come up with have to be community centered and focus on the voices and values of the community,” said Aziz. “We have to move beyond thinking about this from the production.”

Aziz said that policies rooted in protection and preservation are essential in mitigating the region’s crises, agreeing with solutions that prioritize community ownership models and land trusts, stronger rent control protections, such as enforcement of the Ellis Act, and expanding legal services for renters facing eviction. Vasquez agreed, adding that “extremely low income” residents facing the brunt of displacement need to be prioritized and provided with affordable housing.

Zell and Milligan, however, prioritized production, advocating that San Jose makes it too difficult for developers to build housing and said that public-private partnerships can help boost California’s goal of 1.7 million new homes.

“The ‘three P’s’ really need to be changed to production, production, production,” said Zell.

“We need housing in all neighborhoods — not just affordable. We need missing-middle housing,” added Milligan. “There’s evidence that suggests building housing in communities reduces displacement. There’s a perception that housing is bad, but we need to do a better job of changing that.”

City officials also discussed a small business anti-displacement program, which will be based on the Alum Rock corridor in East San Jose.

City officials said the area is heavily threatened by displacement, as only 6 percent of business owners in the area own the property their business sits on, while an uptick in transit development such as the BART extension and the several massive urban village projects in the area make it more susceptible. To offset these effects, housing officials will provide businesses with technical support services and directly work with VTA to develop a mitigation program for San Jose’s BART extension.

Many residents, including some facing eviction and at risk of displacement, spoke to lawmakers Tuesday night and expressed concern that an anti-displacement policy will do little to keep them in their homes if the City Council does not act fast.

“We need to do better,” said Sandy Perry from the Affordable Housing Network. “It’s not a surprise that the 6-5 votes everyone was talking about tonight that all the white councilmembers were on one side and the Latinos on the other. It’s not really about race — it’s really about money. We have to plan ahead, because right now our city is planning to displace people.”

The City Council accepted the report from housing officials, who recommended policy initiatives such as expanding tenant protections, providing a right to legal counsel, supporting community land trusts and a tenant opportunity to purchase, and securing new funds to build affordable housing near transit.

Councilmember Maya Esparza was alarmed when housing officials reported that “building more market-rate housing does not automatically improve affordability for low-income tenants.” She advocated for housing at all income levels.

“I believe very strongly that we need to build housing at all levels. I think we can’t lose sight of that fact, and we hear the opposite, and that’s the myth and this is the fact,” Esparza said.

But Councilmember Raul Peralez cautioned that building more luxury housing may not necessarily help those at the bottom.

“You’re not going to solve this problem from the top down,” Peralez said. “There’s no way we are ever going to build enough market-rate housing to have a trickle down effect. In fact, the opposite may happen, and we may only exacerbate the problem at the bottom. We have to be able to build our way up from the bottom, meaning extremely low-income, very low-income housing that we need to be building at a much faster rate.”

More potential policies are in the pipeline, but housing officials need to conduct public surveys, community and stakeholder meetings, and consult with several city commissions before they can return to the City Council sometime in early 2020.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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