Trash and debris accumulates at the 7th Street onramp to Highway 280 in San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.
Trash and debris accumulates at the 7th Street onramp to Highway 280 in San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

    Dumping a couch on the side of the freeway in San Jose will soon come with a $10,000 penalty —  one of the highest in the nation.

    The San Jose City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to increase first-offense fines for illegal dumping to $10,000. Currently, the city has three levels for illegal dumping fines: $2,500 for the first offense, $5,000 for the second offense and $10,000 for the third offense.

    “We’re fully aware that fines and inequitable enforcement might have unintended consequences,” Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said. “But it is evident that these same communities are already disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of illegal dumping.”

    Jimenez and Councilmember Raul Peralez, who authored the new policy, hope the fourfold increase in fines will make residents think twice before dumping garbage in places such as parks and homeless encampments.

    A big question for residents is how it will be enforced. Councilmembers said they’re concerned that city officials can’t identify every illegal dumping violation and that without strict enforcement, nothing would change.

    Councilmember Maya Esparza said the new fines don’t differentiate those who dump illegally because they have no resources.

    “They live in a living situation where the junk pickup isn’t feasible,” Esparza said. “If it weren’t for a free dumpster day, they would be forced to dump.”

    Jimenez and Peralez suggested the city offer rewards for people who provide information about illegal dumping to officials. They also proposed delaying fines to educate the public about the increase, offering payment plans and fee waivers for those who are financially struggling and allowing them to join clean-ups as a form of community service instead of paying a fine.

    “The fines are but one piece of this,” Jimenez said.

    The duo also called for more funding from the state to collaborate with the city to address illegal dumping on freeways. This has been a sore spot for the city because City Hall often receives complaints about junk piling up on land the city does not own and can’t clean, leading to agencies pointing fingers at each other.

    City leaders also mulled issues of equity, worrying that the fines could hit communities of color harder. Language barriers, access to the city’s 311 app and lack of access to a hauling company in lower-income neighborhoods could all be contributing factors.

    A 2019 San Jose State University study showed that while 85% of single-family households knew about and used junk pickup services, that dropped to just 50% among rental properties.

    In recent years, San Jose beefed up its efforts to reduce blight, including implementing a citywide illegal dumping patrol team aided by the city’s 311 app and an illegal dumping hotline that allows residents and businesses to report trash pileups. But with most city operations shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, illegal dumping has grown and there’s less staff to take care of it.

    The city averaged 543 monthly requests to clean up illegal dumping sites before the launch of the app in 2019, but that nearly tripled to 1,583 requests per month afterward.

    City reports show that prior to the pandemic, cleaning crews regularly swept 70 hotspots a day, though San Jose has identified more than 160 trouble sites around the city.

    Since the pandemic began, only 25 of the city’s most common dumping grounds—sites with 13 or more clustered illegal dumping incidents—are being cleaned in an effort to save time and money.

    Still, how the fines would be enforced on top of the city’s current efforts is less clear.

    “We can make it a thousand, ten thousand or a hundred thousand, but how we’re going to catch people dumping is really the big issue,” said Councilmember David Cohen.

    Councilmembers discussed different solutions, such as relying on the city’s code enforcement and implementing cameras, although they agreed it might be an expensive solution.

    And the city’s code enforcement division is dealing with its own challenges, including a severe backlog in complaints and a shortage of staff.

    “I really do think there is a space for technology to be used to capture some of these folks,” Jimenez said.

    Councilmembers agreed that the most critical part of the proposal is making resources available for residents to dump their trash legally.

    Homeless advocate Robert Aguirre worried the fines would disproportionately affect homeless residents and would let residents who dump their trash into homeless encampments off the hook.

    “The unhoused people get penalized for this sort of thing,” Aguirre said. “I’m concerned that this will be used again as something to criminalize the unhoused.”

    Some residents such as Jeff Levine, who lives near Roosevelt Park, have long advocated for a stricter fine system to curb illegal dumping.

    “The city is doing a lot of things about illegal dumping,” Levine told San José Spotlight. “I hope they continue aggressively funding the litter pick-up programs. Now is not the time to back down.”

    Jimenez and Peralez said they recognize how fines can single out poorer residents, and suggested that the council discuss “equitable ways” to implement fines and enforce behavior. Their colleagues agreed that Tuesday’s proposal was a good compromise between enforcement and avoiding targeting homeless people.

    To learn more about the city’s bulky item pickup service for homeowners and renters, visit the city’s recycling and garbage page.

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

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