San Jose housing advocates stage Halloween protest to preserve Ellis Act
Protesters wore Mayor Sam Liccardo masks in front of City Hall on Halloween while denouncing potential changes to the Ellis Act, a rent control law. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    “Trick or treat” had a new meaning at San Jose City Hall Thursday, when protestors dressed up as Mayor Sam Liccardo and waved signs condemning the lawmaker for handing out “treats” to developers.

    Holding a Halloween-themed news conference, top labor leaders from the South Bay denounced making any changes to a rent control law they said will weaken protections for tenants. The City Council on Tuesday is set to consider amending the city’s Ellis Act law by tweaking how many units would have to be put back under rent control after redevelopment.

    Housing advocates are concerned that amending the law, meant to help low-income tenants stay in their homes, will cause displacement among communities of color and low-income families.

    “Over 40,000 households – a majority of who are Latino or African American – live in rent-controlled apartments in San Jose,” said Delma Hernandez, a community organizer for Latinos United for a New America. “The average rent in these units are among the only options for low and moderate income families in the city.”

    The Ellis Act requires developers who demolish or remodel an existing rent-controlled apartment to put at least half of the new units or the number of old apartments taken off the market – whichever number is greater – back under rent control.

    But some city lawmakers are concerned that the 50 percent rent-control mandate disincentivizes developers from building. Back in February, Liccardo and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones asked city officials to study whether the city’s Ellis Act was limiting development by making it harder for developers to build housing. They claim that fear was confirmed after housing officials released letters from several pro-development groups who said the current law halts housing production, in effect slowing down the mayor’s plan to build 25,000 new units in the next five years.

    Now, developers and pro-business groups are advocating the city only require that developers put back the amount of rent control units that were removed – instead of half of all new units. A recommendation from city housing and economic development officials calls for capping the number of units put back under rent control to seven times the number demolished units, which can benefit higher-density developments,

    “The current requirement that 50 percent of the units constructed be recontrolled has disincentivized the development of new housing,” wrote Anil Babbar, vice president of public affairs at the California Apartment Association, in a letter to the City Council. “The goal laid out by Mayor Liccardo will help meet the demand for housing. The recent changes to incentivize the development of high-rise housing in the downtown carries the potential to create a significant number of units. CAA proposes that city eliminates any recontrol provision on all new units. This would maintain the current stock of affordable units while greatly expanding the housing supply.”

    As developers push to put fewer units under rent control during redevelopment, housing advocates aren’t going down without a fight. The protestors Thursday marched to Liccardo’s office demanding to see him and voice their concerns. The mayor didn’t come out, but two staffers from his office listened to the protestors and took notes.

    Just days away from the momentus vote, some residents said the law is vital for keeping the low-income community housed and accused the mayor of giving hefty handouts to wealthy developers.

    “These new homes being built are only going to be available for wealthy people. We need to keep and preserve – not tear down – housing, especially because what’s being torn down are affordable units,” said San Jose resident Milt Krantz, who has lived in public housing for the last 16 years. “If we can’t make the Ellis Act incentives better, for God’s sake don’t make them worse.”

    Labor leaders are also fighting to preserve another San Jose housing law, which currently requires all market-rate developments with 20 or more units to designate 15 percent of those apartments as affordable or pay a fee to an affordable housing fund.

    City lawmakers Tuesday will consider amending the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which could change this rule and provide developers with fee exemptions. Both hosing proposals will be heard at next week’s City Council meeting.

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter. Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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