San Jose renters rally for more rights
San Jose resident Heather Rhines said she's been evicted several times because of the lack of local protections for renters. She spoke at a rally on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    A coalition of local groups is calling on the San Jose City Council to prioritize policies preventing displacement of renters amid the ongoing housing crisis.

    The coalition, which includes Sacred Heart Community Service, SOMOS Mayfair, the South Bay Community Land Trust and others, want city policymakers to bolster renter’s rights, preserve affordable rental housing and stop criminalizing homeless residents.

    Roughly 60 people rallied Tuesday at Urban Sanctuary, a church next to City Hall, ahead of the first council meeting of the year, where several new members are taking office. The group marched to City Hall and briefly disrupted the council meeting at its start.

    “There has been too much delay,” Chris Logan, an organizer with Sacred Heart, told San José Spotlight. “The city council needs to get (its) act together and start working on these policies, because the community is not feeling heard.”

    Residents leave after disrupting the San Jose City Council meeting. A coalition of local groups wants the council to prioritize protections for renters. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    The rally for anti-displacement policies comes as the housing and homelessness crises in the South Bay continue to grow. Local officials have raced to build more affordable housing, including on church land. But efforts are not working fast enough, advocates said, as the cost of living and high rents in the region drive thousands away from the area and push others into homelessness. Santa Clara County saw a flood of evictions late last year, another trend local officials are trying to fight.

    The coalition wants the city to move ahead with initiatives such as the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), which would require rental property owners to offer first rights on a sale to tenants or a qualified nonprofit before putting it on the market.

    The program, first enacted in Washington, D.C. in 1980, was part of San Jose’s 10-part anti-displacement plan in 2020 and has gained momentum locally the last few years, but advocates said the city keeps delaying making a decision. The initiative has opposition from homeowners who say COPA threatens their property rights.

    Residents also want city officials to explore a policy giving tenants’ right to counsel, which could help prevent evictions. Similar policies have been enacted in New York City and San Francisco. Roughly 67% of San Francisco tenants who received legal representation avoided evictions between 2018 and 2019, according to city data.

    Former San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez proposed the initiative in September 2021 when the state’s eviction moratorium was set to expire. Since then, coalition members say the city hasn’t explored the idea further.

    The coalition also wants the city to eliminate rules targeting and criminalizing the homeless population, such as policies for parking violations, living in a vehicle or experiencing mental crises.

    “The crisis is getting extreme in San Jose,” Gustavo Flores, an organizer with SOMOS Mayfair, told San José Spotlight. “We understand there’s a process, but we can’t keep postponing these policies.”

    Mayor Matt Mahan said he’s committed to exploring all options to end homelessness and keep residents housed. He didn’t answer questions on if he would prioritize the coalition’s demands.

    “Our best strategy is to build housing faster and more cost-effectively, where it makes sense,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I look forward to a full discussion with my council colleagues on these and other solutions.”

    Displacement, which disproportionately impacts communities of color, is tearing San Jose apart, advocates said. The proposed policies would serve as another layer of protection for vulnerable renters.

    San Jose resident Heather Rhines said she has been evicted several times because of the lack of local renters’ protections, especially the tenants’ right to counsel.

    “Evictions have been weaponized in Santa Clara County,” Rhines said. “The only way we could stop this is to provide (tenants) with an attorney.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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