Amid a housing crisis exacerbated by COVID-19, San Jose leaders approved a 10-part plan to provide rent relief and give nonprofits first dibs on property that goes on the market. The anti-displacement plan was approved Sept. 23 past the 12 a.m. curfew in a 10-1 vote. Councilmember Johnny Khamis cast the lone dissenting vote.
Displacement happens when an individual or family is forced out of their neighborhood due to poor living conditions, rising housing costs, evictions or natural disasters — such as the widespread fires ravaging California or COVID-19. A recent study found more than 40,000 residents in Santa Clara County were at risk of losing their homes during the pandemic.
“In this moment of both COVID-19 and the uprising for racial justice, the work of this anti-displacement strategy has just become all the more important,” said Jeffrey Buchanan, public policy director for Working Partnerships USA. San Jose’s displacement plan obligates city leaders to support federal legislation and private efforts to help tenants and landlords pay off mortgage or rent debt accumulated during the pandemic and eliminate some of the legal costs of evictions. Exploring a Community Opportunity to Purchase Program and Ordinance is another — more divisive — priority. Such a program requires property owners to notify the city when their property goes up for sale, which could provide nonprofit affordable housing developers and tenants advance notice and first pick of property.
Khamis, who has pushed for the city to use existing buildings for affordable housing — in addition to building more — said he’s concerned about potential liability issues resulting from a property owner reporting their intention to sell. “The unintended consequence is you’re going to slow down the process of selling a property,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “And in the meantime, market rates go up and down. So if the market rates go down, and the deal falls apart, then they could sue the city.
”In a Sept. 21 memo, Khamis further detailed his opposition to a right-of-first-refusal process. He said public knowledge that certain agencies or the government is interested in a particular property could drive up prices. Khamis instead suggested engaging with community organizations directly, hiring realtor representatives and purchasing on the open market so the city can avoid possible legal challenges. “I’m really concerned about the creation of more bureaucracy,” Khamis said. “If we simply engage with nonprofits that have experience in managing housing and get them prequalified to make purchase, we can get this plan working very fast.”
Mayor Sam Liccardo opposed Khamis’ plan, citing concerns with engaging with realtors and eliminating the right of first refusal, an idea first proposed in a memo by Liccardo and Councilmembers Lan Diep, Dev Davis, Pam Foley and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones. “We don’t want to take options off the table for community organizations that can make this happen,” Liccardo said.
The plan approved Sept. 23 also calls for giving tenants living near new low-income housing preference to move in so they can stay in their neighborhoods. This would prevent children from having to move schools and would keep residents closer to jobs, friends and family.
“I strongly support the neighborhood tenant preference policy,” Councilmember Maya Esparza said. “We’ve heard from folks across the city that they want to stay in the city.” Esparza noted that the plan could perpetuate segregation and that city staff must provide residents affordable options in all areas. A memo by Esparza, Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas highlighted that people of color are disproportionately affected by displacement and COVID-19. Residents in ZIP codes 95233, 95127, 95116 and 95148 are at the highest risk for displacement, according to the memo.
Forty-seven percent of Latino households in San Jose and 45 percent of Black households live in areas experiencing ongoing displacement or at-risk of displacement, according to data from the Urban Displacement Project. Between 2010 and 2016 more than 1.5 million residents left the Bay Area. Being unable to pay rent — an average of $2,484 per month for a studio apartment or $2,711 for a one-bedroom — was a large factor, according to a 2020 report by nonprofit leaders and city officials.
San Francisco recently adopted a similar plan. “It’s been done in numerous other cities and it’s also pretty important now, thinking back on the 2008 Great Recession, where we saw increases in foreclosures,” Buchanan said. “Rather than homes being sold to the families or to others, you saw these large speculative forces, including a number of big private equity firms, moving in and buying up homes, renting those homes, charging exorbitant rents and evicting tenants at higher rates.”
Buchanan said the city’s previous plans have not done enough to preserve existing properties and affordable housing, but the anti-displacement plan will help fill the gaps. The plan would also increase funds for affordable housing via public and private partnerships to meet the city’s 10,000-unit goal. It would allow places of worship to more easily build housing on their land and increase the range of housing inspections. Retaliatory evictions can result from code enforcement violations.
Currently, the city has inspection processes for multi-family buildings with three units or more, but is looking to expand inspections to condos, duplexes and single-family rentals. The city also is considering adding more commissioners to its Housing and Community Development Commission and the Neighborhoods Commission who are low-income renters and formerly homeless to increase representation.
In 2018, the city adopted a Housing Crisis Response Workplan, which included creating an anti-displacement strategy. That same year, San Jose participated in PolicyLink’s 10-city All-in Cities Anti-Displacement Policy Network, a national group that aims to minimize displacement. The city has worked closely with residents over the past three years on the plan. “We have an opportunity to help out community members in a time of great need and this is a policy we could have used over the last number of years,” Peralez said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Contact Carly Wipf at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.