SAN JOSE — Robert Aguirre first moved into his apartment in San Jose, California in 2014 after living for years in a homeless encampment. San Jose, the country’s 10th largest city with more than 1 million people, is in the heart of Silicon Valley – a region that produces more wealth than the gross domestic product of some nations.
Despite that fact, 1 in 3 households here does not earn enough to survive. The housing crisis is putting the squeeze on renters like never before. A family needs to earn $113,040 just to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. Rents have skyrocketed in the past few years, increasing by nearly 40 percent since 2011.
Earlier this year, despite paying his rent on time and following the rules of his lease, he and his wife were served a no-cause eviction notice in April. “There was no cause, but I understand why,” he said.
Robert believes his landlord wanted to move him and his wife out in order to be able to raise rents even higher. Because of the notice, Robert had just 60 days to find a new place, and with San Jose’s rising rents he feared his family would be homeless once again.
His story exemplifies the battle tenant rights activists here have been fighting for more than 40 years. And this year, after decades of organizing, activists and tenants won Just Cause Eviction Protections for over 400,000 tenants. The story is one of heartbreak, perseverance and strategic campaigning led by the Silicon Valley Renters’ Rights Coalition.
It’s worth remembering the long history in this region. In 1979, renters’ rights advocates won rent control in the South Bay after a long and hard fought battle with landlords. It was among the weakest of rent control ordinances in California, with various work-arounds for landlords who wanted to exceed an already high cap. Yet, it was a hard-fought ordinance, which barely passed the City Council. Renters needed protection from unfair evictions as well, but at the time the votes just weren’t there.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, during the first tech sector dot-com boom, when the struggles of low-income service workers in the growing tech economy included competing with an increasing number of high-wage workers for housing. Tenants were seeing double digit rent increases.
Families in rent controlled units were receiving no-cause eviction notices regularly so that landlords could increase rents to market rates. A community-labor coalition led by renters came together, but there was still not enough support or power to win the votes from the San Jose City Council to accomplish significant housing reform.
Since then, low-wage renters in rent-controlled units have had to tolerate major uncertainty. Without just cause eviction protections, tenants live in fear of retaliatory evictions or evictions simply because they want to raise the rent to market rates.
In the past 18 months, the worsening housing crisis pushed the community to get deeply involved in Election 2016. Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, advocates organized to place renters’ rights measures on the ballot in nine cities. Renters got involved with progressive City Council members.
They did town hall meetings, candidate forums and non-partisan voter outreach to reach tens of thousands of renters on our issues platform, which highlighted stronger rent control and just cause eviction protections. This set the stage for reform as the San Jose City Council finally comprised a majority open to meaningful housing reform.
Escalating public rallies and organizing, in early 2017, advocates first won the City Council’s support for a rent registry to facilitate enforcement of rent control, and they also blocked banking provisions that would have contributed to destabilization of rents. These victories affect over 45,000 housing units and were indicative of a strong leadership receptive to meaningful progress for Silicon Valley residents.
Advocates continued to bring pressure to bear for better eviction protection. Our coalition partners were relentless in their community organizing efforts. Renters were rising up – and not just in San Jose, but across the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the new makeup of the San Jose City Council, renters could finally impart how and why passing a policy to prevent retaliation for raising housing code violations would be inadequate in protecting renters from arbitrary evictions.
In April, the Silicon Valley coalition held a press conference, attended by several City Council members. It highlighted renter stories, as well as Working Partnerships USA’s new report, “Cashing In on Renters.” The report showed that while housing reform opponents liked to claim that most landlords were hard-working small-business owners, the reality is that the vast majority of multi-family housing units are owned by out-of-town landlords.
While over 80 percent of San Jose families earning less than $50,000 pay more than half of their income on rent, the average large landlord earns $2.9 million each year from Silicon Valley’s extreme rents.
In the culmination of a multi-year campaign as part of a much longer struggle, San Jose tenants won the just cause eviction protections on May 9, when the San Jose City Council approved a requirement that landlords demonstrate they have a specific, valid reason for an eviction, such as nonpayment of rent or habitual lease violations.
San Jose renters no longer have to fear being evicted arbitrarily. This historic development has been about 40 years in the making by renters and advocates, including Working Partnerships USA, Latinos United for a New America, Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, People Acting in Community Together, Sacred Heart Community Service, Silicon Valley De-Bug, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, the South Bay Labor Council, and Silicon Valley Rising.
At the City Council’s vote on Just Cause just days after the press conference, the community emerged successful, winning the strong Just Cause policy they sought. In the coming weeks, renters would punctuate the victory by winning an immediate effective date. “I feel a moral obligation to represent my residents – not those who live outside San Jose,” said Magdalena Carrasco, vice mayor of San Jose.
“Our coalition has been an active force in waiting, fervently organizing with the community, tenants and workers, like Robert, to create opportunities for change while growing power to seize on them swiftly,” said Derecka Mehrens, executive director for Working Partnerships USA. “Meaningful housing reform would not have been possible without each partner driving its work forward over the long-term.”
Aleli Samson is a development associate for Working Partnerships USA, a Silicon Valley-based community organization that supports a just economy. On Twitter: @wpusanews. This reflective essay first appeared on the Equal Voice Action website. It is reprinted with permission. Equal Voice Action is a family-led membership organization focused on social and economic equality nationwide. The top image, courtesy of Working Partnerships USA, shows San Jose residents asking their City Council to have a heart for renters on Valentine’s Day 2017.