Women holding signs and marching on the sidewalk in support of tenant protections in San Jose.
SOMOS Mayfair and a coalition of housing advocates rally in favor of protections for renters ahead of the San Jose City Council meeting on March 26, 2024. Photo by Jana Kadah.

A long-awaited landmark policy will preserve housing specifically for residents at risk of displacement in hopes of keeping them in San Jose.

The San Jose City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the first policy in the city to give tenant preference based on geography. New or acquired affordable housing projects that are city funded or have city-negotiated development agreements must save 15% of homes for low-income residents who live in the same district and 20% for those who come from a district with high displacement rates.

Qualified tenants will have to make 80% below the average median income in Santa Clara County — $181,300 for a family of four or $126,900 for an individual — to qualify for housing, and must prove residency in San Jose. The city plans to create a list of acceptable alternative documentation for those without a utility bill or signed lease agreement.

“This policy is a critical step in the right direction,” Councilmember Peter Ortiz said at the meeting. “By keeping our residents close to their friends, family and communities, we can help them continue to add to the vibrancy, diversity and inclusive city that we have all been able to call home.”

The policy directs existing senior housing sites and city-funded affordable housing projects to adopt the same percentages, but exceptions can be made. Kristen Clements, division manager for policy and planning in the city's housing department, said of the existing and new affordable homes, 415 apartments can be saved for locals.

Salaries have not kept up with San Jose’s skyrocketing housing prices and cost of living necessities, forcing residents to cram into crowded conditions or leave the city entirely. San Jose renters must earn $59 an hour to afford the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment or take on three to four full-time jobs if they earn a minimum wage of $17.55 per hour, according to a 2023 report by the Silicon Valley Pain Index.

Numerous residents during public comment told stories of their struggles with housing and homelessness. Maria Chavez, a leader with Amigos de Guadalupe, said she lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Mayfair neighborhood with her husband and four children.

“The bedroom is for the smaller children and the living room is for my husband, myself and our youngest,” Chavez said.

Councilmembers Omar Torres and Ortiz noted the policy is significant because people of color are more disproportionately at risk of displacement, city data shows. On average, 22% of San Jose renters are severely cost burdened, compared to 24% for Latino residents and 31% for Black residents. The districts with the highest number of households at risk of displacement are in East San Jose.

“It's very, very sad that we're seeing (high rates of displacement there),” Torres said. “We're losing our identity and we're losing our culture.”

A breakdown of cost burden for San Jose renters by race. Table courtesy of San Jose.

Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei's only qualm with the policy is the percentage of homes saved for residents could be higher. She wants to increase the 35% rate to 50% — similar to New York City or San Francisco, which is slightly lower at 40%.

Deputy City Attorney Christopher Alexander said San Jose is being more conservative with its approach because New York City was sued for its implementation, and the city didn't want to find itself in the same mess.

“Fair housing requirements (require us) to be sensitive when we implement any sort of geographic preference policy because it will ultimately benefit certain people and not benefit other people, so we had to be mindful of that,” Alexander said.

Several councilmembers noted the policy is essentially obsolete without more affordable housing development. As the city drafts its new budget, councilmembers must contend with how to divide up limited resources between temporary, quick-build homeless housing and permanent affordable housing.

On Tuesday, councilmembers allocated $39.5 million to help construct two affordable housing developments. West San Jose’s Kooser Apartments will have 191 apartments, and a new East San Jose project at 525 North Capitol will provide 160 homes.

Before the council meeting, more than 100 housing advocates and residents from groups including SOMOS Mayfair, Amigos de Guadalupe, the South Bay Community Land Trust and the NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley rallied to urge the adoption of the tenant preference policy.

The policy, first introduced by councilmembers in 2017, is a long time coming. It faced delays because previous state law prevented cities from implementing specific restrictions on housing.

For advocates pushing from the start, like Olivia Ortiz, Tuesday's vote was triumphant. Still, more work needs to be done, the SOMOS Mayfair community leader said.

“This policy is going to help prevent displacement, but it's not the only solution,” Olivia Ortiz told Lucescamaray Blog. “There's people that have been displaced, people that live in the streets. I'm talking about students, families, a lot of people. But hopefully, this is a step in the right direction.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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