Yes, it’s an oxymoron and a dream — affordable housing in San Jose, the city with the nation’s largest unsheltered homeless population. Four people died of exposure last winter, and so many more live crowded together in small apartments or vans.
So on September 11th a rally was held at city hall by Sacred Heart Housing Action Committee (SHHAC) along with a coalition of others to continue efforts to inform and persuade both the public and our elected and appointed officials to pass a fee to raise funds for affordable housing. It’s just one helpful idea, one drop in a bucket that was emptied when the Redevelopment Agencies (many for good reason) were disbanded.
Eighteen months from when the effort started, the council and its various bodies studied and restudied, considered and reconsidered, tweaked and retweaked the Housing Impact Fee, almost always lessening the scale and scope of this proposed ordinance that would create over the next twenty-five years 16,000 units of affordable rental housing or 640 units per year — not a radical proposal. Nine other California cities and counties have already passed the fee.
The Insolence of Office, the Law’s Delay
About a hundred people gathered for the rally, some wore bright tee shirts and some held bright yellows signs handed out by SHHAC that read “$28.” The $28 represents the square footage fee that studies show would allow a reasonable profit and still raise some money for housing (in San Francisco that fee is about $65). Two women approached, and I asked if they are here for the rally and whether they’d like to sign a letter to the City Council asking them to vote for the $28 fee.
The first woman bridled and said, “I’m a member of the commission that’s going to be voting on this tonight, and it would be highly inappropriate for me to sign a letter to City Council.”
Before I could answer or introduce myself, she turned and talked to someone else — someone not connected to the rally. I stood there a little shocked. Maybe a commissioner wouldn’t sign a letter, but it’s also not illegal. During the civil rights era, many appointed and elected officials signed public letters. I felt a large gap between myself, an ordinary citizen, and those who make decisions for the city.
One woman who’s been working to stop the conversion of mobile home courts into high-cost housing showed me how, from one meeting to another, the language had been whittled down on a proposed statement. Instead of (I’m paraphrasing from memory but it’s very close) “protect mobile home courts as affordable housing,” it now said “balance the need for affordable housing in mobile homes with property owners’ rights to fair market value.” In other words, one person’s right to make a killing is equal to another’s need to make a living.
Whatever the Market Will Bear
I’ve been thinking about that phrase, and I’ve come to hate it. The market is people trying to live, and over the decades, people have borne grievous burdens, child labor, sixteen-hour days, lethal working conditions, and squalor. “The market” will bear far more than ethical people should ever let it bear.
We Need a Politics of Generosity
Earlier in the week, I was gathering signatures for this proposal at a rummage sale on a very nice street. Two well-groomed older women approached, and I asked, “Have you been affected by the high cost of housing?”
“No,” one woman replied.
“Do you have friends who’ve been affected by the high cost of housing?”
“No, I honestly don’t,” she said. But she read the material and signed the letter. I felt so much gratitude that she would stand up for something that didn’t affect her personally.
There are levels of generosity, and some are humbling. On Thursday, as we set up for the rally, a person who didn’t look at all wealthy came up and said to an acquaintance, “Hey, can I bum a cigarette?”
“I only have one,” the man replied, “but we can share it.”