Growing up in New Orleans, where roof-stripping squalls are a matter of course, Tyrone Lockett learned how the force of nature could render anyone a nomad. When Hurricane Katrina tore through frail levees in 2005, he watched the devastation from afar as his family lost everything to the floodwater fury.
“Mother Nature comes calling and takes what she will,” says Lockett, who settled in San Jose a year before the Loma Prieta earthquake shattered the cityscape.
But it was another force entirely that prompted the 49-year-old private school chef and his stroke-stricken wife to leave their longtime home: Silicon Valley’s ascendant economy, which turned his rent-controlled apartment into a goldmine.
Lockett recently moved out of his two-bedroom flat at The Reserve, a 216-unit west San Jose complex slated for the wrecking ball to make way for a market-rate replacement with 640 units and 8,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. It’s the kind of dense, urban architecture the state says cities need to fix the housing shortage and drive down living costs.
But there’s a hitch. Satisfying demand by supplanting low-density real estate with taller, more populated mixed-use developments casts existing tenants into a brutal market.
Nowhere is that problem more pronounced right now than at The Reserve, where some 670 residents have less than a year to get out. By the city’s count, it appears to be the largest eviction in Silicon Valley history—possibly the state’s—and it caught San Jose completely off guard.
For context, consider that San Francisco called a drawn-out eviction of 100 tenants from 86 rent-controlled units the largest in the city’s history. At The Reserve, nearly seven times as many people got the boot with far less notice.
To make matters worse, the South Bay city of a million has no policy on the books to help tenants pay for the forced move. This was never supposed to happen, says Randi Kinman, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s policy advisory subcommittee, a regional planning body. Evicting 600-plus people from rent-controlled units conflicts with state-set goals to maintain housing stock for all income levels.
“We kind of brush off displacement from four units here or five units there,” Kinman says. “But at no point has there been any idea that we would see this scale of displacement or that it would remove this many rent-controlled units. When I brought this up at our meeting two months ago, people wanted to know how could this possibly be happening? Everybody just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Holy smokes.’”
The project’s developer, Greystar Real Estate Partners, won city approval months ago and gave residents until next spring to clear out of the 45-year-old complex. Tenants challenged the permit, arguing that the environmental review wrongfully deemed the displacement a “less than significant impact” and that scores of them could become homeless. They lost the appeal in a 7-3 City Council vote last week, despite support from council members Ash Kalra, Tam Nguyen and Magdalena Carrasco.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what we’ll do now,” says Tanisha Orozco, 24, a five-year tenant who’s seven months pregnant and lives in a two-bedroom unit with her husband, their toddler and her mom and dad. “We’ll probably have to move to Sacramento.”
Because no city law requires the landlord to compensate tenants for forced relocation, Greystar drummed up its own offer. According to the latest version, only households making less than 80 percent of the region’s median income qualify. The 40 or so units that meet the threshold stand to gain three months’ rent, a refunded security deposit and help from a “relocation specialist” to scout out a new place.
Tenants who are older than 62, disabled or have at least one child who lives with and depends on them get another $3,000. Greystar also urged people to apply at some of the 8,000 apartment units it owns across San Jose.
“This was voluntary on our part,” says Greystar lobbyist Erik Schoennauer. “We wanted to help people who needed it even though there’s no policy requiring us to do so.”
Tenants say they don’t necessarily oppose redevelopment—The Reserve is apparently teeming with cockroaches and silverfish, and rife with code enforcement and health violations. Several tenants say they lived with overflowing sewage, black mold and holes in the dry wall for days before Greystar sent someone to help.
But the relocation benefits, tenants argue, leave most of them out and doesn’t come close to covering the cost of uprooting hundreds of people, many of whom live on fixed incomes and can’t afford market-rate housing in San Jose. They say the bulk of Greystar’s other apartments fall outside their price range. A 386-square-foot studio at The Reserve goes for up to $1,745 a month. Tenants implored the city and Greystar to offer more money to people to no avail.
“I really don’t characterize this as a negotiation,” Schoennauer says. “I would characterize it as a dialogue. We’re volunteering to do this.”
Councilman Chappie Jones, whose district encompasses the South Winchester Boulevard apartment complex, says he can’t do much to help The Reserve tenants. But he says their plight will inform future policy.
“One of the things that we learned from this is that we don’t have any rules to go by for these situations,” Jones says. “I was surprised to learn that. I expected something. That’s why I proposed a displacement ordinance. We’re in the eye of the storm here when it comes to issues of development and displacement.”
San Jose’s housing staff expects to bring a relocation compensation policy proposal back to the council this fall. That’s too late for tenants at The Reserve, who will all enter a rental market with a dearth of affordable housing and a 3-percent vacancy rate.
“Our life revolves around our son, who starts high school this year,” says Angel Milano, a 56-year-old electrical engineer who pays $2,200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment at The Reserve. “It’s going to be hard finding a place by his school. We’ll do what we can.”
Some of Milano’s neighbors expect to move to the Central Valley, pulling their kids out of school and away from family. A nursing student says she’ll have to drop out to move. A single dad says he’ll have to dip into his daughter’s college fund for what will be his sixth move in five years.
“There goes the down payment we were saving for,” says Brandie Locke, 30, who moved into her first-story unit at The Reserve five years ago in the hope that the rent-control cap would help her and her husband save to buy a home. “You have to put your life on hold.”
Sandy Perry, head of Santa Clara County’s Affordable Housing Network, says the city made a mistake in arguing that simply replacing The Reserve’s 216 units with 650 new ones will offset displacement by creating more homes.
“They deny that any real displacement will take place,” Perry says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. When people can’t find a comparable apartment to rent, they don’t disappear into thin air. They relocate to outlying areas and commute for hours. Or they become homeless.”
Perry criticized San Jose’s mayor and council for not doing more to help. When more than 400 people faced eviction at Buena Vista mobile home park in Palo Alto, he says, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian led a charge with other agencies that raised $45 million to buy the property and stave off redevelopment. When 100 people lost their home to a fire that torched Twin Pines Manor Apartments in Sunnyvale, the county, the city and a host of nonprofits raised money to find them shelter.
“Why is nobody championing people at The Reserve?” Perry wonders.
Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, says the city needs to think about how to prevent displacement if it’s serious about ending homelessness.
“Prevention should be a huge part of the discussion,” she says. “When decisions are made at the policy level, there’s a human cost we have to consider.”
San Jose has provisions for tree displacement but nothing about displaced people, Kinman says. It’s a glaring oversight that’s made a tough situation disastrous, she says, predicting that the crisis at The Reserve will reverberate across the entire region.
“We want more housing and we want this development,” she says. “We just can’t ignore the impacts of the people who already live there. You can’t just count the numbers and say, ‘Well there’s a net gain here.’ If that were the case, we could tear down all the low-income housing and all the rent-controlled housing to make way for more units. But it doesn’t work that way. That destroys people’s lives.”
Lockett likens the lack of policy to account for mass eviction to the defective flood walls that turned Hurricane Katrina into the biggest manmade disaster in the nation’s history.
“This is our broken levee,” he says.