March 3, 1992
By Yolanda Reynolds
Standing in the afternoon drizzle last week before the charred and ﬁre blackened remains of a Victorian house located on the corner of North 6th Street and Washington in San Jose, homeless and homeless advocates once again pointed out a long overlooked opportunity to make housing affordable for the poor in the City.
The housing advocates and the poor alike say that they have the special skills required to make abandoned houses livable, but it has been virtually impossible to make the housing available for such purposes.
According to recent reports it is estimated that there are over 1,260 abandoned homes in various states of disrepair in San Jose.
Several months ago the Student Homeless Alliance broke into and entered several houses slated for demolition, hoping to be able to use these houses until they were actually torn down.
The group thought that the homes belonged to the City and felt that it would be relatively simple for the City to grant the group an opportunity to make these houses livable. Their hopes were to make a success of restoring such housing to livable conditions in order to make more affordable housing available in San Jose. 0ther community based groups have successfully done this in other cities.
It was not until the group was charged with trespassing by the San Jose Water District that the Student/Homeless Alliance became aware of the fact that the Water District and not the City were the real owners. The Water District, sympathetic to the needs of the homeless, agreed to let the group repair one of the houses in order to allow a family to occupy the house until it is time to demolish it to make room for the flood control project currently under way along the Guadalupe River. The property was posted with no trespassing signs from the City of San Jose. The group has been holding meetings, demonstrations and, finally, takeovers of unoccupied City property since they feel that little has been done officially to help the plight of the very poor and the homeless in San Jose.
On Monday morning, Alex Sanchez, head of the City’s Housing Authority, in response to a proposal of Councilman David Pandori explained that the City was looking at ways in which it could acquire abandoned properties so that housing could be made livable again. This was at a meeting of the Housing and Community Services Committee. Sanchez reported that, at most, his department would be able to make livable two houses per year. He listed a series of steps to be followed in obtaining abandoned properties.
Several people at the meeting felt that the City was “talking right, but that it was stalling and that the houses would probably end up being sold at market rate.”
One housing advocate, William H. O’Connell a member of the Board of a non-proﬁt organization, Help House the Homeless, feels that homeless advocates have come to the conclusion that until at least one policy leader in office seriously takes on the issues of affordable housing – “it will not happen.” He adds that these leaders will have to confront the construction and real estate people who resist building for and looking after the housing needs of the very poor. O’Connell stressed, “we don’t just want a cosmetic solution… it will take more than a few impassioned speeches to make affordable housing a reality.
One man named Josh said that, although he works full time he and his family are homeless. His wife and children are at one shelter and he stays at mother. They are living apart because he wanted his children and his wife to be in a better shelter than those available to families. He pays over $500 a month for himself his family to stay in a shelter for the homeless.
Josh pointed out that the City does not assure the availability of housing for the working poor.
In a recent report, Marcia Fein, the executive director of the Affordable Housing Network in San Jose, pointed out that the latest U.S. census revealed that “in the San Jose area, nearly one household in 20 is living below the poverty level.” She adds that the poverty level is defined as a family of three having an annual income below $10,000. However, in San Jose that definition is raised to an annual income of $26,750 for a family of three.
Further, Fein points out that 87% of these families are paying more than 30% of their income towards their housing expenses. The latest update of the census yet available on housing costs per household in 1988 indicated that 77 percent or 11,400 of the households spent at least half of their income on housing. It is likely that the new census figures will reveal that even more families are finding that housing costs have continued to increase and that more people are crowded into housing originally meant for one family. Affordable housing is so limited that there are three low income renters for every affordable unit in the city.
According to the Fein’s report in 1988 there were 10,000 people on a waiting list for help in paying for their housing in the San Jose area. The list was discontinued that year because the Housing Authority was unable to meet the needs of families who had sought years.
The housing problem is not limited to communities of color. According to Fein, 74% of poor “white” households spent at least 50% of their income on housing while that same year, 1988, 62% of the poor Hispanic families also spent 50% of their income on housing. These figures describe families that are renting their housing.
According to Fein, those families on welfare had an especially difficult situation, since AFDC in 1992 for a family of three was $633 while the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Jose was $883–$250 more than their entire grant tint was supposed to also buy food, clothing and medication as well. It is still a problem if they rented a one bedroom apartment because Fein points out they would still be short by $116.
At the Monday meeting, a number of people spoke regarding the abandoned homes. Some spokesperson from the Historical Preservation Society, April Halberstad, was concerned that, when abandoned houses were determined to no longer be reparable for use, that the city take care to save the brass knobs and other rare housing trims of earlier times. Others seemed more concerned that any new purchases in the neighborhood reflect current market rates.
Market rates are one of the major problems in San Jose. San Jose housing prices and rents are very near the top in the United States. Fein points out that out of the 44 metropolitan areas surveyed across the nation, “San Jose was one of the seven lowest ranking cities in terms of low income households competing for the number of low rent units.”
Councilman George Shirakawa, Chaiman of the City’s Housing and Community Services Committee, stated at the Monday meeting that he had two major concerns for any plan that they adopted which were that he did not want to take from the poor to give to the wealthy, and that he wanted the City to move cautiously to protect the property rights of the owners of the abandoned properties.
Councilman Pandori, in whose district are a number of those abandoned properties, said that he was hopeful that the City’s decision to purchase abandoned properties, particularly those that pose a hazard would help make more housing available. He explained to the housing advocates after the meeting that his proposal “is a small step.”
Currently, the City of San Jose has a task force reviewing the City’s General Plan. Land use and housing is a major topic of discussion of this group. Community meetings to share the progress of the Task Force have been scheduled for the coming months. The City staff held one meeting at the East Side Union High School District last Monday evening. A meeting is scheduled for March 9 at the San Jose Unified School District Board Room at 1671 Park Ave. Another meeting is scheduled for the Steinbeck Middle School Indoor Commons Room at 820 Steinbeck Dr. The meetings are all scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. © La Oferta Newspaper.