Forever Homes in Silicon Valley

Decommodifying Land & Housing with a Community Land Trust

Editor's Note:

The community anti-displacement work that reached incredible heights in San Jose just before the pandemic wasn't slowed down, folks continued to build forming South Bay Community Land Trust to create permanently affordable housing. In just about 4 years from its founding SBCLT has its first property in Downtown San Jose and is engaged with neighbors in a second property in East San Jose – spots where displacement is happening at an accelerated pace - and CLTs are one of the only solutions to keep families in place and stabilize entire neighborhoods.

At a time when the City of San Jose was facing the biggest housing insecurity it had ever seen, the City Council in Dec of 2018 unanimously voted to sell public land to Google to build what would be their largest campus stretching 80 acres. I live in East San Jose, 16 miles from Google’s headquarters in Mt. View, California. Like a whole lot of homes in my neighborhood, we had a lot of family members living together to make ends meet – cousins, uncles and their families. Home values across San Jose went up with the Google announcement alone, and rental listings started to use the campus to advertise spots blocks from my house.

San Jose isn’t brand new to making it on the lists of the most expensive places to live, and it’s not alone in facing increasing numbers of unhoused people, but the addition of a Google campus downtown that would bring in 20,000+ workers changes the city forever. This city is already led by developers and real estate interests, and now Google has the green light to lead the city in the only way they know how: to favor themselves while making us believe they are doing good. 

San Jose was divided by the proposal. Google was seen as too big of a Goliath to stop or too much money to pass up. Some business leaders here actually believe that Google will bring utopia to San José. From my experience of growing up with tech in our backyard and seeing super wealth generated off the backs of our families, there is no utopia coming from any tech corporation, ever. There was a campaign to stop the Google development, to call its process with the city exactly what it was: illegitimate. Individuals gathered together and formed Serve the People in 2017, the Affordable Housing Network and De-Bug joined in the efforts and learned in 2018 about a housing model that prioritizes people over profit. Our response to a city eager to displace us was to start a community land trust (CLT) to acquire land and property and make it permanently affordable so it actually benefits the community that already lives here and future generations. CLTs in the US come out of  the Civil Rights struggle with New Communities Inc. in Georgia, and have an approach that we really resonated with.

A CLT is a non-profit that acquires land and housing and makes it so that it cannot be sold for profit ever. The purpose is to keep people from being displaced and for residents themselves to determine what happens where they live. People can choose to continue as renters or to work towards ownership. A CLT offers the opportunity for stability and permanency that doesn’t exist for low income renters in the housing market. The landtrust is a collective endeavor, democratically organized to benefit the community beyond housing.

Policymakers tell us that gentrification and displacement are inevitable parts of progress, they don’t add that it’s allowed to get the most profit. Forming the SBCLT is a response to Google coming into San Jose because it shows a genuine coming together of community members to address the instability and arrive at the decision of forming a community land trust without waiting for permission to implement a solution for our real lives. Instead of deference to Google, we are turning to each other, relying on each other to implement one of the only complete solutions to a housing crisis made by design. CLTs layout a different economic model from the one imposed on us, where instead of utilizing earth and property as a profit maker, they are stewarded collectively to house people and have the potential to stabilize entire communities.

We just purchased the first SBCLT property in downtown San Jose! A forever home protected from developers looking for financial gain. The CLT work is a labor of love that has stretched us into a world of real estate and finance that we hadn’t had to be a part of as organizers. We have done a lot of learning. And we are so lucky and grateful to have a network of CLTs not only in the Bay but across the state and country willing to share and help each other in a spirit of cooperation. The rules of real estate don’t change because we are working to decomodify housing - there is fundraising, financial formulas, loans, signing your name to be a responsible party, on top of maintaining and building up deep relationships with people.

And although initially this endeavor was thought of as our own path without having to wait on a city government, CLTs do need the support of governments and institutions so that they are successful in keeping residents in place and preventing homelessness. No other solution to the current housing model is as clear in benefitting residents and communities permanently. With the recognition of the historical injustices to Black people, to people of color that prohibited us from owning homes - institutions have to reckon with that and be forced to correct it. There are solutions to displacement and community development that do not have to uproot people – they do not come from government nor corporations - and they will lead us to living life demonstrating more care for one another.

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