San José, CA – SOMOS Mayfair is a nonprofit in East San José that, among many other community development programs, organizes tenants and working-class families to create alternative housing solutions. 

I was drawn to SOMOS as a community organizer because my story isn’t that different from the leaders who guide this work. 

I grew up in Mountain View, amidst two families living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, with my uncle and grandparent sleeping in the living room. We faced cockroaches and mold frequently – but this was considered “normal.” 

A fire in our complex displaced us and all our neighbors, and we moved into another crowded house, where I vividly remember my mother covering the mold with black garbage bags in an attempt to protect us from the spores. 

I knew it was an attempt to bring us a sense of security, and I also knew it wouldn’t do much. 

My parents were undocumented, and I understood that they did not want to call any extra attention to themselves by talking to the landlord – Proposition 187 was in full effect at the time, and it was common to hear of families being separated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Since my story began in the late 1990s, many families in California have continued to struggle to find an affordable home in 2023, highlighting a system error that continues to burden those in a vicious rental housing cycle.    

Vecinos Activos deliberating which Housing cooperative model fits the values of the community for the 2021 Roots 2 Roofs Learning Series. Photo: SOMOS Mayfair
SOMOS Mayfair at a COPA rally on March 27, 2023. Photo: SOMOS Mayfair
SOMOS Mayfair and Vecinos Activos at the 2023 California Co-op Conference. Photo: SOMOS Mayfair
SOMOS Mayfair and Vecinos Activos at the 2023 California Co-op Conference. Photo: SOMOS Mayfair

Preservation

To lessen this burden, we consider “The 3 Ps,” a framework to protect tenants from displacement. A fundamental element of the ‘3 Ps’ framework is preservation. 

Preservation acquires and rehabilitates existing, unused properties that can quickly be added to the stock of permanently affordable homes. The preservation of our existing housing stock will offer the following benefits: 
 
  • A place-based approach that cultivates racial and economic equity;
  • A rapid and cost-effective strategy;
  • An expansion of the selection of housing offered; and
  • An environmentally sustainable framework.
 
In fact, a recent study conducted by Enterprise Community Partners found that acquisition and rehabilitation of our existing housing stock were 50 to 70 percent cheaper than new affordable housing production. 
 
If we are looking to address the root cause of displacement while keeping the rich cultural diversity of our communities intact, then strengthening preservation efforts in local communities is not just a critical, but also economical strategy. 
 
Based on recent conversations at San José City Hall, it is clear that this strategy is not well understood, despite the coalition of housing advocates prepared to move this work along. 
 
If we can shift the narrative towards preservation-based solutions, we can start tackling the housing crisis now.
 

The Crisis

It’s been over a decade, and across the region, conditions have only worsened for working-class and undocumented folks, the backbone of “The Capital of Silicon Valley.” 
 
These essential members of our community, including healthcare workers, janitorial staff, and construction workers, are carrying the burden of the housing crisis. Don’t just take it from me; let’s look at the data. 
 

From 2005 to 2022, San José has seen an increase of 7.1 percent year over year in the cost of rent. 

 
Annually and on average, 
  • Healthcare workers earn $39,726.
  • Janitors earn $41,736.
  • Those in retail earn $45,608. 
  • Construction workers earn $58,686.
  • Elementary school teachers earn $92,316. 
 
Looking for affordable housing in California has become a mind-numbing exercise of refreshing the City of San José’s affordable housing portal or scrolling through Facebook listings – only to realize that to rent an average one-bedroom apartment, you’ll need an income of $93,320. 
 
And if you are a family looking for a two-bedroom, then your income would need to jump to $115,920. Yikes! 
 
Maybe a family could find hope in the promises of new housing being built – but with years of construction, limited units, and long waitlists, that doesn’t seem too promising either. 
 
Private interest groups suggest leaving the housing crisis to the free and open market would spur innovation. 
 
However, this same market forces renters to pay at least 60 to 80 percent of their monthly income towards rent. 
 
Aren’t we ready to try something new? 
 
San José residents will not find a solution by simply letting the real estate market fix itself – we need alternative solutions that empower California’s tenants instead of the people who are displacing us.
 

A Grassroots Response to Displacement

SOMOS Mayfair has responded to the housing crisis through Vecinos Activos, a committee of resident-leaders who organize and advocate for housing solutions through an equity lens. 
 
The Vecinos have spent the last five years successfully championing a statewide anti-displacement strategy, researching models like Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives (LEHCs), regularly attending City meetings, and educating neighbors on these solutions.
 
In June 2018, the City of San José created a Citywide Anti-Displacement Strategy that tasked staff with identifying policy gaps, developing programs to mitigate displacement, and assessing past discriminatory practices that led to these issues. 
 
What we already knew through lived experience was confirmed with an official study by the City: displacement affects the well-being and stability of entire families. 
 
Children are less likely to finish school and have higher rates of educational delays or behavior problems; workers’ commutes and jobs are affected, and mothers experience higher rates of depression. 
 
Motivated by this report, the Vecinos Activos increased their efforts to collaborate with the City’s housing department and offer community perspectives. 
 
We also have not been afraid to challenge our decision-makers, or remind them that the effects of displacement are not just theoretical. 
 
We hosted half a dozen community forums to educate and co-create policy solutions, and organized rallies, marches and press conferences to call out housing injustice and highlight the lived experiences of San Jose tenants. 
 
Vecinos leaders attended the statewide California Co-op Conference in 2022 and heard about the success of Santa Elena Mobile Home Park, a farm workers’ housing cooperative that began in 1974 when the residents organized against unhealthy and safety issues. Inspired by their story, the Vecinos have started the initial steps to form their own limited-equity housing co-op.
 
The momentum has continued. 
 
More leaders are joining Vecinos and there is a growing number of conversations happening in local communities. Vecinos has been invited to speak on panels at the Co-op Conference to San José in 2023, and SOMOS hosted a workshop on economic liberation for folks creating their own worker and housing co-ops. 
 
It’s incredible how much the Vecinos have accomplished in such a short time, but there is still much work to be done, and we need more folks joining the conversation.

Expanding the Conversation

To find solutions that truly benefit those on the margins, we need a preservation ecosystem that brings together industry expertise, local officials, tenants, and the community. 
 
We need policy wins to advance preservation strategies. SOMOS Mayfair has championed a community-vetted Community Opportunity to Purchase (COPA) policy in San José that would make strides towards the goal, but Council Members voted against the policy after large public pressure from the realtors’ association.
 
While SOMOS works to revive the conversation in San José, we hope that other cities take note of our campaign and consider sharing the same playbook that cities across the Bay Area are using to advance COPA. 
 
This policy preserves housing from the “free and open”market by allowing nonprofits to make market rate first offers on properties when they go up for sale. San Francisco adopted the policy in 2019 and has been able to build 234 affordable housing units across 16 projects in just four years.
 
On the tenant level, the local organization South Bay Community Land Trust has acquired its first property after a successful grassroots fundraiser and loan from Local Initiatives Support Corp, and in doing so, has preserved the property and brought stability to the tenants living there. 
 
There is great potential here, but we need more funding directed toward projects like this. 
 
Now is the moment to re-envision the solution that addresses the systemic issues that have historically continued the oppression of those who have borne the brunt of progress.
 
With the housing crisis spreading across the country, families need us to think creatively about solving the problem. We cannot just kick the can down the road for the next generation to solve.
 
My lived experience drew me to this work, and the shared community I have found keeps me in the fight. 
 
While California’s housing crisis can feel insurmountable at times, there are real and viable solutions available to us: concrete preservation policies that keep housing affordable, tenant organizing strategies that build resident leader bases, and partnerships across sectors that uplift community-centered solutions. Preservation is not about staying in the past: it is remembering the value of what we have now, and ensuring it can be shared long into the future. 
 
Follow SOMOS Mayfair on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn
 
This is a guest blog from SOMOS Mayfair, in collaboration with Build It Green. 

About the author

Óscar Quiroz-Medrano is a San José tenant and community organizer with SOMOS Mayfair, a local nonprofit that advocates on behalf of families in East San José. As the Vecinos Activos Coordinator for SOMOS Mayfair, Óscar strategized opportunities for conscious-driven development, led a community map to illustrate its vision for the neighborhood, and advocates for community-led solutions. 

Alex Coba

Communications Associate

As a proud California native from Stockton, Alex brings a wealth of experience and a versatile skill set. He has a solid communication background with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Chico. Alex is adept at strategic communications and media relations, with experience gathering and sharing stories from his local communities that uplift the unique spirit and values of those places. He is excited to join Build It Green, where he can apply his talents to further BIG’s mission to help communities across California thrive.