Ways to Win: The Battle for Renters’ Rights in Silicon Valley

Working Partnerships USA and its allies won this change by:

  • Choosing their moment.
  • Building a base.
  • Telling compelling stories.
  •  Using research to shift the narrative.

Ways to Win: The Battle for Renters’ Rights in Silicon Valley

If you write a monthly rent check, you know firsthand that the housing market is only getting tougher. In the U.S., rents rose by 66 percent between 2000 and 2016, while household income went up only 35 percent. 

But rent is not the only thing that is rising. Evictions are on the rise too, especially in hot real estate markets, including the Bay Area where landlords are finding that booting long-term tenants is the quickest way to get around rent control and give themselves a raise – even if it means putting families on the street.

San Jose, where rents are rising much faster than income, has seen more than 2,400 evictions without cause since 2010. But, a recent win by the Renters’ Rights Coalition – including by MCF grantee Working Partnerships USA – represents an important turning point for that city’s renters. In the face of a large-scale and organized effort by the Coalition, the San Jose City Council recently passed a requirement that landlords show “just cause” (failure to pay rent, for instance, or trashing the apartment) before they can evict a tenant. The new policy is expected to protect 450,000 renters across San Jose.

The City Council meeting where the issue was heard ran late into the night, as Council members listened to hours of wrenching testimony from tenants who had been evicted without cause so landlords could raise the rent. Supporters fasted and waved signs, adding to the intensity of the evening.

By the end of the meeting, the City Council had not only passed the just cause provision; it had also voted to require landlords to provide relocation assistance to tenants who are forced to move when their unit is taken off the market, and to study the impact of bringing the allowable annual rent increase – now set at five percent – in line with the cost-of-living index.

What key strategies did the Renters’ Rights Coalition use to push this important change through the City Council? Working Partnerships USA’s Director of Public Policy Jeffrey Buchanan breaks it down:

Pick the right moment. In San Jose, the battle against unjust evictions has been going on for decades. This latest win “was an example of our coalition being opportunistic and strategic about the moment we were in,” Working Partnerships USA Executive Director Derecka Mehrens said. By waiting until the right moment to introduce the measure, they were able to gain momentum as the housing crisis worsened, and rally the votes they needed to push the measure through.

Develop a base of affected individuals who can do the advance work. Long before the City Council meeting, the Coalition used public hearings, visits to the Housing Department, and one-on-one meetings with Council members as a platform for tenants to outline problems associated with no-cause evictions: forced moves to unsafe conditions, racial profiling, retaliation for speaking up about code violations and more.

Go for the gut. Data may change minds, but stories change hearts, and both shifts are necessary to change policy. Coalition members flooded the City Council meeting with tenants who testified about being evicted for “offenses,” such as asking for a working stove or pointing out toxic mold. Some spoke of becoming homeless after being evicted without cause.

• Use research to reframe the conversation. The landlord faction had represented themselves in past battles as “Mom and Pop” operations, middle or working class families who were struggling to make ends meet themselves, according to Buchanan. When Working Partnerships USA looked into who actually owns multi-family housing in San Jose, however, this narrative fell apart. Large property owners with 40 or more units controlled more than three quarters of the rental stock in San Jose, while small landlords owned only about 1 in 20 apartments. Meanwhile, tenants making less than $50,000 a year were paying more than half of their income in rent. A march on the offices of the California Apartment Association brought home the message.

Engage the media. A Valentine’s Day event with cards for tenants’ rights supporters helped draw media attention. Then, just a few weeks before the hearing, The Mercury News profiled a 92-year-old WWII veteran who was facing eviction from an apartment complex he had managed for many years. Coalition members reached out to the veteran, and his story fueled the push for the J Cause measure.

• Use today’s victories to advance tomorrow’s battles. The Coalition followed the Just Cause win with a Celebration of Tenants that drew 300 renters from across San Jose, along with several City Council members. The event boosted morale after a contentious campaign, and laid the groundwork for the next campaign, which will target the shift to the cost-of-living index. The fight for affordable housing in Silicon Valley is far from over, Buchanan said, and taking the time to show appreciation to allies and supporters is essential to keep momentum going over the long haul.