It’s raining out.
But that does nothing to deter Ana Naranjo and Veronica Salce from walking the streets and knocking on apartment doors.
Both women consider themselves to be on a deep mission, one that goes beyond them, and could potentially impact the lives of many Milpitas families.
On Selwyn Drive, as each person comes to answer the door, the pair of women introduce themselves, and waste no time in laying out the reason for their visit: tenant protections.
Currently, in Milpitas, no such protections exist. Which means that landlords have the ability to evict tenants without any explanation; they’re also able to jack up the cost of rent exponentially, in month-to-month tenancies, and at whatever rate of frequency they choose, which is becoming somewhat of a trend in certain patches of Milpitas, namely where lower income families dwell.
As Naranjo and Salce spoke with tenants about their growing concerns over the unjust evictions and rent hikes, many gave knowing nods. Some even shared their own stories of sudden rent increases, which have left them feeling stressed and helpless.
One elderly tenant, who was enthusiastic about being visited by the two women, spoke of how, in just the past few years, she has seen her monthly rent increase drastically, from $900 to $1,860. She motioned toward her old, frayed carpeting, and said, “They don’t care about the carpets. And if we ever leave the apartment, that is probably the only time they will change the carpets. And then they will probably raise the rents again to over $2,000 for the new tenants.”
Naranjo and Salce listened to her with empathy. They, too, have recently experienced their own struggles.
No Just Cause
In the Fall of 2018, Naranjo was given a 60-day notice and told to vacate her two-bedroom apartment, which was located on Selwyn Drive. This was her home of nearly 27 years, a place she shared with her three children, husband, mom, and sister. No explanation was given. The landlord just wanted her out.
Naranjo spent the next few months reaching out to anyone who’d listen, to try and find a way to hold on to her home.
She didn’t want to uproot her family to go miles away, moving to another community, even if it might be more affordable. She had heard stories of neighbors who had been evicted from their homes by landlords, and had to relocate to places as far away as Sacramento. Naranjo knew that pulling her children out of the Milpitas Unified School District, which they had grown up in and cherished for their whole lives, would be devastating.
So she did everything she could to keep her family in Milpitas.
In the end, it was the Milpitas Unified School District that stepped up to support Naranjo, her husband, and three children during their lowest, most difficult time.
“The school district…they helped me a lot,” said Naranjo. “They helped me with phone calls because I don’t speak English well. They took me out to look at apartments. They sat with me through everything, and made it less stressful.”
In the end, Naranjo and her family relocated to a 3-bedroom house in Milpitas. Her rent is now double what it was before. The electricity, water, and garbage costs are also higher. But the Naranjo family is still a part of the Milpitas community. And though it can be tough for them to make it financially every month, they try to take things one day at a time.
Naranjo’s husband clocks in a great deal of overtime hours at his Facilities job. As well, other families in the community have helped out, gifting the Naranjos a sofa, bed, and table.
“This is very painful, what happened to me,” said Naranjo. “I want to help other families now. I want justice.”
“We’ve worked hard to get where we’re at.”
Salce, who was recently forced from her own Selwyn apartment in early March, has been on a similar journey. She not only lost her job several years ago, but her husband developed a health condition making him unable to work as frequently. This led to them falling behind on rental payments for a couple of months.
Salce fell into a depression, which was exacerbated when her landlord, in a rush to sell the apartment complex to a new owner, began to text and look for her just about every day. The reason? The landlord wanted her to clean and organize her apartment, before the pending sale of the complex. Salce and her family were told that many of their items must be cleared out of the apartment in order for it to be presentable to the potential new owner. The landlord stayed on top of Salce daily until it was done. So the family got a storage space and removed items, while also cleaning up the place. But it simply wasn’t good enough for the landlord.
“She has put me and my family through a lot,” said Salce, who feared going home for a long period of time, due to the high potential of her landlord being there, waiting to harass her. “My kids are in school, and they’ve been struggling this year, because of all this going on. They’ve had health problems…It impacts the whole family. And I don’t think it’s right. This has caused me and my family a lot of trauma.”
Pretty soon, Salce and her husband were able to start paying the rent again. They even got an outside agency to donate $1,700 toward their cause. The landlord accepted a couple of payments from Salce. But suddenly, in January, the landlord refused to accept payment. She informed Salce that the eviction process was already set in motion, and that the Sheriff would be showing up at her door soon with a notice.
The landlord put a deal on the table, offering Salce $4,000 to vacate the apartment immediately. Each day that Salce and her family didn’t take the offer, $200 would be subtracted from that amount. As each new day wore on, with this offer dangling over their heads, Salce felt her stress level mounting.
“We’ve worked hard to get where we’re at. We’ve made big improvements. We’ve been getting the rent money in. I didn’t see what the problem was,” said Salce.
She went to court to try and fight it, but things didn’t go as planned.
When Winning is the Same as Losing
Salce had enlisted the help of a lawyer with Bay Area Legal Aid, whom she feels did not provide her ample support. Salce only made it as far as the courtroom hallway, saying that her lawyer presented her with a proposal: $3200, along with no responsibility to pay court fees or any remaining balance on the rent. She was also guaranteed that an “eviction” would not show up on her record. The only thing was: Salce and her family would need to vacate their apartment in 4 days.
Salce was told that if she went into court and won, she would still need to vacate; only with the win, she would lose access to the $3200, and still have to pay what remained on her rental balance. And if she lost the case, she was told the result would be the same. In both cases, she and her family would also have to vacate in 4 days.
“I never could understand what was the difference between winning or losing the case,” said Salce. “I still lost my home. The lawyer pressured me to take the proposal, saying I had no other options, so I took it.”
In the end, Salce, her husband, and five children had to move all of their things out of their home in just a couple days’ time. They all relocated to a hotel, where they’ve been paying $100 a night.
Just recently, though, they found another apartment to rent. The pay is nearly double the amount of their last place, but like the Naranjos, they are taking the leap and moving in. As the days go by, they will do their best to keep up with the payments. Salce and her family have experienced (and still continue to experience) a great deal of trauma from the entire situation, and her children are now currently undergoing counseling.
Although Salce is no longer dealing with her previous landlord, she still knows how important it is to fight for tenant protections in Milpitas. “I just have to try to keep going, and look out for other people, so this doesn’t happen to them,” said Salce. “This is something we have to all do together.”
Based on data collected from the Judicial Council in California, the organization Tenants Together estimates that 500,000 tenants in the state undergo court eviction every year. And a majority of evictions happen to Hispanic, Asian, and African-American families. Currently, there are a total of 16 million tenants in California, which is 45% of the state’s population.
What’s Happening in San Jose with Tenant Protections
Last Spring, the City of San Jose brought in a couple of tenant protections, including just cause, which would require landlords to give a just reason for ending a month-to-month tenancy. In February of this year, however, the San Jose City Council voted to look into their new rent control policy to see if it’s keeping developers from building there.
In San Jose’s Ellis Act Ordinance, it states that when developers take buildings with rent control, and tear them down to rebuild, they must grant rent control to at least 50% of the units or the original number of rent-control units removed, whichever is greater.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo mentioned in a memo, written with Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, that this rent control policy has caused developers to turn away from building in San Jose.
But groups like the Silicon Valley Renters’ Association are organizing and speaking out against Mayor Liccardo’s decision to review the Ellis Act Ordinance, which they feel will ultimately lead to the displacement of many tenants.
Landlords Express Their Disapproval
The Milpitas City Council is set to hear a presentation about tenant protections at tonight’s meeting. The presentation has been many months in the making.
In February of 2018, the City of Milpitas formed the Tenant Protection Task Force, complete with four tenant representatives (from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, Project Sentinel, the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, and Sunnyhills Apartment Tenants Association), as well as four landlord representatives (including individuals from the California Apartment Association, the Santa Clara Association of Realtors, and Vasona Management). The purpose of the Task Force was, as stated on the City’s website, “to discuss solutions to housing affordability directly related to tenant protection in Milpitas.”
At the second-to-last Task Force meeting, which happened at the end of January 2019, many landlords came out to speak during Public Comment. Some of them mentioned their concern with rent control leading to a decrease in construction, as it will become difficult for owners to profit on their rent-control properties. Other property owner representatives spoke of the necessity of allowing the market to dictate the value of rentals; they mentioned that landlords are left vulnerable when markets go down and rent declines along with it, and feel that landlords should have a right to drive rents up as the market comes up.
One resident, a housing provider, got up to address the room. “I don’t agree with just cause eviction, because it will just hold on to bad tenants and make the community a lot worse,” she said.
“Please. No rent control. Because the market controls the rent. The people don’t control the rent,” said another landlord.
Yet another resident got up and mentioned that he had lived in Milpitas since 1993. “Milpitas is small and safe and nice city for many here,” he said. “I don’t think Milpitas rent is high. Someone here said it’s sky-high. I’m not sure how you define that.”
Matthew Warren, a Staff Attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, was one of the Task Force’s tenant representatives. Whereas tenant representatives were focused on bringing in tenant protections for just cause and rent control, landlord representatives instead wanted to focus on things like mediation and educating renters on their rights.
“I was disappointed with that experience,” said Warren in regard to serving on the Task Force. “I really believed that the landlords could’ve come with a greater intent to negotiate, to change from the status quo. I really feel that right now, tenants are so disillusioned. They’re so disempowered that they are fearful of retribution from their landlords, if they speak up. They don’t want to get their rent increased some heinous amount, and they don’t want to face unjustified eviction.”
The Birth of the Milpitas Renters Coalition
Warren, along with Milpitas tenants and other community members, have been meeting regularly for the last several weeks to discuss tenant protections and organize for the next City Council meeting. The turnout at the tenants meetings has been robust, as many in the community appear to be concerned by the lack of tenant protections in the City of Milpitas.
At the very first meeting, held in February, community members decided to amplify their voices by forming their very own group: the Milpitas Renters Coalition.
This group has unified around three major requests to be brought before the Council:
- Just Cause. This would require landlords to show a good reason for eviction, which can include things like failure to pay rent, nuisance, and illegal conduct.
- Moderate rent control to limit the amount and frequency at which rent is increased.
- An income discrimination ordinance that would prevent discrimination against people with subsidies, like Section 8.
While Ana Naranjo, who was made co-chair of the Milpitas Renters Coalition, was out walking the Selwyn neighborhood with Veronica Salce, they invited tenants up and down the street to come out to the meeting to support the cause and let their voices be heard. Many said they’d be there. Others, unable to make it, agreed to sign a form letter letting the Milpitas City Council know that they stood for rent control.
Sandy Perry, who is President of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, has been helping to organize tenants: “There are a lot of renters in Milpitas that are suffering from the current situation, and they’re determined to do something about it,” said Perry. “There are new leaders stepping forward. And it’s really encouraging to see.”
At the last tenants meeting, Warren, encouraged by all the community involvement, was positive about the upcoming Council meeting: “We’re excited about the City Council’s consideration of these important tenant protections,” said Warren. “And we think that they’re going to be a vital tool in preventing displacement and keeping people here in our community.”
City staff in Milpitas, along with Council, worked hard in 2017 to ensure the extension of a Department of Housing and Urban Development contract for the Sunnyhills Apartments by five years. Tenants there had been very close to being evicted from their homes. After watching the City accomplish that, some are hopeful that bold and swift action will be taken toward ensuring that other Milpitas tenants receive protections as well.
Naranjo, who has been pouring a great deal of effort into preparing for this evening’s Council meeting, has been so grateful and heartened by all the support from others. “I really want to thank people in the school district, like Cheryl Jordan, Norma Morales, and Giuliana Brahim for helping me,” said Naranjo. ” Also, I want to thank Allysson McDonald, Sandy Perry, Matthew Warren, and the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley for everything; and Veronica and all the other supporters, who have worked so hard for this.”
In the Wake of Loss
While Ana Naranjo walked down Selwyn Blvd., she had to make a stop at an apartment located next to her old apartment, which she was forced to vacate just a few months ago…
Along the side of the building, Naranjo stops to admire a row of blooming rose bushes, which she planted with her mother while they were living in the apartment. She also points to a tall tree, which she remembers planting in her front yard — 17 years ago. Back then, the tree was tiny, just about up to her knees. Today, it appears to stand roughly 50 feet high, barreling unapologetically toward the sky.
For Naranjo, being back in the old neighborhood brings back a sudden wave of memories. It also reminds her of what she fought so hard to keep, but eventually lost.
“I feel lots of emotions,” said Naranjo. “It’s hard being back here.”
The Milpitas City Council meets tonight, 4/2/19, at 7pm to discuss tenant protections, among other agenda items. The meeting takes place at Milpitas City Hall (455 E. Calaveras Blvd). Tenants and other supporters will be gathering at 6pm to organize and get ready for the meeting.