SAN JOSE, Calif. - Some 100 housing activists and Section 8 tenants rallied outside San Jose City Hall at noon August 29 demanding action against devastating rent increases for residents of low-income housing that were triggered by the congressional "sequester." Democratic Congressperson Zoe Lofgren came to assure the crowd that their outcry would be heard in Washington.
A variety of speakers, including tenants, a building owner, several clergy, and the chairperson and members of the Santa Clara County Housing Commission, hammered home the point that people need to stand united to defend their interests.
Some 17,000 tenants on the Federal Section 8 housing program in Santa Clara County recently received rent hikes of 10 percent or more due to draconian cuts caused by the government stalemate in Washington. Some families have received astonishing increases of $900 or more. The area has very nearly the highest housing cost of any place in the country, and the vacancy rate for rental units is 1 percent.
Fifty-seven percent of Section 8 voucher holders in Santa Clara County are seniors or disabled and 61 percent are on fixed incomes. There is simply no way they can afford rent increases of this magnitude. In many cases the result will be homelessness, dislocation, and destruction of families.
Several tenants told stories of immense hardship caused by the sequester cuts. Sarah, a single mother with two children saw her monthly rent shoot up from $90 to $835 dollars, an impossible sum on her income of $516 per month. Arlene was hit with a huge rent increase just when she needed thousands of dollars for dental work. Kathleen told of how she worked 27 years in the tech industry and wound up homeless. When you're homeless, she said, "you find yourself going into laundromats to stand before the dryer just to keep warm." It took her nine years to get a voucher, six years to get on the waiting list for a place, and three more years before she finally found housing. Even small landlords are hurt by the cuts; Derek, a building owner, told how he has been hit by the loss of tenants resulting from the sequester cuts.
Several speakers pointed out the incredible inequity of homelessness in Silicon Valley, the center of the world hi-tech industry and a center for incredible wealth. Pastor Raquel Orgonez pointed out, "There are too many homeless people out here in the richest county in the richest country in the world. We have the most resources of any country. Why are people homeless? Why are veterans homeless?" She concluded with a call to action: "We need to wake up. This is just the beginning - we have to advocate, we have to stand together."
That call to action and unity was underscored by several speakers. Crystal, a tenant, called on the crowd to "act on our values in a positive way," while pointing out that in Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest towns in the county, the City Council recently ordered the Cubberley Center, which has served for years as an informal shelter, to be locked up at night to keep people from sleeping there. Pastor Scott Wagers of Cham Deliverance Ministry, a social activist church, gave a passionate speech invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King: "Let's talk about the status of the dream! The biggest income disparity is right here in Silicon Valley. America is founded on the people, not corporations, and we're the people." He outlined plans for a march across Silicon Valley to tent encampments at the headquarters of Google and Apple to talk with their billionaire executives. He said he expected the corporations will respond by pointing to all the money they give to charity; but, he said to loud acclaim, "We don't want charity. We want justice! Let this not be just a rally but a movement!"
Representative Lofgren declared, "There's a big problem in Washington-it's called the sequester. I didn't vote for it, and I'll continue to vote against it." She called on the crowd to continue to speak out and pointed out that the Administration is now preparing a war against Syria that would take up the resources that could be spent on housing. Her attack on war preparations and war spending was echoed by other speakers.
Several members of the San Jose Housing Commission came to support the protest. Commission member Denis O'Neal called the cuts "outrageous," while the chairperson, Kathy Espinoza-Howard declared: "These cuts cannot stand!
Sandy Perry of Affordable Housing Network, an organizer of the protest, summed up the spirit and determination of the crowd: "If we don't speak up, we won't be heard. They don't care in Congress. The only way to get them to care is to force to care - to organize."
Photo: Henry Millstein/PW