The city of San Jose must immediately halt its plans to increase rent at the SureStay Hotel, which houses some of the most vulnerable residents in need of shelter, according to California state housing officials.
Instead of the $627 flat monthly fee proposed to start Oct. 1 for a room near Mineta San Jose International Airport, the city’s Housing Department staff must now recalculate and charge rents that don’t exceed 30% of each tenant’s income.
“What?!” tenant Cheryl Fleming exclaimed, hearing the news alongside a few of her SureStay neighbors on North First Street late Wednesday night, in between a few “woos,” first pumps and tears. “We won the war, we won the fight. When we went to [protest at] the 12th floor of City Hall Friday, we won. We've been going through so much.”
Fewer than 10 residents were fighting for a more reasonable rate to be able to stay, while 50 others were already evicted for not being able to afford the flat fee. Many told stories of hotel management repeatedly pounding on residents’ doors with veiled threats and intimidation—a catalyst for uncertainty, anxiety, anger and sadness waiting to see if the city would listen to their pleas to stay.
For many of the residents—who are disabled, seniors or both—the original $627 bill would have claimed closer to 66% of average Social Security Insurance payments. That figure is two to four times the amount indigent adults collecting General Assistance receive from Santa Clara County.
Budgeting $300 or less for food, bills and other expenses each month would have been a nearly impossible task, residents say, after shelling out checks to their landlord: the city San Jose.
“Oh, good, now I don't have to sell my truck!” said one new tenant recently accepted into the program, who goes to daily dialysis, and was expecting to put 69% of his $900 monthly income towards SureStay's rent.
That was why California’s Department of Housing and Community Development slapped San Jose on the wrist for the now-dead housing program. The negative attention is new for the city, as HCD usually appears in headlines about cities like Cupertino and Palo Alto punting on building new housing projects and bemoaning mandates as a loss of local control.
The update about SureStay came hours after HCD met with San Jose’s Housing Department Wednesday, according to an email from State Assemblymember Alex Lee’s office, who met with residents during a tour of the motel Saturday.
Lee agrees with HCD’s position, arguing the city’s idea runs counter to the building’s intention as part of Project Roomkey, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s experimental program that has sheltered more than 42,000 unhoused and vulnerable Californians in hotel rooms across the state.
Instead, Lee says transitioning a hotel of extremely low-income, disabled seniors into “permanent affordable housing” accomplished the opposite of the goal of housing people.
“Well, from my point of view, the city was acting too brashly,” Lee told San Jose Inside. “They should not have been imposing restrictions on the tenants and basically forcing them out, because we have parameters in our Roomkey funding that disallow that.”
However exciting the rent change might be, it’s too little too late for some of the two dozen members of the community that lived there for the past year, bonding while hunkering down through Covid. One resident was moved out to another motel on the other side of Downtown San Jose, while another brought their dog to the pound, unsure of how to manage caring for the pup—physically and emotionally—during the eviction.
Advocate Shaunn Cartwright is frustrated it took a state agency to step in and rectify the situation, which she says was exacerbated by failed communication and disrespect from city staff.
"The Housing Department owes every displaced endangered and current SureStay resident a sincere apology for all the unnecessary stress and trauma they've caused them," Cartwright says.
None of the households should be displaced from this site, HCD says, adding that Roomkey will continue providing services for any households that may end up needing relocation or rehousing services.
“Housing folks and ending chronic homelessness: that is a stated goal of the state government and San Jose,” Lee continued. “That is why we created and funded programs like Roomkey and provide that funding. But that funding is not just a blank check for localities to do whatever they want.”
HCD has been on a roll when it comes to monitoring jurisdiction’s housing missteps, which may or may not be connected to Gov. Gavin Newsom's recent unveiling of the department's new “Housing Accountability Unit.”
Advocates learned the news Wednesday night, after crying foul against the extremely steep increase for months.
The reason behind the change only came to light last week: the city attempted to create a brand new category of housing. SureStay was planned to transition from “permanent supportive housing” to “permanent affordable housing”—charging 30% of the area medan income, instead of the standard 30% of tenant income at places like Second Street Studios and Villas on the Park.
Retorts offering unhelpful advice to “just get a job” or ignorant requests that people who can’t afford the Bay Area “move away,” fail to take into account that most of the people living at SureStay have lived in the South Bay for decades and credit their current housing situations to costs connected to deaths in the family, disabilities and other medical issues, such as malpractice injuries. Their disabilities and ages also hinder some residents' abilities to maintain employment.
City staff claim the brand new concept for housing attempted to “fill a gap” for unhoused people who may not otherwise have access to housing options, especially if they score lower on measures of vulnerability living on the streets.
However, Raymond J. Ramsey, co-founder and president of the Second Street Tenant Association, argues that even unhoused people who could “afford” those higher rents are often left with little money for food and other basic necessities; he says the fear of returning to the streets may stretch residents beyond their means—likely setting themselves up for failure.
Lee says that's one reason why it's vital to have housing advocates on the ground, like Ramsey and Cartwright, at the table when governments craft and implement decisions about homelessness; first-hand experiences and insights about being unhoused are often the reasons mistakes like San Jose’s are caught in the first place.
“They know what’s going on and how to best address these issues, and oftentimes those voices are sadly neglected," Lee says. “[SureStay] is a big place where people are building community, and it really challenges the narrative—the stigma of what homelessness is—when we’re able to have more success stories like this.
"I'm really hopeful that in the next days and weeks San Jose clears things up, gets people housed and hopefully brings back the folks that should have been housed this whole time.”