Remember when SanTana topped the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government's nationwide "urban hardship" list in 2004 as America's toughest place to live in? After gentrification in downtown followed, Forbes recast the city as the 20th coolest place to live, work and play a decade later in 2014. But an organized "Renters Week of Action" shows that getting by in SanTana is still so rough, so tough out here.
The "Community Lands in Community Hands" coalition joins the national #HomesForAll campaign in pushing for policies to alleviate housing instability. Their demands are threefold: eviction protection for tenants, rent control, and community land trust development. And the need is urgent. A public-policy research company recently surveyed SanTana voters and found housing to be a key area of concern.
An overwhelming 84 percent expressed concerns about rising rents. A quarter of those polled feared losing their housing while nearly half knew people who already had. And that's not even counting non-voters who didn't participate in the survey! "Currently a renter can be evicted for any reason as long as they get proper notice," says Ruben Barreto, Communications Coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, a coalition partner. "We need a policy that gives renters protections from unjust evictions."
Rent control and community land trusts are two proactive strategies the coalition is pushing for. Activists have identified more than 90 vacant city-owned plots, some large enough to become sites of future affordable housing developments. A community land trust allows for a locally-based nonprofit to gain control of the lot once it's given or sold by the city. "Ultimately allowing the community to be investors by transferring land to the community land trust would allow the development of affordable housing that remains affordable," Barreto adds.
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With the slogan "Permanecer y Prosperar" (Remain and Thrive), the week-long series of events kicked off yesterday with a renters rights workshop and vigil in SanTana's Lacy neighborhood; one particularly prone to chronic overcrowding and gentrification. Tenants learned their basic rights, including the right to refuse anyone who tries to enter their unit without a written notice. The focus shifts to city council this afternoon where a renters rights march from Latino Health Access will end with a press conference.
On Thursday, an afternoon bike ride gentrification tour—sure to be the opposite downtown SanTana's recent Great Neighborhood Award victory lap—ends with a Laundry Love event at night. El Centro Cultural de Mexico hosts a screening of KCET's City Rising, a documentary on gentrification that features SanTana, in closing out the week of activism on Saturday.
The flurry of renters rights events recalls the great Santa Ana Rent Strike of 1985. Back then, Latino tenants aired similar complaints about rising rents and poor housing conditions. Hermandad Mexicana Nacional's Nativo Lopez helped organized the strike against slumlords where hundreds of residents refused to pay rent until their demands were met. The struggle ended up in the courts where protesting tenants won protections against eviction and reduced rents for units in disrepair.
Decades later, there still remains a housing crisis in SanTana. But the Rent Strike provides an inspirational reminder of how to fight back. "When renters get organized, they are a power to be heard," Barreto says. "When you know your rights and you talk to your neighbor and they talk to a neighbor, renters power becomes visible."