Op-Ed: COPA is an idea whose time has come
January 28, 2022
San Jose is experiencing a devastating displacement crisis. Low-income communities, primarily people of color, are being torn apart as rents and home values continue to rise, even during the pandemic.
More than one and a half million people have left the Bay Area in recent years, the vast majority of them because they could stop paying housing costs. Thousands of those who could not move were left homeless.
As part of San José’s response to the human suffering caused by the crisis, the city council commissioned its housing department to study and develop a proposal for Community Purchasing Opportunities Act (COPA). Over the past year, they have convened numerous COPA advisory committee meetings and held several community hearings.
What is COPA? As its name suggests, COPA is a program that gives tenants and/or non-profit community organizations a possibility of buying rental accommodation each time it is offered for sale. It gives tenants or community organizations the right to make the first offer and the right to match the final offer. Contrary to some real estate industry propaganda, COPA never requires a landlord to sell to a non-profit organization, let alone force them to sell their property at all.
What are the benefits of COPA? More importantly, it will help prevent tenant displacement when speculators buy properties with the intention of “improving” them by raising rents as quickly as possible. Displacement prevention stabilizes neighborhoods, stabilizes the local workforce, and helps children’s education by saving them from having to travel from school to school.
By making it easier for renters or non-profits with a mission to buy, this will allow inclusive apartments to remain permanently affordable for generations to come. COPA will also enable tenant engagement and empowerment, including the ability to actually purchase the apartments they live in, either by forming a limited capital cooperative or participating in a community land trust.
Real estate lobbyists say COPA will require bureaucracy that will interfere with the real estate market. However, the only real impact on the real estate industry will be to require, in some cases, a modest extension of the time needed to complete a sale. It would hardly be a speck on the radar screen of the Silicon Valley’s Booming Real Estate Market. More importantly, the real estate market as it currently functions is not working at all for low-income renters and aspiring home buyers.
When families are displaced, it can literally destroy their lives. This can separate them from their work, their community, their churches or temples, their schools and/or subject them to overwhelming displacement. In many cases, this forces people to move entire families into single rooms or converted garages, and sometimes leaves them completely homeless. Interfering with this type of movement is not a bad thing, but a good thing.
The displacement is so serious that we must deal with it by all available means. New affordable housing is essential, but we must also ensure the preservation of so-called “natural affordable housing”, wherever it still exists. COPA can help us do that. A similar program in Washington, DC has rescued some 1,400 units since 2015.
The real estate industry claims that COPA is a threat to property rights, but the truth is the opposite. COPA will help extend ownership rights to tenants who would otherwise never have the opportunity to purchase a home in San Jose.
COPA is a rare opportunity for San Jose to help correct its historic support of racial exploitation and discrimination in housing by allowing tenants, who are mostly people of color, to finally become owners. The only people really at risk from COPA are speculators looking for outsized profits with quick cash purchases. With all due respect, the San Jose City Council would do well to ignore their complaints and instead listen to the tens of thousands of low-income tenants and essential workers on the brink of survival.
Sandy Perry is President of the Santa Clara County Affordable Housing Network. Thao Le is a member of Việt Unity. Father Jon Pedigo is a priest in the Diocese of San José and Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. Lavere Foster is the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for the African American Community Services Agency. Milan Balinton is executive director of the African American Community Services Agency.