Today we’re sharing an interview with Emerald (ze/hir), a housing activist and member of the board of the South Bay Community Land Trust (SBLCT). The organization is the first of its kind in Silicon Valley, one of the epicenters of gentrification and housing unaffordability in the contemporary United States. Emerald discussed what runaway housing costs look like in the area and the effects on oppressed populations like queer youth and elders. Ze explained the South Bay Community Land Trust’s effort to secure permanently affordable housing by removing land from the speculative market entirely.
Q: What are housing conditions like in Silicon Valley?
I pay $475 for half of a room in a house that has no air conditioning, no heating, no laundry. Our shower is a converted closet. Where the landlord put in a toilet, haphazardly slapped a bunch of plastic on a wall, and put a shower. We’ve had rats, we’ve had cockroaches. The window screens either don’t exist or are a bunch of chicken wire nailed to a two-by-four. We have a bunch of weeds growing out of our gutters—and that’s a good deal. Gentrification is small colonialism. Folks move into an area and buy land. They increase its value by “cleaning up” the neighborhood—displacing certain kinds of communities or businesses. Then they flip it and make a profit.
• Donate to the South Bay Community Land Trust and follow their efforts to keep low-income Silicon Valley residents in truly affordable housing.
• Volunteer with or support a local community land trust or other organization working to make housing a right, not a commodity.
• Consider: What would you do if you faced eviction after an unexpected medical bill, job loss, or family emergency? How would your ability to recover be affected if you weren’t about to find stable housing? How are the rights of tenants and unhoused people connected?
Q: Why are housing costs so unaffordable?
People talk about “inelastic demand.” The hedge funds buying up properties know people won’t choose to be homeless; they’ll just find a way to pay whatever they’re asking for rent. The wealth gap between folks who are working non-tech and tech is driving it. Mountain View has Google, Cupertino has Apple, we have eBay, Cisco, PayPal, and Lockheed Martin.
My biological dad, who I’m estranged from, is a techie making that six-figure salary. In my high school in Cupertino, folks had BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes as their first cars. They’d complain about the hardship of going to expensive tutoring after school. When my friend got into UC San Diego, her mom just bought a condo for her.
Q: How did you start doing work in the community?
After I became estranged from my parents, I was cut out of that world. I learned what it’s like to interact regularly with the unhoused, what wealth privilege is, what it’s like to be working-class or poor. Being a queer person who didn’t have housing, the first project I did was with a bunch of queer youth to get an LGBTQ+-focused homeless shelter made.
Q: How does gentrification affect LGBTQ+ communities in particular?
Cassie came here from Minnesota because she heard that the Bay Area would be more hospitable. But the best she could do was crash at her cousin’s place and work part-time at Goodwill. That was the kind of work she could get as a Black trans woman who didn’t have access to large support networks.
Her cousin’s landlord kicked out their whole apartment. Cassie didn’t have anywhere to stay, so she got a Greyhound ticket to Missouri. I genuinely don’t know if she’s alive today.
One trans guy’s parents were helping him pay rent for an apartment. But when his parents found out he was transitioning, they cut off his rent. He slept on the street; he got mugged. He had to move back in with his parents. And they forced him to de-transition.
In the LGBTQ+ community, you get used to the idea that any time you see a person might be the last because they don’t have a safe place to live.
Q: What is a community land trust, and how can it help address the problems?
A community land trust owns the land or housing in perpetuity so the community can continue to use those resources. It’s a community entity that understands land, and housing isn’t a thing to be exploited because it is where we live, raise our families, and exist together. It decommodifies land by taking it out of the speculative market, the market where people are only trying to profit from it. The people who live there have a direct say in how those properties are run so there’s no incentive to raise rent. The only things we’d charge rent for would be paying down any mortgage we’d have to take out to buy a property, and those costs can be allayed through fundraising.
One of our sister land trusts in San Francisco works directly with the city government to do small land acquisitions. The city government helps the land trust buy apartment complexes. In Oakland, Moms 4 Housing saw a bunch of homes sitting next to unhoused people and just moved in. After that, OakCLT stepped in with the resources to acquire the house from the developer so the moms could continue to live there.
Q: What’s your vision for the future?
We’re accepting donations and looking to acquire our first properties. My dream is to one day have a house so if anyone in my chosen fam needs a place to stay, they can have a room so that none of us would worry about getting kicked out of somewhere again.
We’re so used to being marginalized. It would be great for anti-displacement work if our elders could interact with folks in the community, if their senior housing costs didn’t increase past their fixed incomes. I don’t know if the CLT is going to address all of the needs here in the Bay, but we know it’s part of the solution. And we have to start trying.
• Like many places, Silicon Valley is “two worlds:” those who work well-paid professional jobs and those struggling to survive.
• Housing unaffordability has particularly dire consequences for people from marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ youth.
• Community land trusts like the SBCLT keep housing permanently affordable and community-controlled by removing it from the private market.
*This piece was originally published on 11/4/21. It was updated by The ARD on 7/24/23.