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Marin Voice: ‘Opportunity zones’ paving the way for displacement, not prosperity

February 26, 2024

By OMAR CARRERA | Opinion | Marin Independent Journal

In the first week of 2024, 17 families at 400 Canal St. in San Rafael opened their mailboxes to find eviction notices.

Tesseract Capital Group, owners of the building, are evicting families to renovate the units. Not only will the existing families be forced out of their homes and into a brutal rental market, the renovated units will be unaffordable to most residents of the Canal neighborhood. While heartbroken to learn of this news, unfortunately, I am not surprised. This crisis has been building for years.

Now the main question is whether San Rafael’s leadership, which has often said they support Canal residents and the cause of racial justice in our city, will use their power to stop this from happening.

The threat of displacement in the Canal has been steadily growing since our community was designated as an “opportunity zone” in 2018, the only one in Marin County. Opportunity zones were created by the Trump Administration to stimulate economic growth in underserved areas by encouraging outside investment via tax incentives.

We were concerned from Day One that the designation in the Canal would incentivize displacement, mostly through the sale of aging residential buildings — home to low-income and Latino families — to more aggressive investor owners, whose business plans would involve evicting tenants, renovating buildings and renting them at prices unaffordable to neighborhood residents.

We worked with city officials to proactively create a tenant relocation assistance program in 2019. This program, designed to provide financial assistance during involuntary relocation due to development projects or renovations within the zone, has unfortunately proven insufficient to stem the tide of displacement fueled by speculative investment and massive rent increases.

At Canal Alliance, we didn’t need to wait for the latest round of evictions to know that current protections weren’t working. We’ve been urging Mayor Kate Colin and the City Council to take action for years, to provide real anti-displacement protection for residents in the opportunity zone — protections strong enough to prevent the displacement we are seeing.

Canal residents have appeared before the City Council several times, sharing personal stories about how recent rent hikes and “no fault” evictions are negatively impacting families, children and seniors.

In November 2022, we collaborated with local partners to urge the City Council to stop this displacement, including concrete recommendations on “just cause” eviction, rent hikes, relocation assistance and “right to return” policies that would have helped prevent displacement in the first place. While we sparked concern and interest among some council members, they did not act. The council failed to prioritize crucial protections for vulnerable residents facing potential displacement.

Colin and city staff recently indicated that they take this threat seriously and are prepared to take action. The City Council can still intervene to stop the mass displacement of 400 Canal St. tenants and the thousands of other Canal residents made more vulnerable by the opportunity zone designation.

They can and must establish the necessary protections to prevent these evictions and the ones that will come next. This ordinance can focus only on the opportunity zone, much like enhanced renter protections were during the COVID-19 pandemic. They can be temporary, but must be enacted by the council before more Canal families are displaced.

These protections would not solve the long-term problem of displacement in the Canal or the opportunity zone, but it would buy us time to work together on a long-term housing plan that sees our older buildings renovated without displacing the community that provides so much critical labor to our city and county.

With time, we could work with Rep. Jared Huffman on needed reforms to the legislation of opportunity zones, which were renamed “Displacement Zones” in a 2019 report by the Steering Committee of Strategic Actions because of the program’s impact on neighborhoods where people of color live, like the Canal.

The time to act is now. The displacement of low-income residents, many of whom are essential workers, will generate detrimental ripple effects throughout the community. Continued displacement will exacerbate the crisis of homelessness, cripple the ability of local businesses to hire and retain staff and ultimately erode the very tax base necessary to sustain vital programs and activities benefiting all residents.

Omar Carrera is CEO of Canal Alliance, a nonprofit based in San Rafael.

Read article at Marin IJ.

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