A ‘history of complicity’: Business group explores how to help the housing crisis
The headquarters of The Silicon Valley Organization is pictured in this file photo.

A powerful business organization known to push back against low-income housing policies could change its stance to help solve San Jose’s housing crisis.

That was the sentiment this week at the Silicon Valley Organization’s first housing committee meeting of the year. The meeting Wednesday brought developers and housing advocates — two often clashing groups — together to discuss ways SVO can help solve the region’s housing crisis.

The up to 50-member committee, comprised of business leaders and developers, makes recommendations for policy positions to the SVO board. The SVO board votes on and helps promote those positions to lawmakers.

The SVO could possibly change its position on policies like Opportunity Housing, a plan to allow up to four units on single-family home sites to increase the city’s affordable housing stock. Right now the business group supports the policy only near transit centers — not citywide, as a city task force recommended last year.

But first, the organization is taking steps to repair broken relationships with the community.

“It’s a part of our new goals to be a more inclusive chamber of commerce,” said SVO government relations director Eddie Truong. “We need to have an authentic process where we are continually listening. This meeting is the first step.”

But Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service, said SVO has a “history of complicity” in failing to support affordable housing policies that uplift low-income communities like citywide Opportunity Housing. Guevara and others discussed how SVO can do better in terms of promoting equitable housing policies.

Guevara said it’s time for SVO to help San Jose reshape its legacy — which consists of racialized land-use policies that prevent people of color from buying homes.

“That’s part of the legacy that this organization has been involved in and I hope that if you’re not going to be a proactive force in undoing a legacy of systemic racism, redlining and other things that exist in this particular community, first, do no harm,” Guevara said.

The SVO’s housing committee met for the first time this year on Wednesday to discuss how the business group might better support affordable housing policies.

The meeting was moderated by SVO’s interim CEO Bob Linscheid, who was tapped to lead the organization after a racist ad scandal dismantled SVO’s political action committee last year.

The ad sparked widespread outcry and forced the resignation of former CEO Matt Mahood. Business and nonprofit leaders also cut ties. Linscheid began the meeting Wednesday by apologizing.

“Our actions have contributed to the persistent racial and economic divide in our community and we’re truly sorry,” Linscheid said.

The committee launched into a passionate discussion about how SVO can help San Jose build more affordable housing while ensuring low-income and communities of color are treated fairly.

Since SVO and its PAC historically had a wide-reaching, deep-pocketed influence in local politics, meeting attendees said SVO should reconsider its policy stances on issues such as Opportunity Housing that could allow for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built in single-family neighborhoods.

But Leslye Corsiglia, executive director of Silicon Valley at Home, reminded the committee that the SVO board voted to oppose Opportunity Housing citywide.

The SVO supports Opportunity Housing near transit hubs only, which critics say is unfair to low-income communities in downtown and East San Jose — which already have high density. SVO’s PAC sent mailers last year criticizing City Council candidate Jake Tonkel for supporting Opportunity Housing, claiming the policy would “eliminate single-family neighborhoods” which is untrue.

Advocates said Wednesday they want the SVO to be an ally when it comes to affordable housing.

“I don’t know that you’d have to lead,” Corsiglia said. “But be a partner that we can call on to support us when we push forward these issues.”

Meanwhile, developers worried about the rising costs of building housing in San Jose.

Developer Gary Dillabough said most builders agree San Jose needs more housing, but fees the city charges make it tough for developers to actually get housing built. Dillabough suggested fees for parks and affordable housing be eliminated to allow the market to run its course.

The San Jose City Council recently lowered inclusionary housing fees to encourage developers to build more affordable housing. It also slashed fees moderate-income developers need to pay to support parks.

Carmen Brammer with the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet said eliminating fees is not the answer. She said old policies that relied solely on the market have historically made housing unaffordable for middle-class workers, such as teachers, and people of color.

Linscheid said the organization hopes to strike a balance through continued conversation.

“Although we recognize we have yet to fully address matters of racial inequality,” Linscheid said, “we hope that these committee meetings and others will be a small step forward toward a community partnership addressing housing inequity, right here in our own backyard.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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