Bramson: Breaking voter promises might destroy San Jose’s affordable future
Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo helps kick off the Measure E campaign. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

    When San Jose voters approved the Measure E real estate transfer tax increase in 2020, the mandate was clear. The revenue generated by the new ballot measure from the sale or purchase of property worth more than $2 million would go directly to addressing the lack of affordable housing in our community. It was a simple measure that offered solid, sustainable revenues to help with a dire affordability challenge that has been breaking the backs of our most vulnerable residents for decades.

    The architects of the bill knew this source of funds was particularly vulnerable to ever-changing currents of political will, so they put guardrails in place to make sure the money would continue to flow to what the public had asked for. In June 2020, the San Jose City Council wisely adopted a spending plan that prioritized the majority of the funds for affordable housing, and created a policy that required a two-thirds vote to make any changes going forward. With this structure in place, the money was safe and programmed to do exactly what was promised.

    And three years later, despite the horrors and hardships of the pandemic, Measure E has been working. To date, the city council has committed funds to create more than 300 deeply affordable apartments, assist 80 unhoused students find a place to live, and keep over 1,000 families in their homes. In a time of uncertainty, these dollars have offered some reliable support to keep people stable and safe, while also building permanent homes for the future.

    What’s crazy about all of this is that all of that success apparently now adds up to a big fat zero. At least, that’s what the recently released 2023-24 city of San Jose budget seems to suggest.

    In a sweeping and confounding new proposed funding plan for Measure E, exactly $0 is committed to affordable housing production in the coming year. Yes, there is money set aside for the four remaining projects from the city’s 2021 Notice of Funding Availability, but that’s it. No new funding opportunities will be released, no new projects will be considered. It’s the equivalent of hanging a “closed for business” sign on the front door of San Jose’s Housing Department.

    This couldn’t come at a worse time, too. With local resources like Santa Clara County’s Affordable Housing Bond coming to an end, the need to keep development activity moving forward is more important than ever. You can argue that this is just a one-time reallocation, but taking the foot off of the gas pedal for an entire year will jeopardize some truly great projects and delay the development of the housing that we need the most for years to come.

    There’s also way too much wrong with this proposed approach to accept it now and expect that we’ll get back to business as usual a year later. The redistributed money in the current draft of the budget goes to a slew of initiatives and staffing to address homelessness, but none of it seems like a one-time commitment, with the lion’s share of the funds dedicated to interim options.

    Don’t get me wrong. We need more high quality, non-congregate shelter to get people off the streets, but this tactic doesn’t end anyone’s homelessness if they don’t have a permanent place to go on the backend. And the city’s own fiscal analysis shows that if we continue down the path of simply putting up more and more shelters, we’re heading toward a fiscal buzz saw that could end up costing the San Jose general fund $50 million a year by 2029-2030.

    We need to take this into consideration and come back with a budget that makes more sense. The current spending plan, adopted by council in 2022, still serves that purpose. It sets aside 75% of the funds exclusively for affordable housing, while also making some money rightly available for effective prevention, shelter, and service activities. As the council has done in the past, we can also make tweaks around the edges of this plan to fill gaps and provide limited funding for other emerging needs.

    But to completely decimate the resources that are necessary to build the housing that we must have to ensure families, disabled adults and elders are able to live and thrive is wholly unacceptable. It’s a broken promise to the voters who approved Measure E and it will ultimately leave us in a place that’s far worse than when we started.

    If any of this registers with you at all, please know now is the time to make your voice heard. Any changes require a supermajority vote of the council, so the opinion of everyone on the dais means quite a bit on this particular issue. The plan goes to the Housing and Community Development Commission (item VII. B.) this Thursday, and then to the full city council (item 3.3) for the first of two public hearings on May 16.

    The bottom line is that the 10th largest city in the nation cannot afford to stop building affordable housing when so many people are outside or just one missed paycheck away from homelessness. If we don’t use this vital housing resource to keep pressing forward now, why did we even ask the voters to approve it in the first place?

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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