Bramson: Empty office and retail sites could be used for housing
A shopping center on Alum Rock Ave. with boarded up shops is pictured in this file photo.

Vacant storefronts with “For Lease” signs fading in the windows. Abandoned strip malls with a sea of empty concrete spaces. Massive corporate offices from a bygone, pre-virtual era, sitting unoccupied, desolate, forgotten.

Sadly, this is the post-pandemic narrative for many California cities, suburbs and exurbs these days. Along with an unexpected financial collapse and a flight of employees to remote office work, the decades-old urban planning principles that put jobs and parking first – and, correspondingly, housing last – have led to vastly underutilized deserts that we have in our communities today. These spaces represent a seemingly impregnatable land use ideology that holds back our potential to build what we so desperately need: more affordable homes for residents in need.

Here in San Jose, we haven’t exactly helped ourselves on this front historically. The 2040 Envision San Jose General Plan – the city’s primary roadmap for future growth – has done tremendous work creating new spaces for job growth, but that has often come at the expense of housing. To put a point on it, from 2008-2019, for every 3.2 jobs we’ve created, we have only built one new home. That means more demand for housing, less affordability, and people being excluded, displaced, sometimes ending up without any place to go.

The good news is the state Legislature is trying to move some dirt around right now to address this challenging dynamic. Senate Bill 6, known as the Neighborhood Homes Act, creates an opportunity to replace vacant or underutilized office or commercial property with new, multi-family affordable housing developments. While it won’t force developers to build housing over retail, it does get all of the local zoning and land use issues out of the way to clear a path for a considerable number of new homes.

The act itself does a good amount of work to silence critics as well. The projects still have to go through all of the other required approval processes, so cities will still have plenty of voice under the new law. And displacement of existing businesses won’t be a concern with the legislation requiring the sites be 50% empty for at least three years before any residential uses could even be considered. And industrial lands – a significant asset for San Jose in particular – are completely exempt from the bill.

The fact of the matter is we really need legislation like this immediately. The city’s own draft affordable housing siting policy calls for more housing production in higher resource areas. But, not surprisingly, many of those places in San Jose don’t currently allow for multifamily housing. Empty office and retail buildings with vast parking lots, however, are in bountiful supply.

If all goes according to plan, SB 6 will be heard by the Assembly as early as mid-August and then on to the governor, but many other bills just like it have suffered untimely deaths over the past few years.

What make this so infuriating is that from virtually every measure imaginable, we’re falling way too far behind on what we need to keep our neighbors safe, stable and housed. Even if it’s not this particular bill, we need to open up the playbook and do whatever it takes to build more affordable housing wherever and whenever it’s possible.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact 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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