Bramson: The next San Jose housing director
San Jose Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand signs a document in her office on the 12th floor of San Jose City Hall. She plans to retire in early July after close to 30 years working in housing. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    “The city of San Jose offers a career capstone opportunity for leaders in housing and human services. With compelling financial resources, political, and organizational support, the selected candidate will have the opportunity to make generational impacts on the lives of many.”

    So reads the opening lines of the recruitment brochure for the new housing director position.

    In all honesty, before I started my brief career with San Jose in 2012, I barely had a notion of the function of housing within a city government, let alone what the director of such a department might do. It’s easy to understand the work of libraries, roads, parks, and public safety in sustaining a robust and vibrant community, but the local government’s role in housing – a largely privatized commodity in the United States – was hard to grasp.

    That was until I met Jacky Morales-Ferrand. Starting as the director in 2015, I came to know Jacky as a strong and fierce leader of a housing department that focused not only on the physical infrastructure and financing of affordable housing, but also on the lives of the people who lived inside.

    From her, I learned that the city’s involvement in the enterprise of housing stemmed from decades of racial and social inequities that led to immense disparities for the most vulnerable people that could never be fully bridged by market-based solutions. From this lens, housing was more than just a matter of supply and demand, and without the appropriate levels of intervention, our poorest residents would always be left out in the cold.

    But this reality has never been evident to everyone. And as I have watched Jacky and her team fight tirelessly over the years for better protections for renters and the production of more deeply affordable homes to keep people off the streets, it also hasn’t gotten any easier to convince people of this fact. Hundreds of angry neighbors and business owners still show up to oppose new affordable apartment buildings, policy changes to stabilize rents run into well-funded private campaigns to ensure nothing is ever enacted, and elected fights on the dais leave new sound programs and promising initiatives in permanent limbo.

    Despite all of this, she kept pushing. This did not always sit well with folks. Packed community centers and marathon council meetings evidence that fact well. It probably would have been smoother to walk away from some of these fights — or never have started them at all — but that wouldn’t have been fulfilling the duties of her role. And as a result of this unflinching commitment to the hardworking families, elders, disabled adults, and so many more in San Jose, tens of thousands of residents are safer and more stable than when she started 15 years ago.

    And this week, Jacky retires. Filling this vacant seat with the right person going forward should be a top priority and of critical importance to our city leaders. The job calls for more than a sycophant who moves in whatever direction the winds are blowing. It demands a visionary with resolve who is willing to push for the change needed most and stand up to the slings and arrows that will inevitably follow. Not an easy task, for sure, but there is no question it’s what’s needed right now given the housing crisis we face here locally.

    With over 6,000 unhoused residents, monstrous displacement pressures looming at all corners of the city, and an overall lack of affordability that puts so many people one paycheck away from losing their homes, the next housing director will probably be in for more than just a few sleepless nights. They will have to make tough decisions on their own that result in bringing challenging, contentious issues before the San Jose City Council. I’m sure there will be times when it feels like the worst job in the city. But the trade off is that you get to do something that will, as the promotional materials state, “make generational impacts on the lives of many.”

    So, Jacky, thank you for your sacrifice and service. Now, as we look to the future, let’s make sure the next leader is up to the monumental work ahead.

    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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