Chester: Housing loopholes expose a problem and a solution
An aerial view of San Jose. Photo courtesy of San Jose.

A recent San José Spotlight article explained how a state law intended to create more housing can also be used to drastically reduce home construction.

The San Jose Flea Market site, an Urban Village, may have just over 25% of the original amount of homes proposed.

The reporter spoke with Erik Schoennauer, who represents the owners. He said interest rates have skyrocketed along with construction costs, and there’s little financing for high-density housing, making the previous project financially infeasible. Which is a developer’s explanation of a larger problem: Urban Villages are less “financially feasible” than smaller projects.

Mayor Matt Mahan has proclaimed to be a champion of accountability and common sense. The mayor has also long held the position that higher density housing downtown and near transit will “pay for itself,” part of his mayoral candidacy policies. His common sense view was to “focus” housing growth around the city’s Urban Village sites and “increase feasibility” by creating a list of pre-approvals to streamline the process.

As a land use consultant, Mr. Schoennauer’s view is important to consider. Is it good common sense to focus housing growth on the most expensive land because it’s near many jobs or rail lines? Or with the most expensive construction type, because concrete and steel are more expensive, which developers find “financially infeasible?”

Is it time to hold Mayor Mahan accountable and ask, “If Urban Villages are not financially feasible, do you support increasing mixed-use residential and mixed-use commercial zoning to meet the housing need of the residents that he is mayor of?”

Unfortunately, the mayor’s office did not reply when I requested a comment.

In a 2020 conversation I had with his campaign team there was a firm stance behind Urban Villages being the, not an, answer for home construction. This thought comes off as common sense to many laymen.

An elected official has a stark advantage over laymen in the sense that they have the ability to listen to professionals, some even specializing in the area for years who could provide recommendations for different models for change. An elected official can have intimate conversations with them and ask questions to grasp the nuances of any topic. Mahan has never accepted the reality that our land use has created an untenable city tax base given the services necessary for a high quality of life.

Since there’s no link to the 2023 community opinion survey which our “city scorecard” was based on, I’ll refer to the 2022 survey. It shows the overwhelming majority of people not already retired don’t see the city as a good or excellent place to retire. It also shows a majority of people associated with being parents of school children don’t think it’s a good or very good place to raise a child. So to see an exodus of people is, to put it bluntly, a given. We need change to give families of all ages the ability to stay in their city. Change to build confidence that staying is beneficial, as well as create a desire to stay.

The changes may not be every resident’s feeling of what their perfect neighborhood is like. Many envision a neighborhood where neighbors know each other. Where streets and sidewalks are clean and in good condition. Where people are happy. Where yards are well kept. This vision is not limited to single-family neighborhoods.

Salons. Cafes. Bookstores. These are small businesses that can be community gathering points in neighborhoods with slow traffic. They become meeting places and staples of the neighborhood for tying us closer together as neighbors. They create a great feeling of pride, and that benefits you more than a single-family neighborhood ever could through a financial lens as well.

In San Jose, we are currently subsidizing taxes to simply maintain our roads. We subsidize our tax base when we vote for temporary taxes for specific purposes like Measures B and T, which are ending in 2028 and then a new tax could arise if everyone likes the paving they’ve seen citywide. We vote to subsidize our school districts. We see Mayor Mahan lead numerous cleanup efforts, which I commend him for, without asking why volunteers are needed rather than create more jobs to provide the service. We vote to subsidize our tax base because our base cannot grow easily.

We have limited yet expansive land, much of it zoned to hold one home. There could be four homes on the same land, or a business and two homes bringing in more revenue while also paying sales tax. Neighborhood businesses on mixed-use lots bolster our tax base so we inch away from relying on additional tax measures to meet the city’s basics.

It’s a common sense solution which we must hold all elected officials accountable for as they are responsible for following the U.S. Constitution and “secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Our future generations deserve this change which we have been denied. For our community, for our economic sustainability, for generations to come.

Gordon Chester is a lifelong San Jose resident with a background in development in the county, and an interest in housing, transit and history.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply