City commissioner urges Liccardo to make $6.5M investment in East San Jose
Felipa Zuñiga, right, speaks with a representative from nonprofit Prosperity Lab inside her restaurant about the grant she received from the East San Jose COVID Relief Fund. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Felipa Zuñiga, who owns Zuñiga’s Restaurant and Cakery in East San Jose, had to let go of all her staff because of COVID-19.

    For now, she’s the only employee left, and she’s had to dip into her life savings to keep her doors open.

    “I’m so nervous about everything that’s happening,” Zuñiga said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I just want to be heard so my business can be saved.”

    But now a new economic plan for East San Jose urges Mayor Sam Liccardo to help the area see new investment.

    San Jose Planning Commission Vice Chair Rolando Bonilla is calling on Liccardo and the City Council to pump millions of dollars into East San Jose, an area that faces significant disparities and historic underinvestment. He says the majority-Latino eastern portion of the city—one of the poorest in the region—has often been left out of most government aid programs, including meaningful COVID relief.

    “Where’s the help?,” Bonilla said Tuesday as he called on lawmakers to aid East San Jose. “We’re now a year into COVID. A year ago we knew there were going to be some major financial implications for East San Jose.”

    Bonilla has proposed the city fund a $6.5 million program that seeks to benefit East San Jose businesses. From that, $4 million would go to the East San Jose small business grant program and the East San Jose nonprofit grant program, $1 million for technical assistance for small businesses, $1 million for job training resources and $500,000 for a pilot universal basic income program in East San Jose.

    Rolando Bonilla addressing the media outside Zuñiga’s Restaurant and Cakery Tuesday. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Bonilla knows some might scoff at the idea of pouring millions into the vulnerable neighborhood. But, he argued, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the city’s $4.8 billion budget.

    “If the (city) looks and says, ‘We have other priorities,’ ‘We don’t have enough funds,’ what they’re really telling you is that they have no desire to invest in the community,” Bonilla said.

    Bonilla and his advisors believe $6.5 million is an amount the City Council can approve and allocate quickly.

    The plan would need to be factored into Liccardo’s fical budget and approved by the City Council. It’s unclear if Liccardo is willing to support such a plan. He did not respond to requests for comment.

    East San Jose has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the city’s hardest-hit ZIP codes, 95122 in East San Jose, has a case rate of 13,790 per 100,000 residents—far higher than the city’s rate of 7,266 cases per 100,000 according to county data.

    “It’s not that East San Jose is better or the only neighborhood that is in need,” said Mimi Hernandez, the executive director of Prosperity Lab, a nonprofit collection of business executives that help Latino-owned small businesses in the region to apply for loans, grants and workshops. “But (East San Jose) is where we can see the majority of the impact—emotional, physical and economic—not only from COVID-19 but from lack of investment.”

    After nearly losing his life to COVID-19, Bonilla also started a COVID-19 relief fund. On Tuesday, the fund awarded $3,500 to Zuñiga and businesses Metta, A Plus Cleaners and Infante Wireless last week. The fund has raised $30,000 since January.

    Bonilla wanted to set an example by contributing $5,000 of his own money to the fund. He set an initial goal of $300,000 in donations that would go directly to East San Jose businesses.

    The $6.5 million economic stimulus plan for East San Jose would be a much broader city-led plan.

    “Imagine what can be done if the city of San Jose decided to invest in our community,” Bonilla said. “If the city of San Jose decided we are a priority.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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