Collins: What could Opportunity Housing look like?
A single-family home in Willow Glen is pictured in this file photo.

There was much angst and debate this past year during the San Jose General Plan Review Task Force meetings when just the mere discussion to explore Opportunity Housing was presented. So what is Opportunity Housing?

According to San Jose’s website, it would enable multi-unit housing on properties with a Residential Neighborhood General Plan land designation. Today this represents roughly 94% of all of San Jose’s residential land.

While supporters have promoted that gently densifying neighborhoods is a critical step in solving the housing affordability crisis, the NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) crowd has raised concerns about their neighborhoods’ character being threatened and damaging their property value. So let’s explore this all a bit more.

In truth, gentle neighborhood densification has been going on for quite some time now with homeowners adding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to their lots. Over the last couple of years, regulatory hurdles have been removed to allow for more ADUs to be built. San Jose has created an ADU resource page to help homeowners answer questions about building an ADU on their property. As a result, San Jose saw 415 ADU permits issued in 2019, up 120% from the previous year.

I bring up the conversation about ADUs because the relaxing of these regulations brought up similar arguments.

There was great concern when parking requirements were relaxed to allow for ADU construction, but neighborhoods have not seen any noticeable negative effects due to increased ADU production. Acquiring land and public financing to build affordable housing is terribly difficult, costly and inefficient. But ADUs have proven to be an effective way to create affordable housing by design that was financed by the homeowner on existing land.

So let’s explore what Opportunity Housing might look like.

Some of the proposals being discussed include allowing the construction of duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes. This type of housing is in high demand and will provide affordable housing by design with a more efficient use of the land and maintaining some green space, but without the density of a large apartment complex.

Design and architectural design standards could be established to ensure these structures maintain the look and feel of the existing neighborhood. In fact, some of our oldest and most historic neighborhoods already have this type of housing that was built prior to World War II when building standards were less restrictive. Speaking from personal experience, by renting a duplex on Camden Avenue, my wife and I were able to save enough money to climb up that first rung on the ladder to homeownership.

Another possible option for gentle infill is row houses or townhomes. Both not only provide missing middle housing, but they also represent the next rung on the ladder to building equity and wealth for first time homebuyers.

Row houses generally have the same look and feel, are multi-story and share a common wall. However, they are currently very uncommon in Santa Clara County. Most of us probably think of San Francisco for this type of housing. If we did pursue row housing in San Jose, we would want to have the ability to define what these developments look like. Townhomes also share a common wall or walls and usually are only two stories in height, but typically have more architectural variety. With a townhome, you can own both the building and the land.

Gentle densification of neighborhoods is being tackled at the state level as well.

During this past legislative session, the California Association of Realtors partnered with housing advocates to support SB 1120 by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. SB 1120 could have ultimately led to the creation of up to four units where only one currently exists. The legislation would have allowed existing single-family homes to be converted into duplexes. It would have also allowed for single-family parcels to be subdivided into two lots, while allowing each lot the flexibility to build up to two units on them.

While this bill had the votes to pass, it ultimately ran out of time and could not make the constitutional deadline to send the legislation to the governor to sign. A new version of SB 1120 is already in the works with many of the same partners at the table. Even though the bill received enough support to ultimately become law, the author has realized that there are some improvements that can be made to make this an even more productive piece of housing legislation.

So what are the next steps for Opportunity Housing in San Jose?

City staff have been directed to bring back recommendations on conceptual policy framework to the General Plan Review Task Force. I anticipate this will happen in spring 2021. More housing is desperately needed and this is just one small way to get more units built. Opportunity Housing would not only provide more affordable housing options, but it would also give more families access to economic opportunities as well as social opportunities like better quality schools and parks.

Just like with the increased adoption of ADUs, the keys to the success of this program will be intense community engagement and reduction of regulatory barriers. It is a discussion worth having.

San José Spotlight columnist Neil Collins is CEO of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, a trade association representing more than 6,000 real estate professionals in Santa Clara County and surrounding areas. His column appears every fourth Thursday of the month. Contact Neil at [email protected] or follow @neilvcollins on Twitter.

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