Collins: Where can we build housing? Here are some ideas
A San Jose home going through renovations. File photo by Annalise Freimarck.

In a recent poll sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business trade association, 82% said the cost of housing is a very serious concern. Regional housing affordability is at an all-time crisis level. With the median house price in Santa Clara County now approaching nearly $2 million, regional stakeholders must take aggressive action to address this crisis.

A large part of the solution is to create more housing to stabilize and eventually bring down prices. Are we creating enough housing? According to Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of REALTORS®, America actually had a 2.1 million unit surplus in housing units in 2006, but underproduction since then led to a housing shortfall of 2 million homes by 2015 and a shortage today of nearly 4.8 million homes.

The resistance to build new housing continues to be a major obstacle to affordability.

This month, I explore several infill development ideas that maximize available space to build. For example, churches often have large surface parking lots with room to spare. There is a growing movement to open up these properties to new zoning that would allow for affordable housing.

“Land that belongs to faith communities is supposed to be for the services of the vulnerable,” said Monica Ball, who helps lead the Yes In God’s Backyard (YIGBY) movement in San Diego. “Not only will this type of housing help to house those most vulnerable, but it could also provide the churches with the revenue to provide the community greater services.”

San Jose is considering development on a 13.4 acres church-owned parcel in south San Jose for affordable housing and senior housing.

Much like the faith community, Santa Clara County also has tremendous reserves of vacant and underutilized properties.

Developing these properties for housing would be consistent with their mission “to plan for the needs of a dynamic community, provide quality services, and promote a healthy, safe and prosperous community for all.”

Imagine large flat parking lots replaced by a shared parking structure to allow for affordable housing adjacent to the county facilities that serve that same community.

Another seemingly logical site for development is the large VTA parking lots. I live close to a 7+ acre park and ride lot that, at best, has just a handful of vehicles parked at any point in time. It is more frequently used by Goodwill for donation drop-offs or as a pumpkin patch in the fall. Why not develop affordable housing next to this bus stop and light rail station? Not only will the land be used for a higher purpose, but ridership will most likely increase as well.

To VTA’s credit, it has several Transit-Oriented Development Projects in the pipeline. Unfortunately, as with most housing projects, the timeline could be several years before the units are built.

School districts are also looking at their real estate holdings in a new way. Several are considering building housing to provide teachers with affordable units in the same community that they serve. Earlier this year, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and city staff proposed a change to the land-use policy to set guidelines for converting vacant school district properties.

Underutilized commercial property is also being considered for future housing development. Similar to the other options mentioned, this option would require a zoning change to local ordinances. Imagine converting an old dilapidated retail center to a mixed-use development with retail on the bottom floor and housing up above, or redeveloping the entire parcel to housing. These commercial properties have the infrastructure to support housing and often have easy access to transit.

Lastly, which many view as a controversial option, is to provide gentle infill in residential neighborhoods through a mechanism like lot splits. Lot splits may be difficult to apply universally because of the uniqueness of local neighborhoods, but there are many lots where this makes sense. Larger lots, especially giant corner lots, have ample room for a lot split and also allow for plenty of parking. This option would create more homeownership opportunities at a time when very few opportunities are available for ownership.

There is little debate as to whether or not we need to build more housing. To do nothing is not an option.

However, the will to build more housing has many obstacles. I have offered several infill ideas to consider, but the reality is that concerns over traffic and parking seem to outweigh the basic necessity of shelter. We need to account for a future where autonomous driving vehicles decrease gridlock and where the continued rise of the Sharing Economy limits the need for every adult to have a parking spot for their own vehicle.

There is no single solution to address the housing crisis but alternative housing solutions through infill development deserve a deeper dive.

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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