Have you heard of the anti- and pro-development acronyms NIMBY, “Not In My Backyard,” and YIMBY, “Yes In My Backyard?” We can now add the pro-development acronym of YOSL, “Yes On School Land,” to the list.
As Santa Clara County struggles to keep up with housing demand, which is causing housing prices to skyrocket, San Jose is searching for alternatives to address the housing shortage. The city is exploring new ways to create housing from schools that have been shut down due to declining enrollment.
Public meetings to discuss the conversion of school lands, giving school districts the ability to build housing, already began in early March and will continue into early 2022. While some believe school conversions are necessary to ease the demand for new housing and allow teachers to live in the neighborhoods they serve, this policy has been met with some pushback from the community.
School sites are categorized as public quasi-public land. Before public quasi-public land can be converted for residential use, general plan amendments are necessary, with exceptions made for permanent supportive housing and homeless shelters. According to General Plan Land Use Policy LU-1.9, a requirement to make an amendment is the “Preservation of existing (public quasi-public) lands in order to maintain an inventory of sites suitable for Private Community Gathering Facilities, particularly within Residential Neighborhoods, Urban Villages and commercial areas, and to reduce the potential conversion of employment lands to non-employment use.”
Public discussions are focused on draft policy changes, including eliminating the requirement for no net loss of school sites in the district and lowering the minimum residential density requirement from 20 homes per acre to 16 homes per acre. The goals of these changes to the general plan are to:
- Produce workforce housing, i.e., deed-restricted affordable housing with an established minimum density level such as duplexes and townhomes.
- Allow teachers and school staff more opportunities for housing.
- Allow for commercial and other employment uses.
- Consider future needs for school facilities.
Two school conversions have already taken place in San Jose, and the simplification of the conversion process has local communities on edge. In Blossom Valley, the former Glider Elementary School site has many neighbors nervous about the future of their single-family detached home neighborhood. Janet Williams is concerned that, “This is a permanent change to the neighborhood for a temporary bump for the school district budget.” She worries that if the need for a school increases in the future, there will no longer be a facility for children to learn and play.
Maria Elena Casillas, a concerned parent, is worried about what a higher density project will do to their neighborhood. “A housing project might lead to years of traffic congestion, crime rate increase, neighborhood’s mental health and other irreversible changes affecting our community,” Casillas shares.
Earlier this year, the San Jose City Council voted 9-2 in support of rezoning vacant Cambrian School District land from public quasi-public to residential. Councilmember Pam Foley, who represents the city’s Cambrian area, said she supports the ability of school districts to convert school property for housing and stressed the importance of community outreach. Prior to the vote, the district received more than 1,100 letters of support.
While no decisions have been made, according to Jessica Setiawan, a city planner on the General Plan Data Analytics Team, community outreach will resume this fall and winter with staff recommendations targeted for early next year. Time will tell if the new general plan amendments will be crafted to address the concerns of school neighborhoods and if these changes can result in any significant increase to our local housing stock.
Johnny Khamis is a former San Jose councilmember representing District 10. He now works as a public relations consultant for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors.