Liccardo’s focus in 2019: Housing, housing, housing
Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo (courtesy of Andy Nguyen)

Sam Liccardo easily won four more years as San Jose mayor in November, but the high-profile former attorney faces a Gordian Knot of intersecting issues entering his second term — especially the intractable housing crisis.

Upon his swearing in four years ago, Liccardo contended with a bitter pension battle that ended in a mass exodus of San Jose police officers, but the city’s pension obligations now come second to the housing and homelessness crisis that plagues the city and could define Liccardo’s legacy.

Despite a number of efforts, the city hasn’t moved quickly enough to get people off the streets. According to the most recent street count in Jan. 2018, more than 4,300 individuals in San Jose still lack a permanent place to live.

“I take full responsibility for the fact that we haven’t made more substantial progress more quickly,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “Many of our efforts — whether converting deteriorating motels to apartments, building permanent supportive housing, incentivizing landlords to take in homeless veterans, or launching jobs program for homeless cleaning our city — are showing success, but we’re not doing them fast enough, or at scale.”

Although county voters two years ago passed Measure A, a $950 million affordable housing bond, Liccardo’s recent effort to pass Measure V, which proposed a $450 million affordable housing bond, failed.

While partnering with nonprofits like Downtown Streets Team and HomeFirst has helped house about 6,000 people since 2015, the mayor said, the economy is “pushing folks into the street at the same rate that we’re housing them.”

Leslye Corsiglia, executive director of Silicon Valley at Home, said one of the challenges for Liccardo is figuring out how to stop the “spigot of people” still finding themselves on the streets.

“We’ve housed 6,000 people over the last three years,” Corsiglia said. “That’s amazing, but we still have homelessness and it’s because we haven’t stopped the flow. There is displacement and gentrification going on because rents are rising and people aren’t able to continue to live in places where they’ve lived for a long time.”

But things could be worse, according to Liccardo; Oakland and San Francisco had “substantial spikes” in their homeless populations between 2015 to 2017, while San Jose was “roughly the same.”

“That tells me that… we’re doing the right things, but we simply need to scale the resources and accelerate the work at a faster rate,” he added.

Most of Liccardo’s priorities for 2019 overlap in some way — housing, homelessness, transportation and economic development — and require a broader regional approach.

Councilman Sergio Jimenez supports Liccardo’s push for permanent housing, but said the mayor could be missing opportunities to find interim housing solutions.

Google recently bought public land for a future campus near Diridon Station, but the project won’t break ground for several years. Jimenez said Liccardo should explore leasing some of the land from Google and using it for temporary encampments in the meantime.

“We, for far too long, have really taken an approach where we don’t have good self esteem as a city,” Jimenez said. “It’s not said, but (the attitude) is almost like we should be lucky they’re coming in. But I think we need to do a better job about bargaining and negotiating for things… that will help solve some of these issues, and I don’t always see that present.”

One of Liccardo’s allies on the council, Dev Davis, said she’s working with the mayor on an ad hoc development committee to ensure projects go through planning and development processes quickly ”so we can get more housing units in the pipeline and built quicker.”

More than 1,000 units of affordable housing are expected to move forward this year with the help of $100 million in city funds.

The approval of almost 200 granny unit permits last year, as well as several thousand market-rate units like the Japantown Corp Yard, will add to the growing stock of what Liccardo calls “affordable by design” housing — units that don’t rely on government subsidies, often because they are small or efficiently designed.

Garrick Percival, associate political science professor at San Jose State University, said that Liccardo’s penchant for building coalitions with other South Bay leaders has been one of the notable aspects of his leadership.

“As a mayor with not a lot of institutional power, Liccardo’s really in a position of trying to bring people along,” Percival said. “I think he’s trying to paint a picture that this is going to involve lots of partnerships, thinking beyond just San Jose and working with some of these surrounding cities.”

Sorting out a legal settlement dating back to 2005 that prohibits building housing in North San Jose is a “critical task” Liccardo must grapple with this year. Even if the city prevails, however, high construction costs aren’t helping.

“Too many housing developers are unable to move forward on already-entitled sites because they can’t get financing due to very high construction costs,” Liccardo said.

“The lenders aren’t biting, and that’s a major impediment to our progress,” he added. “I don’t expect that situation to change dramatically until the economy cools, so we’ll have to work nimbly with the private sector to find other ways to reduce construction costs in order to get more shovels in the ground.”

Contact Julia Baum at [email protected] or follow her @jbaum_news on Twitter.

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