Op-ed: Correcting Councilmember Mahan
Councilmember Matt Mahan. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Recently, San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan posted an article where he stated his opposition to “Opportunity Housing,” a plan to legalize fourplexes throughout the city. We feel that Mahan’s argument against the plan is misguided, and we urge him and other councilmembers to reconsider their opposition.

Since summer 2020, when San Jose’s General Plan Task Force voted to recommend to the City Council a citywide exploration of Opportunity Housing, there have been countless arguments levied against the idea: the city’s tree canopy is at risk; local control is under attack; urban villages need to be prioritized. Similar cries are being heard about statewide bills SB 9 and SB 10, which would both allow for small increases in housing units in residential neighborhoods.

Councilmembers and residents who oppose these gentle upzoning bills continue to go to the mat for urban villages, but see them as a substitute rather than a complement to Opportunity Housing.

Without additional changes in housing policy and zoning, the urban village growth model that Mahan supports will bring in more jobs (382,000) than build units (120,000) that will drive demand and prices higher, and perpetuate a system of inequitable development that often accelerates displacement in neighborhoods with urban village plans, a trend also found in Seattle’s urban village experiment.

A recent analysis of Seattle’s urban villages found that the current strategy continues to perpetuate patterns of segregation throughout the city while failing to protect BIPOC residents from displacement “because it perpetuates a land use and zoning policy that was specifically designed to limit their housing options.” The analysis “recommends that the city change its zoning laws to allow more housing types in areas outside the urban villages that are now reserved for single-family homes.”

Similar analysis was found in Chicago when the city only upzoned near transit stops and increased surrounding land values. It is important to acknowledge that the paper only examined housing development for five years, despite most developments taking longer than that. We then agree with Mahan that “approval of such projects should take weeks, not years.” With the newly-formed Office of Racial Equity, shouldn’t San Jose consider a similar racial equity analysis of its own urban village and growth plans, given that the current plan aligns rather well with historic redlining maps of the old city?

Yes, Councilmember Mahan’s suggestion to overhaul the approvals process for the urban villages makes sense. But let’s not forget the deputy director of planning reassured the General Plan Task Force, multiple times, that the department had more than enough staff to meet the needs of both urban villages and study Opportunity Housing (because as we all remember, the vote in the fall is for a study, not for an ordinance approval).

Councilmembers also sing the praises of San Jose’s ADU policy—which is a very good streamlined policy—as the only gentle density our city needs. Mahan implies that ADU development is helping to reverse decades of historic redlining in our city. However, a study done in 2020 by Stanford University students for the local nonprofit [email protected] reveals that “both urban villages and ADUs are woefully inadequate in increasing density and addressing affordable housing needs.”

The study also found that the current distribution pattern of ADUs, urban villages and subsidized affordable housing are mostly situated within non-white, lower income neighborhoods, continuing to perpetuate segregation lines that were drawn in parts of the city by Home Owners Loan Corporation maps.

Not only have urban villages been placed and planned in historically redlined neighborhoods, but the pattern of development isn’t equitable: consider how East San Jose is the only neighborhood in the city with form-based zoning codes, while the rest of San Jose continues to utilize more traditional zoning approaches.

Mahan’s greatest concern about Opportunity Housing, that building housing in low-density and transit-scarce neighborhoods would cause spikes in greenhouse gas emissions, is also predicated on dubious evidence. According to the VTA, the only way for mass transit to become an attractive option in suburban neighborhoods such as Mahan’s Almaden Valley is for those regions to embrace more walkable densities and mixed uses, something which Opportunity Housing would provide.

A study by the Urban Land Institute also found that small-scale density increases in suburban neighborhoods can reduce vehicle miles traveled by as much as 20% when paired with other investments. Without combining density with improved transit and infrastructure, we will remain left with our current status quo: workers super-commuting 90 minutes each way because they cannot afford to live near their work. Working from home provided a temporary buck in that trend, one that does not apply to teachers leaving schools or essential workers paid minimum wage.

Furthermore, Councilmember Mahan leaves us with the impression that he has all but given up on reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions in the vast majority of the city outside of the central core. His approach is misguided and limits the city’s ability to curtail emissions and driving.

In contrast, Opportunity Housing, in conjunction with other policies, can help the city maximize the returns on San Jose’s investments in biking and transit infrastructure and make our built environment less hostile to car-free modes of transportation.

At the June 8 City Council meeting during the discussion of the city’s Assessment of Fair Housing, Councilmember Pam Foley mentioned she had recently read “The Color of Law,” and stated as a realtor she was stunned, saddened and unsure of what her next steps could be to help rectify decades of historic segregation in San Jose. Our recommendation for Foley, Mahan and others seeking a way to help reverse these trends would be to start by supporting Opportunity Housing citywide.

Alli Rico is a District 3 resident and a volunteer with South Bay YIMBY. Anoeil Odisho is a District 10 resident. Gil Rodan is a District 1 resident.

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