Op-ed: Maximize building heights to make more affordable homes
Construction continues on a development in San Jose. File photo.

    In Silicon Valley, everyone knows we need more affordable homes. Our passion for this issue is why we became members of Catalyze SV’s Project Advocacy Committee. As volunteers, we join with other dedicated Silicon Valley residents to give constructive input on how to build better projects. We provide feedback in categories like sustainability, vibrancy and transportation.

    Two criteria are really important to us. One is the percentage of the project’s desperately-needed affordable homes. The other is how much the developer maximizes building heights. Taller buildings generally mean more homes. This is critical because we are oceans away from ending the current housing shortage. Developers tell us that when they are able to build taller, they can dedicate more land for shops, homes, green space and other amenities that benefit the broader neighborhood. Conversely, pushing heights lower makes housing less affordable, especially here.

    One of the higher-scoring projects Catalyze SV has evaluated is First Community Housing’s McEvoy Apartments three blocks from Diridon Station. It proposes 13 stories of 365 affordable homes for families struggling the most. We are impressed that the developer is proposing an emerging construction material—mass timber—to reduce costs and make this height feasible.

    Last month, a project we’ve reviewed in San Jose from Studio Current increased its height to eight stories—taller than most mid-rise buildings we see in the Valley.

    We’ve seen more encouraging signs in recent months of projects moving in this direction. This spring, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Raul Peralez called on planning staff and the council to increase the allowable height on land that had been artificially downsized. The council affirmed this when it approved up to 12-story buildings at the new El Paseo de Saratoga. In addition, we’re encouraged that cities like San Jose are overhauling their parking mandates on new developments because it means more space for people and homes.

    Yet we’ve also seen backward steps. Early this year, a quality nonprofit housing developer presented a promising 100% affordable housing project we scored high on affordability.

    But the developer proposed six stories, half of what the city allows. Disappointed, we asked them to add more homes—even if it is one or two floors. If they do so, we can re-score the project higher.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a developer leave homes on the table.

    Many local governments, housing developers and nonprofits actually share our goal of building as many affordable homes as possible, so it’s perplexing when developers shrink projects. This has to stop if we’re to make a bigger dent in addressing our greatest housing needs.

    There are some reasonable explanations as to why a developer may do so, yet there are also outdated excuses.

    For decades, decision-makers have surrendered to the handful of loud, often organized voices in community outreach meetings that seek to downsize, delay or deny new development. That’s how we got into the current mess.

    Developers need to do what is right rather than try to appease a minority of existing residents whose overblown complaints are louder than their numbers justify.

    It’s as if an amazing taqueria with delicious homemade tortillas stopped serving tortillas because a few nearby residents complained about the smell of them cooking.

    Sacrificing a few homes once may not seem like a problem, but it quickly adds up over multiple projects. Ten fewer homes here, 30 fewer nearby, can snowball into hundreds or even thousands of homes lost across a city.

    Every project matters. Land is expensive in Silicon Valley, as are construction costs, and it’s even more difficult to finance affordable housing projects. The time for half-measures is over.

    That’s why we urge every developer, planner, lender, government leader and community member to design, support and encourage funding housing projects, especially affordable ones, that maximize heights to create more homes. We’re thrilled the San Jose City Council will be considering a policy along these very lines on Nov. 15.

    We expect more developments to follow First Community Housing and Studio Current’s lead. If they do, we’ll gladly continue speaking up with Catalyze SV to support projects with more homes and community benefits.

    Courtney Portal, Eamonn Gormley, Carlin Black and Kathryn Hedges are community advocates. Lalo Mendez is a graduate student in San Jose State’s urban planning program and Catalyze SV’s development project specialist.

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