The 2022 elections in San Jose taught us once again that candidates fail to address the housing and homelessness issue at their peril.
Cindy Chavez actually had a better housing program than Matt Mahan did, but it appeared that Mahan cared more deeply about the issue, because he kept hammering on it. Although Chavez clearly cares, her campaign gave the appearance of being too satisfied with the status quo, and it cost her. On this question, Mahan was right—the status quo is absolutely unacceptable.
What Mahan actually proposes will most likely ultimately fail, because his analysis of the problem is flawed. He essentially argues that homelessness is increasing because county and city homelessness programs are ineffective and wasteful. But as Destination Home reports document, we are actually getting record numbers of unhoused people into homes. The problem is that many more new people are becoming unhoused—every time we house one person, two to three new people land on the streets. This is caused by the ever-widening disparity between the high Silicon Valley rents and the low incomes of a significant section of the population.
Enterprise Community Partners put out a comprehensive study of this disparity in 2020. Between 2012 and 2017, the Bay Area lost 32,000 affordable homes every year. In Santa Clara County, we lost 8,000 a year during that time. These were unsubsidized affordable rentals that became unaffordable because rents increased beyond what residents could afford to pay. There is no way affordable housing construction could or can keep up with this.
This not only causes homelessness, but also the terrible displacement crisis we continue to face every day, which frankly did not receive enough attention from either the Mahan or Chavez campaigns.
The best policy response is an aggressive preservation strategy as proposed in the Enterprise study, for so many reasons: it establishes permanent affordability, it advances racial and economic equity, it’s much quicker and cheaper than new construction and it empowers tenants and their communities. Above all, it creates a new paradigm in opposition to the existing housing system that is failing before our eyes: it takes homes permanently off the speculative market, transforming them from investment vehicles into real homes for real people to be able to live in peacefully without fear of eviction and displacement.
The proposed COPA program, or Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, is an important piece of good preservation policy and would facilitate it. One of the main themes of the Mahan campaign was complaining about the high cost and slow pace of new construction. Preservation provides an alternative that costs only 50% to 70% as much and takes a fraction of the time to complete.
Affordable Housing Network supports Mahan’s call for a rapid increase in the number of quick-build temporary homes for the unhoused, as long as they are of good enough quality, so people don’t have to be forced to go live in them. They should include easy access to refrigerators, microwaves, as well as bathrooms, and they must have access to public transportation. Some of our existing quick-build communities have terrible transportation, so people end up stranded there, unable to get to stores or services.
However, quick-build housing will have two serious problems. One is that even with increases, there will not be enough temporary homes for all the unhoused we have today, not to mention all the new ones continuing to become unhoused. Second, since these are meant to be temporary homes, how long will people be allowed to stay in them? Will they be pushed out after a few months, as many quick-build programs do? And since we don’t have any permanent housing, where will they go?
For all these reasons, despite the campaign rhetoric, the proposals currently on the table will not significantly reduce homelessness without solving the permanent housing problem. Although the city could try draconian crackdowns to try to make people disappear, public opposition would for the most part prevent that. Most people in San Jose today are just too compassionate to allow this to happen any more than it already does. People will not accept blatant oppression of the poor in the wealthiest area in the entire world.
Sandy Perry is president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. The Affordable Housing Network comments on issues, but does not support, endorse or oppose any candidates for electoral office.