With the recent passing of SB 9 and SB 10, along with continuing talks of Opportunity Housing, the fate of San Jose’s 14 conservation districts hangs in a delicate balance between protection and potential demolition.
As housing becomes increasingly unaffordable throughout San Jose, the passing of bills like SB 10 may look like an end to housing inequality. SB 10 opens the opportunity for the development of 10 or more housing units in transit-rich areas and urban infill with minimal requirements for affordability. While proposed plans for Opportunity Housing vary greatly, most rely on the majority of new housing being built within the downtown area rather than the more spacious suburbs.
One less discussed drawback of this legislation is it overrides local ordinates for housing. Aside from height restrictions and protection of public spaces like parks, local governments would be functionally unable to limit the construction of new buildings. With the implementation of SB 10, any of San Jose’s historical districts would be open to massive tear-downs.
These conservation districts, primarily located close to the city center, have been historically protected by varying local regulations aiming to preserve the outward characteristics of the houses. Although notable for their distinct architecture and age, historical neighborhoods bring numerous benefits to the city as a whole.
Historical neighborhoods generally have higher walkability scores compared to modern development, boosting a more vibrant nightlife. There is a correlation between older neighborhoods and higher numbers of creative jobs and workplaces. Additionally, older areas contain a higher amount of small businesses, along with greater concentrations of racial and ethnic minority-owned stores.
In terms of environmental sustainability, maintaining existing neighborhoods is far more beneficial; older homes often utilize natural materials compared to the plastics produced by modern homes today. Many permanent jobs are created with the continual maintenance of historical housing, while new construction often only offers temporary jobs.
Most importantly, the protection of historical homes itself promotes affordability. On average, historical houses are priced at or below the median cost of a home. This prevents gentrification, as families do not face the risk of being pushed out of their neighborhoods due to rising house prices.
Most historical neighborhoods are already doing what Opportunity Housing claims to be designed for. As a whole, these districts promote the vibrant nightlife San Jose wants along with maintaining an affordable living community for residents. However, with bills such as SB 10 only a small percentage of new units would be reserved for affordable housing, meaning that these preexisting affordable homes would likely be destroyed for luxury apartments. Considering that historical neighborhoods have higher rates of minority homeowners, SB 10 is even more counterproductive.
More living units can easily be created within conservation districts without tearing down the homes. There is already an option in place for dividing existing houses into multiple units through extensions and accessory dwelling units.
If San Jose truly wants to expand its housing units to create more affordable housing, the city should focus on building a more robust transportation system. By increasing transit through extending Caltrain and busing routes, these outer communities would become more accessible and walkable, becoming a more major part of the city. This would open space for Opportunity Housing into areas with more room for development such as South San Jose, increasing the possibilities for new low-cost development.
San Jose needs to protect the little history we have left for future generations. Tearing down conservation districts does not improve the affordability of homes, instead it merely removes the existing spirit and individuality of these communities. These neighborhoods are irreplaceable—let’s keep them that way.
Charlotte Richards was born and raised in the conservation district of Naglee Park in downtown San Jose. She is a current freshman at Pitzer College majoring in mathematics.