Rocha, Yamamoto: San Jose was intentionally planned as a racially segregated city
Opportunity Housing would allow up to four units to be built on single parcels in single-family neighborhoods. File photo.

San Jose was intentionally planned as a racially segregated city.

Single-family zoning, which originated in Berkeley, Calif. in 1916, reserved exclusive communities for wealthier and whiter neighbors and deliberately excluded hardworking people of color. This practice spread to other cities. Today, because we know better, we are held accountable to dismantle this racist planning tool and open our neighborhoods citywide to low-density missing middle housing known as “Opportunity Housing.”  While income alone doesn’t determine where we live, where we live can determine educational, health and economic opportunities.

We are in an unprecedented housing shortage emergency. We need solutions like Opportunity Housing. San Jose, like many Bay Area cities, is severely under producing affordable homes. A median-priced home in San Jose is increasing beyond $1.2 million, requiring buyers to have an income of at least $212,000. This is not sustainable for ensuring the next generation can afford to live in the city they grew up in.

Opportunity Housing is just one part of the solution to our historic housing crisis and shortage. Building on the success of allowing accessory dwelling units in backyards with minimal neighborhood impact, this policy would allow property owners to build two to four units per parcel, providing rental and ownership opportunities at a lower cost to residents across the city.

If we are going to continue to have successful economic growth, we must maximize our land responsibly. Currently, 94% of residential land in San Jose is zoned to restrict each parcel to only one home. Opportunity Housing would give property owners more choices without significantly altering the character of a neighborhood, as buildings would have the same height and size requirements as the rest of the area.

Vibrant neighborhoods like Japantown are an example of this type of housing. With mixed building types, excellent neighborhood retail and public transit access, we can strengthen the character of our city by adding more neighbors. This virtuous cycle will attract more resources like retail and public transit.

However, when people can’t live near employers, they move to the periphery, increasing commute times and greenhouse gas emissions. But by increasing the housing supply, the real estate signs would be true for more residents: “If you lived here, you’d be home already.” Densifying the currently-built environment also relieves sprawl pressure on our natural and agricultural open space areas.

Opportunity Housing is not a new idea. Built before the 1980s, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes play a prominent role in San Jose’s vibrant neighborhoods, with nearly 5,500 of these properties across every council district of the city. New Opportunity Housing type homes are legal now in many West Coast cities, blending into neighborhoods where they provide a greater range of affordability and housing choices. To solve our housing shortage, we will need to use a range of solutions to create more affordable choices of all shapes and sizes for all our neighbors.

The San Jose General Plan Task Force overwhelmingly supported studying citywide Opportunity Housing. The Task Force, made up of 42 community members from every council district, met throughout 2019 and 2020. The Task Force recommended that Opportunity Housing should be explored citywide. This will be a multiyear process that includes the following recommendations:

  • Conducting robust citywide community engagement,
  • Studying incentive to include units at affordable or moderately-priced levels,
  • Developing tools to minimize displacement risks, and
  • Proposing strategies to preserve historic areas.

As early as Spring 2021, the City Council will consider recommendations from city staff and the Task Force, and a summary of public comments.

We are overdue in addressing generations of exclusion and inequity. Instead of spending time and resources to keep people out, let’s do the right thing and welcome more neighbors home. San Jose is at its best when we come together as a community.

Learn more and participate in the effort to create San Jose Neighborhoods for All at https://sjneighborhoodsforall.com/.

Vince Rocha is the senior director of housing & community development at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and served on the San Jose General Plan 4 Year Review Task Force. Kiyomi Honda Yamamoto is a fourth-generation San Josean and the lead policy attorney (housing) at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

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