San Jose City Council District 4 candidates square off in Berryessa
Pictured from left to right: Berryessa School Board Trustee David Cohen, incumbent Councilmember Lan Diep, tech worker Jamal Khan and San Jose housing commissioner Huy Tran. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

Local candidates vying for a seat on the San Jose City Council in District 4 squared off in a candidate forum on Monday, ramping up the election season with a few months before voters head to the polls.

The panel, hosted at the Berryessa Community Center and moderated by Linda Locke, president of the Berryessa Citizens Advisory Council, featured incumbent Councilmember Lan Diep, who is being challenged by David Cohen, a Berryessa School Board Trustee, San Jose housing commissioner Huy Tran and tech worker Jamal Khan.

Community involvement 

The candidates on Monday were grilled on issues around community involvement, housing and transportation, with only a minute and a half to answer each question. Starting with Diep, the candidates were asked about their efforts to support District 4 residents.

“I’ve been helping the local Vietnamese community here find access to resources to understand and navigate them through the language barrier, providing them information that’s necessary to access government benefits,” said Diep, a Vietnamese resident himself. said.

Khan said he’s been involved in community service since high school, which inspired his interest in working in child nutrition as a fellow for the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship Program.

“It’s really just incredible,” Khan said about the work he did at the federal agency. “I could see the effect all the way at the local level, including right here in District 4.”

Next, Tran discussed living out of his car when Assemblymember Ash Kalra, who was then a public defender, let Tran stay with him to help him get back on his feet. Through Kalra, Tran had the opportunity to pay his way through law school before he got involved in helping labor advocates fight against wage theft violations.

“As much as I love this city and I’ve grown in the city, I’ve also struggled here,” Tran said. “I stayed with (Kalra) for three years… and I was able to use that time to stabilize my life and focus on the job I was really trying to get. Since then, I have been proudly active with our community.”

Cohen was actively involved in education, serving on the library commission for six years before becoming a school board member and advocating for an increase in teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, keeping music and science programs in schools and tutoring students in afterschool programs.

Housing

All of the candidates said affordable housing and homelessness were the top challenges facing District 4, except Diep who said economic development and growth were the most important issues facing the northernmost district of the city.

“The question was on the most important issues for District 4 — not necessarily the city,” Diep said. “I think economic growth, development, bringing jobs to this area and sustaining our trajectory is extremely important.”

But when the topic came back up again, the candidates differed on solutions to creating affordable housing — the big ticket question.

Cohen said the answer was simple — there is not enough affordable housing being built or prioritized, which drives out middle class workers, exacerbated by developers who want to turn a profit by building market-rate housing.

“In order to have a vibrant city, you need firefighters and police officers and teachers and people who work in retail, all able to live near where they work,” Cohen said, “and what we’re doing right now is sending the employees of our district (to live) far away.”

Khan added that the city needs to address why it’s more expensive to build affordable housing than market-rate developments as the lack of housing for the “missing middle” continues to grow, while Diep said the crisis demands more “flexibility” and less enforcement so that developers can find a return on market rents.

But Tran pushed back against Diep’s claims, arguing that the city needs to “reframe” the issue, as developers don’t need an incentive to build in San Jose. The city is a desirable place to live, Tran added, so if developers “want to come here” they have to contribute to residents’ quality of life.

“This is the issue that got me to run — it is housing,” Tran said. “We need people to recognize that there’s value here, so if people want to come here and they want to make money off of our land, they have to contribute to our quality of life as well.”

Transportation

The candidates also discussed challenges with public transportation and how to balance new growth around transit corridors, such as new housing and commercial development near the Berryessa BART station.

Khan expressed support for building denser housing around transit corridors, which puts “less of a strain” on traffic, a top concern for many residents apprehensive of new development. Tran said he supports urban village projects, which make the most out of the city’s space by combining the need for mixed-use housing and commercial development around transit.

Cohen agreed with prioritizing mixed-use development, but does not think the city is approaching it correctly. He said “mixed-use development” means integrating spaces for public libraries, preschool programs or other public amenities — not franchises like Starbucks on every corner.

“We have stuck too close to this idea that we need to preserve land for commercial use,” Cohen said. “Mixed-use development doesn’t mean what it looks like right now… building six, seven story condo buildings with a Starbucks on the first floor. Starbucks is not mixed-use development.”

Diep fired back against Cohen, arguing that developers will only make an investment in San Jose if they have contracts set up with franchises like Starbucks.

“(Developers) should have contracted Starbucks, or like a yoga studio coming in for sure,” the councilman said. “Then they will build and make the investment. Mixed use is possible but it is cooperation between the city and private developers that will get that vision going.”

The four candidates have less than two months to win residents’ support. San Jose’s primary takes place March 3 and vote-by-mail ballots begin to go out early next month.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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