San Jose housing advocates: No thanks, Commissioner Oliverio
A policy of opportunity housing would allow owners of single-family homes to build limited additional housing on their property. Photo courtesy Santa Clara County Association of Realtors.

In a recent op-ed in the Mercury News, Planning Commissioner Pierluigi Oliverio launched into a tirade against Opportunity Housing, a proposal to allow four-plexes on lots currently zoned for one home.

The bulk of Oliverio’s piece consists of cartoonish fear-mongering that Opportunity Housing will be akin to “an anvil…falling from the sky about to demolish a house” and claims that Opportunity Housing would damage the “aesthetic character” of residential neighborhoods and lead to litigation. He further claims that multi-family conversions will lead to a wave of “profit-seeking buyers.”

Oliverio’s views are a serious mischaracterization of Opportunity Housing. For one thing, four-plexes and other small multi-family housing are already quite prevalent in many of San Jose’s older neighborhoods. These homes have the same height, yard, and setback limitations as single-family homes. Yet we don’t see advocates for exclusionary housing claiming that those homes damage any nebulous neighborhood character. Why? Because contrary to what Oliverio and other exclusionary housing advocates would have you believe, allowing a few of your neighbors to add a couple of extra homes doesn’t turn your neighborhood into a high-rise district and lead to the “irreversible destruction of neighborhood integrity.”

Furthermore, his claim that Opportunity Housing would lead to an influx of “profit-seeking buyers” omits the fact that single-family homes in San Jose are increasingly owned by investment firms and landlords. Not to mention, housing has become one of the most profitable investments in San Jose: yet why does Oliverio exempt single-family homebuyers from his definition of “profit seekers.”

In a shocking display of hypocrisy, Oliverio also claims that he supports construction in “wealthy under-housed cities” in the Bay Area. But why does he oppose allowing homeowners in San Jose’s wealthy single-family neighborhoods to choose to add affordable homes to their community, especially when development in San Jose is still reinforcing patterns of segregation?

The solution Oliverio presents to his perception of the dangers of Opportunity Housing is to allow individual city blocks to vote on whether or not their neighbors can build an upstairs unit (a SHOCKING assault on our neighborhood character). But will homeowners suddenly have veto power over all home improvements? If your neighbors can approve your over-the-garage mother-in-law unit, can they also vote on whether you can merely add a second floor to your home for personal use? And what if your neighbors just don’t like you?

This “solution” is merely a continuation of San Jose’s existing failed policies: wealthy neighborhoods with a long history of exclusion will continue to reject new housing; foisting new growth on disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Urban Villages, which Oliverio and his ilk tout as a “smart growth” strategy, already disproportionately impact low-income communities.

In this country, single-family zoning has driven the racial wealth gap, exclusionary housing policy, and community segregation since its inception. Anyone advocating for single-family zoning should be forced to confront the racially abusive history of the tactic before employing it.

Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book “The Color of Law” seeks to address the history of the San Francisco Bay Area’s racially-exclusionary housing practices. Single-family zoning is not spared in his treatment, “To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.”

You might want to believe that these tactics were only employed in places where segregation was considered inviolate, but you would be wrong.

Rothstein’s book highlights examples of racist housing practices that grew up during the Bay Area’s heady 20th-century expansion. Take the example of San Jose’s neighbor, Milpitas.

In 1953 Ford built a second Bay Area plant in what we now know as Milpitas. Once it became known that the union intended to move all 1,400 of its Richmond plant workers—including its 250 African American employees—to the area the residents living near the plant quickly incorporated and passed an emergency ordinance to ban apartment construction and allow only single-family homes. They must have been very concerned about their community’s “character.”

Let’s talk about those Black Ford employees who couldn’t find a home near their place of work. What did they do? Commuted—the other Bay Area scourge.

In addition to apartment bans, cities, developers, and neighborhood associations, including those in San Jose, imposed racial covenants to keep middle class Latino and Black people who could afford single-family homes out of high-resource suburban neighborhoods.

Single-family zoning means those Black employees never got the opportunity to build the wealth that comes with Silicon Valley homeownership and their children didn’t get the opportunities to attend better-funded public schools located in those suburbs.

Does Opportunity Housing reverse all of these social ills? Of course not; no single policy can wipe away decades of injustice. But inclusionary zoning can bring us one step closer.

The smartest solution to planning for San Jose’s future growth is right in front of us. If Oliverio wants to talk smart policy, he ought to back the smart policy.

Gil Rodan is a San Jose resident, writer, and activist. Jayme Ackemann is a native of East San Jose and a transportation and housing advocate.