Full transcript: San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s 2021 State of the City
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s full 2021 State of the City address.

Good evening. As I fulfill the mandate of our city charter to articulate an annual state of the city address, I reflect on the pain that so many in our city have experienced over the last year. The loss of loved ones to a lingering pandemic, the horrors of mass shootings, the sight of encampments and shuttered storefronts, and the struggles of too many families unable to pay rent.

Through it all, our community has responded with collective resilience and with faith. San José residents have protected themselves and each other by becoming vaccinated at the highest rate of any major U.S. city. More than 4,000 of us volunteered to help our neighbors through siliconvalleystrong.org in ways big and small, delivering more than 200 million meals to families in need or supporting testing clinics or vaccination outreach. As we saw the impacts of closed school campuses on children without Internet access at home, we connected more than 100,000 San Joséans with free Wi-Fi and equipped more than 60,000 students with laptops. We’re steadily restoring jobs as numerous employers expand in San José, including familiar brands such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Roku, Tesla, and Twitter. And we continue to pull together to confront unprecedented challenges. For that, I feel deeply grateful to our community, our city team, and to our many partners. I am deeply proud to serve you as your mayor.

Homelessness and Housing

Now, state of the city addresses typically focus a spotlight on the city’s successes. But I’d like to start an honest conversation that begins with our greatest failure, homelessness. I take responsibility for that failure and for every unhoused neighbor who are in camps in our parks, our creeks, and our sidewalks. It certainly isn’t their fault nor the fault of any of the resourceful nonprofits or our staff, who have collaborated to help more than 4,900 unhoused residents find permanent housing since the beginning of this pandemic. Rather it’s the failure of decisions predicated on the belief that if we just keep doing the same things the same ways, eventually progress would come, contrary to the palpable evidence on our streets. In the Silicon Valley spirit of failing forward, we embrace the lessons of our failure and pivot toward better solutions. Here are a few.

First, we’ve learned that we need more immediate solutions, rather than merely waiting for permanent supportive housing to get built to address this crisis. Measure A’s passage in 2016 has been helpful, but it gave too many false hope that it would solve homelessness.

In reality, the first apartment complex funded with that 2016 measure didn’t open its doors in San José until 2020. At a cost of more than $750,000 per unit, conventional approaches to building housing will not stretch public resources to address anything more than a small fraction of the need. This crisis demands faster, cheaper, and more nimble solutions while we build permanent housing.

When the pandemic first hit, I convened our city team to use our emergency authority to pilot a different approach, what I call Quick-Build apartment communities, using prefabricated modular units on public land. We built three such projects in the first year alone, not in years but in months, and not at $800,000 per apartment, but at $110,000 per apartment. We have two more planned under construction, and we’ll succeed due to the incredible generosity of Peter and Susanna Pau and John and Sue Sobrato, who have committed nearly $15 million to spur our efforts, as well as partners like Destination: Home and AllHome. We’re also accelerating a concept that we first piloted in 2016, buying motels to house our homeless, which has enabled us to move hundreds of unhoused through motels into permanent housing.

The state of California has since embraced this model, and we now have funding from Governor Newsom’s Homekey initiative to expand motel conversions. Now, we need to embrace what we’ve learned and scale the impact. I’ve proposed that we get 1,000 Quick-Build apartments under construction or completed by the end of next year and convert 300 more motel rooms by that time. Doing so will get more people off the street faster and more cost-effectively than we could before.

To get these and other such projects built, we will need to identify many more sites, which requires collaboration of some very reluctant neighborhoods. That brings me to our second failure. We’ve chained ourselves to overly rigid processes. A county-wide process known as the coordinated entry system matches unhoused residents with services and prioritizes housing for those county residents who appear most vulnerable out on the street. Both are important objectives, but applied too rigidly, this coordinated entry mandate prevents any neighborhood from seeing the direct benefits of constructing housing for the homeless nearby, because the system may prioritize homeless from some other city over unhoused residents in their midst in their own community.

That rigidity undermines neighborhood support for housing projects, and it also disincentivizes suburban towns from doing their part to house the unhoused in their own communities. Working with our county and the housing authority,we will continue to push for flexibility in coordinated entry to better incentivize every neighborhood to participate in solutions to our homelessness crisis. And we have already made modest progress.

Third, too often we’ve built these projects for unhoused residents without fully understanding their needs and how we can best help them get back on their feet. With a Quick-Build project near Guadalupe River Park, we’re embracing a different approach, incorporating the insights of those with lived experience of homelessness on an advisory board created by Destination: Home. We’ve also failed to create enough pathways for those unhoused residents who have theability to get back on their feet quickly.

For some of our homeless, a job can do far more than the most well-intentioned programs. We launched San José Bridge, employing unhoused residents to clean and beautify the city under the direction of two nonprofit partners, Goodwill and Downtown Streets Team. Participants have removed 310,000 pounds of debris and trash at 70 of our trash hotspots throughout the city, and they earn paychecks and receive services that have helped several find new jobs with local employers such as Caltrans, Greenways and Tesla. We’re now expanding the program to 100 unhoused participants. Let’s take a look at this innovative program now.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll push to ensure every hardworking member of the San José Bridge team gets housed, and we’ll find ways to expand the program with federal dollars.

Finally, behind our unhoused, many more thousands of our families struggle every month to pay rent. We must do more to make San José more affordable for all. We can start by rapidly expanding housing supply. But not by inundating our neighborhoods with density that merely exacerbates traffic-choking sprawl, but with the construction of more high-density housing near transit hubs. In partnership with Google, for example, we’ll see 4,000 high-density apartments built around the Diridon Station area, 1,000 of which will be rent-restricted and affordable. We can also end decades-old legal battles with the city of Santa Clara and fulfill longstanding plans for thousands of transit-oriented homes amid retail and jobs along the light-rail corridor in north San José.

We can also better inform our families about the availability of affordable housing in our city. We have launched an online portal to help folks find rent-restricted housing here, and you can access an early version of this site at housing.sanjoseca.gov. Finally, we’ll better utilize the scarce land that we have by encouraging the construction of more backyard homes, or what are known as ADUs. Since we launched our efforts to streamline permitting for backyard homes and to partner with builders of less expensive prefabricated models, we’ve seen the annual permitting of backyard homes skyrocket from a handful a half decade ago to nearly 4 this year. In the year ahead, we’ll identify financial partners willing to help modest-income homeowners finance backyard homes of their own. Together, we can build a San José more affordable for all.

Public Safety

Next, I’d like to discuss our community safety. San José residents have endured a diverse and daunting set of threats in recent years, including a pandemic, three mass shootings, apartment fires, a flood, and wildfires. And through it all, we’ve invested more than ever in our public safety infrastructure. After a loss of some 6 San José police officers through the great recession, we’ve rebuilt our police force with more than 3 officers through a historic agreement over pension reform and voter support for two ballot measures.

We’ve expanded our civilian corps of community service officers who take the workload off our police by responding to non-violent crimes and problem-solving and collecting evidence at the scene. Our community support for Measure T in 2018 has enabled us to begin construction of an emergency communication center, several new fire stations, and a fire training facility. Under Chief Robert Sapien, our fire department’s response to emergency medical calls has made dramatic improvements due to the use of new technology, new training, and improved protocols.

And we’ve invested in the human and technological infrastructure to improve our preparedness to threats ranging from cyber-attacks to earthquakes.

Now, last year, I declined to heed calls from protesters to defund our police department because San José already has America’s most thinly staffed major city department. Our neighborhoods invariably tell us that they want to see more police patrols in their neighborhoods, not fewer. Yet the advocates of defunding were fundamentally right about one fact. We can improve safety in creative ways that don’t always require a badge or a gun. That’s why we expanded the community service officer program early in my term and, more recently, why we halted police enforcement on high school campuses to let educators take the lead on student discipline. We partnered with the county to enlist and train mental health providers to work with SJPD to respond to residents experiencing mental distress, giving birth to the Mobile Crisis Response Team in 2020.

This year, we’re deploying Conservation Corps members to put more eyes on the newly opened Coyote Creek Trail to report problems and to deter crime. With a community task force under way, we’ll explore more alternatives to policing to keep us all safer. We can also build trust by improving transparency and accountability. In recent months, we’ve expanded the authority and scope of our independent police auditor, in part through voters’ recent approval of Measure G and through negotiations with our officers’ union. The police auditor can now independently question officers suspected of misconduct and will have unfettered access to police reports and body-worn video.

We’ve also improved the police disciplinary process, ensuring that the findings of arbitrators in disputed cases will be made public and that retired judges can adjudicate these disputes. In the year ahead, I’ll push to give the independent police auditor broader authority to investigate officer misconduct.

We’re also finding novel ways to reduce gun violence in our community. In June, the council approved an ordinance to require gun stores to videotape sales to deter gangs and other criminal organizations from using straw purchasers to illegally acquire firearms. We’re also forging ahead with two groundbreaking proposals.

The first would require liability insurance for gun ownership in the same way that drivers are required to have auto insurance to compensate victims for harm. Just as auto insurance made driving safer by encouraging safer driving and airbags and ABS brakes, so too gun insurance can incentivize firearm safety classes, trigger locks, and gun safes. Each of those steps could make gun ownership safer in a nation in which 4.6 million children live in a home where guns are kept loaded and unlocked.

Second, I urged council to make San José the first city in the nation to require gun owners to pay fees to compensate taxpayers for the cost of police and emergency medical response to gunshots. While our Second Amendment protects the rights of Americans to own guns, it doesn’t mandate that taxpayers should subsidize that right, and gun violence response costs the city nearly $40 million per year and elicits a much higher human toll from our community. Sharon will share why this effort is so critical for our community.

It’s important that we also discuss a fast-growing threat to our collective safety, methamphetamine. Although the opioid epidemic captured national media attention over the last several years, our county’s emergency rooms admit three times more people using methamphetamines than opiates, and meth-related heart failure has exploded six-fold in the last decade. Over the course of just a few days in August, seven unhoused residents died from using a toxic combination of meth and fentanyl.

Every day, our San José police officers encounter seemingly psychotic episodes—screaming, threats, broken windows, and hallucination-induced assaults, all resulting from acute or long- term meth intoxication. In one survey, the drug was associated with 60 percent of the arrests by our street crimes unit. Our rise in aggravated and sexual assaults over the last year appears at least partly attributable to this drug, particularly when the victims are homeless. Unfortunately, we lack treatment options for methamphetamine addicts, with a dearth of detoxification and inpatient treatment beds county-wide.

We also lack a criminal justice system that will do much of anything with meth-addicted arrestees beyond releasing them within hours of the time when they’re arrested. And of course, they’re arrested by understandably frustrated San José police officers, who see them back on the street in a couple hours, into communities of even more frustrated residents.

These decisions lie well beyond the authority of City Hall, so in the year ahead, I’ll be focusing on bringing together stakeholders to address the largely ignored methamphetamine epidemic that is taking too many lives and imperiling too much of our safety.

Falling in love with San Jose

While we must focus on the basics, like addressing safety and homelessness, we should also appreciate that San José is more than simply a place we live. It’s our home, not merely to us but to our families, our loved ones, our friends. Our hometown should capture our heart. If we stop and think about the cities we love, our thoughts don’t turn to whatever we experience while chained to the steering wheel on an expressway. We savor those moments walking a city, perhaps capturing a view of an inspiring skyline, but more likely experiencing the spaces between the buildings, in the parks, the paseos, the plazas.

It’s in those places where we might encounter a relaxing outdoor cafe or a bustling farmers’ market or an entertaining street performer. It’s these public spaces that captivate us. Yet too many of our public spaces have been anything but delightful when we see trash and blight and graffiti that make our city feel less lovable.

I’ll focus first on our renewed efforts to combat blight. Council approved my budget proposal this year to invest in our BeautifySJ cleanup efforts as never before. Our rapid junk-hauling team responded to 23,707 illegal dumping calls, totaling nearly 6 million pounds over the last year. And our graffiti teams have cleaned more than 2.2 million square feet of graffiti from public spaces. We urge everyone to download our free 311 app to request free junk pickup in front of your home andto report any dumping, graffiti, or blight so that we can respond.

Our unhoused neighbors too often unfairly blamed for dumping and blight caused by unscrupulous contractors or other residents, often tell me they want to be part of the solution. As I mentioned earlier, we’re expanding our San José Bridge initiative to employ more unhoused residents to clean and beautify our city. Yet funding constraints limit the scale of this effort, and mental and physical illness impedes many unhoused from working reliably.

So, we’re trying a different approach as well. It’s called Cash for Trash. We provide unhoused residents with trash bags, and if they fill them and leave them at designated spots for pickup, we’ll pay them $4 for every bag by digitally reloading a debit card provided by Mastercard. More than 300 unhoused participants have collected more than 486,000 pounds of trash since we launched the initiative a few months ago. It has become a model for dozens of other cities grappling with the same challenges around their encampments. These initiatives, combined with other BeautifySJ partnerships, have forged with thousands of volunteers and nonprofits like Conservation Corps, the South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, Keep Coyote Beautiful, and Trash Punx, they’re all beginning to have an impact.

Obviously, we still have much more work to do to restore San José’s beauty, and we will. As vaccinations help us reemerge in our public spaces, we’re launching San José Abierto to celebrate our opening and to reintroduce our residents to our city. We’ve partnered with artists and musicians to bring thousands of people outside to our parks, our streets, and our plazas. We expanded our wildly successful Viva Calle event, transforming San José streets into America’s largest park for cycling, roller-skating, skateboarding, and just play four times a year.

Throughout the year, thousands have been delighted by San José Symphony’s resumption of its Outdoor Pops concerts at San José State University, San José Jazz’s Boombox Truck visiting our local parks, the new ballet performing on an outdoor stage with San José Taiko, and food trucks and craft vendors creating a weekly pop-up night market at the Tully ball fields.

The pandemic has taught us to reimagine our public spaces, taking advantage of San José’s 300 magnificent days of annual sunshine. Last year we created San José Al Fresco to bring hundreds of restaurants and gyms, cafes, and retailers outdoors to our sidewalks, our streets, our parking lots to keep small businesses alive while they enliven our streetscape. As you’ll see, opening San Pedro Street to restaurants like Olla Cocina has helped keep their doors open.

We’ve also rediscovered the importance of our trails and parks, which will become a growing focus in the months ahead. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use music to reinvigorate San José’s only federally designated historic district, St. James Park, to bring dozens of live performances to an open-air theater.

At PayPal Park and stadium, San José State University President Mary Papazian has forged a partnership with the city to have student athletes bringing Speed City to East San José and creating new opportunities for our youth to engagewith these wonderful role models.

At the western edge of our downtown, we celebrate Google’s inventive approach to placemaking, connecting public trails and parks while creating open-air gathering spaces around retail and restaurants and artisan workshops. Just to the north, we’ve launched an effort to restore the Guadalupe River Park, starting with rehousing hundreds of residents there. And ideas are emerging to transform the park into a large urban farm. Far to the south in Coyote Valley, we’re planning an incredible open space preserve for the enjoyment of future generations.

Finally, as we look toward the public space most visible to all of us, our skyline, our downtown will undergo an incredible transformation in the coming decade. Rob Steinberg and David Hart’s recent work on the inspiring Miro towers has set a new bar for our city. Increasingly, builders such as Westbank, Urban Community, Jay Paul and Boston Properties are bringing visionary architects to San José from across the globe, such as Tokyo’s Kengo Kuma, Vancouver’s James Chung, and Denmark’s Bjark Ingels, all of whom will paint downtown’s canvas with startling design and an explosion of vertical greenery. An inspiring skyline provides another important ingredient for a city in which we can all find delight.

The Future

Finally, I’d like to turn to my favorite topic, our city’s future. Two essential components of that future deserve our attention: our planet and our people. First, our planet. Cities generate 70 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions. The most important work on climate change then takes place in local communities. This year, San José became America’s largest city to establish a goal reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We have four strategies for reaching that audacious goal. First, to grow sustainably. Second, to green the grid. Third, to electrify the economy, and fourth, to adapt for drought amid a changing climate.

First, growing sustainably: it requires reducing transportation-related emissions by halting development in our hillsides and open spaces and intensifying dense development in downtown and near transit lines. In 2018, we successfully worked together with a coalition of environmental organizations and neighborhood leaders and community groups to protect our hillsides and open spaces in battles over two voter-approved ballot measures. The same year, we assembled a plan with the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the Open Space Authority to preserve the bucolic Coyote Valley, and voter approval for our Measure T enabled the purchase of more than 900 acres in Coyote. This year, council approved general plan revisions that will preserve the rest of north and mid Coyote Valley for recreational trails and open space for our children, safe drinking water for our city, and protected habitat for local wildlife.

Second, greening the grid: that requires finding zero-emission alternatives to fossil fuels for our power. With the 2018 launch of our electric utility, San José Clean Energy, San José became the largest U.S. city with a community choice energy program, giving our residents the option to choose greener sources of electricity. As a result, renewable and hydroelectric sources will produce 92 percent of our electricity this year, and we’ll continue to push to get to 110 percent in the years ahead.

Now that we’ve created a source of green power for our residents and businesses, we face the task of electrifying our fossil fuel economy. We recently became America’s largest city to require all electric utilities in new residential and commercial buildings. Our work ahead will focus on incentivizing electric retrofits for homes and businesses. Homeowners can take advantage of our online applications for home solar and battery storage installations and get permits issued the same day they apply online.

We’re also making it easier to conserve. Using OhmConnect’s software platform, we’ve engaged more than 3,000 residents to reduce their use of peak-period energy by 40,000 kilowatt hours, saving them money while saving our planet of metric 28 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Our largest source of emissions, though, is transportation. Achieving sustainability requires big investments in mass transit. I quit my job years ago to work on the first ballot measure to bring BART to San José, and I’m proud to have worked with Carl Guardino in advocating and raising dollars for every measure since in 2008, 2016 and 2018. VTA recently celebrated its opening of our first BART station in Berryessa, and this year, we can begin tunnel construction to finally bring BART downtown and on to Santa Clara. We’re also under construction on a transit extension along Capitol Expressway to Eastridge. And finally, this year we’ll have the opportunity to select an innovative transit concept in a private-public partnership to build a long- awaited connection to San José Mineta International Airport, showcasing a futuristic transit technology worthy of Silicon Valley’s urban center.

Transit isn’t the only way for us to drive toward a zero-emission future, however. San José has the highest rate of electric vehicle deployment in the United States, and the recent installation of more than 2,000 new, publicly accessible car chargers will accelerate our community’s transition. And for those of us who prefer two wheels over four, we’ve just completed 400 miles of bike lanes. We’re steadily adding lane separations to our street infrastructure citywide to improve safety.

Of course, we cannot discuss our shared environmental future without talking about water. Recent rains bring modest relief, but this drought and future droughts remain with us. We need to invest scarce public dollars in more sustainable approaches to providing drinking water to our city, such as through recycling and away from bloated projects like Valley Water’s $2 billion Pacheco Dam, because the district’s own experts concluded that the reservoir’s narrow catchment area won’t add a single drop of new water supply to our region. Instead we have a proven, an effective alternative, an extensive recycled water system and an advanced purification plant that already produces 8 million gallons of purified water daily. Dramatically expanding that purification capacity can enable us to pump clean water back into our underground aquifers, providing a renewable drinking water resource for future generations. Until we secure more recycled and purified water for our future, though, please conserve and give the yard watering a rest.

Finally, we share a moral responsibility to invest in our most valuable natural resource: our young people. Implicit in this commitment is an imperative that we too often ignore. We must stop incurring debt that spends our children’s money for them. Throughout my tenure, we’ve reduced the financial burden on future generations by eliminating the debt in our city’s golf courses and hotel, by eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance on our roads, reducing interest costs through refinancing of billions in debt and securing a pension reform package that will save taxpayers nearly $3 billion over three decades.

Much credit goes to three women at City Hall who have led this work, our new City Manager Jennifer Maguire, Finance Director Julia Cooper, and Human Resources Director Jennifer Schembri. Our responsibility to our youth also requires a commitment to their health, such as by enacting a citywide ban on flavored tobacco or enlisting San José State students to build out a website, onesj.org, to provide access for youth to mental health services so critical during this pandemic. Yet our greatest contribution to our children’s future lies in eliminating longstanding disparities in education and opportunity, such as our recent expansions of summer learning programs for underserved youth. Above all, I’m particularly proud of three initiatives: Digital Inclusion, the Resilience Corps, and San José Aspires.

Let’s talk about each one briefly. First, Digital Inclusion. Amid a pandemic that left more than 60,000 San José students unable to learn remotely, we partnered with East Side Union High School District to accelerate the buildout of a community Wi-Fi system that provides free broadband connectivity to more than 100,000 residents in east San José. We’re on pace to connect more than 300,000 residents, a population equivalent of the city the size of St. Louis or Pittsburgh, by the end of 2022. Working with our schools and with device refurbishers like Revivn, we’ve distributed hotspots and laptops to tens of thousands of students, effectively closing the digital divide for our current students. Of course, many adults still lack computer skills needed in our economy, but as this clip shows, our digital literacy efforts with adults through community organizations like Goodwill will expand their opportunity as well.

Second, with unemployment rates among teens and young adults hovering twice as high as the rest of the workforce, we launched Resilience Corps earlier this year. We had a simple goal: to give 500 low-income young adults an opportunity to earn a living wage while serving our community to improve our emergency preparedness and pandemic response. Corps members served as tutors to assist young children recovering from learning loss. They cleared brush and Vegetation from wildfire-vulnerable neighborhoods along the urban-wildland interface and they supported vaccination and testing centers throughout the county. As the head of the Big City Mayors coalition, I pushed with 12 colleagues for state funding to extend and expand Resilience Corps in California’s largest cities to serve more kids, and Governor Newsom included $150 million in his June budget. Our young adults and their futures deserve this investment, and I thank the governor for it.

Finally, we’ve embarked on an exciting new initiative, San José Aspires. It provides 1,200 high school students from financially struggling families with an additional road map to college and money to help offset the cost of tuition. While the average California public high school student receives only about 12 minutes of college counseling between her freshman year and her graduation from high school, San José Aspires provides a digital platform that assigns virtual scholar dollars to accomplishments and decisions that are aligned with a college-going path.

Upon graduation, those scholar dollars become real dollars that students can use to offset the cost of post-secondary education with the help of more than $8 million in contributions from such donors as Jay Paul, Connie and Bob Lurie, Monica Bickert and David Wehner and local employers such as Adobe and Apple, Google, PayPal, and Samsung. Stanford University is studying the impacts of this first-in-the-nation initiative, and the success of our students canmake San José a national model for supporting student achievement. Here’s a closer look at these amazing students andat our collective opportunity.

For all of our challenges, San José’s future has never shone brighter. The opportunities for San José are the envy of every other city in the nation. I’ve provided you with a glimpse of some of our work so far and of our work together in the year ahead. I hold my service to you as my greatest professional honor I relish the privilege of continuing to serve you. God bless you and our City of San José. Happy Holidays.

Read our coverage of the State of the City here.

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