San Jose was considering a bold strategy to densify housing when a state law effectively abolished single-family zoning across California. Proponents claim the local vision is far from dead.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bills 9 and 10 into law last week that could dramatically increase housing density in residential neighborhoods by allowing the development of up to four units on a single-family lot and streamline multi-family housing projects near transit centers, respectively. The law bears strong similarities to a proposal called Opportunity Housing that has been debated in San Jose for months.
The initiative would let developers build up to four homes on a single-family lot. In San Jose, 94% of the residential land is classified as single-family neighborhoods. Opportunity Housing proponents consider it a solution to the shortage of affordable housing and soaring costs of living; its opponents claim it will destroy neighborhood character and worsen traffic congestion.
More housing options
Unlike Senate Bill 9, which goes into effect in January, Opportunity Housing is still just an idea. A city task force recommended studying the proposal, but there isn’t even a scope for the study yet. Proponents say Opportunity Housing should be kept alive because it’s complementary to the state law, but addresses San Jose’s unique housing needs.
“The Law Foundation believes equity should be at the center of all policy,” said Kiyomi Yamamoto, attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. “The local ordinance really needs to come with incentives for ensuring these new homes that are generated are affordable, particularly for those most at risk of displacement.”
She told San José Spotlight that SB 9 doesn’t have an affordability component and is focused on duplexes, whereas Opportunity Housing is studying units up to fourplexes. Yamamoto and other advocates said Opportunity Housing is a chance for San Jose to develop a policy customized to the city.
“There are many things that SB 9 has not done that are still on the table from the task force recommendations,” said Justin Wang, advocacy manager for the Greenbelt Alliance. He told San José Spotlight that a local ordinance can be tailored to allow different sized units depending on concerns about neighborhood aesthetics or water use. “By pursuing Opportunity Housing you’re getting more options. You’re not pigeonholing people into very specific types of development.”
Vince Rocha, senior director of housing and community development at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said he’s pleased that Newsom signed SB 9.
“In the local context, we are still interested to see a study by the city of San Jose on how Opportunity Housing can fit alongside and complement SB 9,” he said. “There are questions about feasibility of new housing as well as how we can tailor a policy that ensures we are affirmatively furthering fair housing. We look forward to the data and community discussion.”
‘The Opportunity Housing conversation is already dead’
Conversation at the city level may be tense. Opportunity Housing is supposed to be discussed by the San Jose City Council in October, where it will likely face strong opposition from some members. Councilmember Matt Mahan rejected the initiative earlier this summer in favor of developing denser housing around the city’s transit-adjacent urban villages.
“I think it’s dead wrong for the state to eviscerate local control for a large city like San Jose that has consistently been a good actor on housing, which by the way has a massive jobs deficit and horrible traffic,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.
Some civic leaders are wary of the proposal, fearing it will have a disproportionately negative impact on lower-income residents in East San Jose.
“For generations now the city of San Jose has utilized East San Jose as a laboratory for ideas that may not be thoughtfully planned out,” said Rolando Bonilla, chair of the Planning Commission.
He expressed concern that the city will try to restrict the policy to transit corridors and urban villages that are concentrated in the eastern part of the city, creating new problems with traffic and parking. He said this type of zoning would create an uproar in a wealthy neighborhood such as Willow Glen.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Opportunity Housing conversation is already dead,” Bonilla said.
San Jose isn’t the only city grappling with how to reconcile local housing initiatives with the new state law. Sacramento is in the process of updating its plan for housing, which includes permitting a greater array of housing types in single-unit neighborhoods.
Sacramento Planning Manager Matt Hertel said SB 9 presents greater cover for local jurisdictions that want to expand housing options in certain neighborhoods, but there’s still a need for local guidance. As an example, he said SB 9 doesn’t extend to historic districts, but Sacramento officials believe there are opportunities to increase the number of housing types in those areas.
“It’ll be interesting to see how jurisdictions adapt over the next couple months,” Hertel told San José Spotlight. “It’s going to be a great pivot for a lot of jurisdictions from what they’re used to seeing.”
Editor’s Note: Rolando Bonilla is married to San José Spotlight board chair Perla Rodriguez.