San Jose pilot program to tackle blight
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and downtown Councilmember Omar Torres in front of the blighted former location of Cloudz Hookah Lounge on East Santa Clara Street on June 20, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose streets are blighted with trash, broken windows and graffiti—and instead of waiting for residents to point it out, the city wants to find and fix it first.

    The city is launching a pilot program where its employees will conduct blight inspections and enforcement in downtown and other areas for six months, starting in August. The Focus Area Service Team or FAST is a departure from typical protocol, where the city waits for a complaint to be made before it responds. The San Jose City Council unanimously approved the program on Tuesday.

    Instead, a two-member team will frequent underserved blighted areas like East Santa Clara Street and work with private property owners to clean up vacant storefronts and remain compliant with city code. The program won’t cost the city additional dollars because it uses existing staff to do the work proactively.

    “We’ve got to hold everybody accountable,” Mayor Matt Mahan said at a Tuesday news conference. “We can’t allow absentee property owners to shift that burden onto the community—the burden of not maintaining their property.”

    The most blighted areas in the city are Districts 3, 5 and 6, which, according to the mayor, include downtown, East San Jose and parts of Willow Glen.

    Property owners will first be given a warning, but if they don’t comply they could see citations from $250 to $1,000 based on the violation and frequency. Mahan said the city may explore increasing those fines, but it’s not a current focus. He also noted that a $1,000 citation per day adds up, should property owners chose to ignore code enforcement.

    “You have multibillion-dollar property owners that have buildings with broken windows—that’s unacceptable,” Mahan said. “There is no excuse for you to leave your building with broken windows and dilapidated storefronts.”

    Mahan emphasized the onus to keep San Jose clean isn’t just on property owners, but the city as well. Mahan allocated $12 million in the recent budget process to Beautify SJ, which helps clean and manage homeless encampments. The mayor also wants to improve the 311 app, which allows residents to report and track cleanup of blight and graffiti. The city is using $654,000 to create the Beautify Your Block program, which will provide grants to community groups to clean up their neighborhoods.

    He also touted the Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department for being able to fill its vacancies, which will help the city better respond to blight. San Jose has struggled to staff up its departments for years, leading to overworked employees either leaving the city or demanding better pay. But in the last six months, the vacancy rate dropped by 15% and there are only five current vacancies in the department. This means the city can better respond to its 4,000 case backlog of code enforcement violations, or have the flexibility to explore pilot programs like FAST, said Rachel Roberts, deputy planning director.

    “This is a unique opportunity for us to explore new ways for us to deliver our services by conducting those proactive code enforcement inspections,” Roberts said. “Not only address the blight, but increase awareness and hopefully promote voluntary compliance and get some insights into the specific needs of the neighborhoods.”

    Chris Simmons, president of the East Santa Clara Street Business Association, speaks at a news conference hosted by the mayor’s office. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Local downtown leaders are lauding the FAST program, noting blight prevents small businesses from attracting customers. Chris Simmons, president of the East Santa Clara Street Business Association, said it’s not just garbage causing blight, but also urine and human excrement that surround downtown’s main street. Simmons encourages residents to use the 311 app to report blight.

    Alan “Gumby” Marques, local business owner and president of the San Jose Downtown Association, believes FAST will be one of the tools to help revitalize the district’s core.

    “It is making sure that we go from pride to vibrancy, vibrancy to growth,” Marques said. “Growth to basically the rising tide that lifts all boats for small businesses and residents and everybody here.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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