UPDATE: San Jose officials suggest dropping Opportunity Housing
Santa Clara County single-family homes are pictured in this file photo.

A San Jose commission is asking the City Council to abandon a controversial local housing initiative in favor of a similar state law.

And they’re looking for ways to ensure the law would open the door to more affordable housing.

The Planning Commission voted 8-2 Wednesday to approve several staff recommendations for how to implement SB 9, a new law that goes into effect in January. Chair Rolando Bonilla was absent.

SB 9 ends single-family zoning by allowing homeowners to densify by splitting their property into two lots that can accommodate four total units. The property must meet lot size specifications.

The commissioners elected to shelve Opportunity Housing, a similar local proposal that would allow San Jose homeowners to build up to four new units on their land, due to overlap.

Commissioners also called for exploring ways to create more affordable housing under SB 9 after several raised concerns that the law won’t increase the city’s affordable housing stock.

“We have a housing affordability crisis in this city,” said Commissioner Michael Young. “We have the second highest rents in the U.S. here in San Jose.”

Several commissioners asked for clarification on which policy–SB 9 or Opportunity Housing–would create more housing. Local leaders in September told San José Spotlight the city shouldn’t ditch Opportunity Housing after the governor signed SB 9 into law because it can be tailored to address San Jose’s unique housing needs.

Jared Ferguson, who works for the city’s economic development department, said it’s difficult to know which policy would net more units over time, partly because it depends on how many homes are built on lots and in what configuration. Commissioner Charles Cantrell wasn’t satisfied by this explanation.

“It’s hard for me to say let’s do this and not this if we can’t stack the two and see the value,” he said.

Several commissioners expressed alarm that neither SB 9 nor Opportunity Housing would increase low-income housing in San Jose, given limitations on the types of houses that could be built.

Commissioner Maribel Montanez said she works with families in East San Jose who have multiple people living under one roof due to skyrocketing rents. She noted that many people of color in San Jose urgently need cheaper housing, which is not being addressed by SB 9.

“I don’t see any racial equity right now or housing equity being presented on the table tonight,” she said.

Corey Smith from the Housing Action Coalition said housing costs have pushed people to the outskirts of cities in the Central Valley like Modesto, forcing them to commute to the Bay Area, increasing traffic congestion and C02 emissions.

“If we don’t build housing, you are really harming the next generation and the generations after that,” he said.

Commissioners also suggested creating citywide design standards for homes built under SB 9 to avoid eyesores in suburban neighborhoods.

Several residents asked city officials to exclude historic neighborhoods from being densified under SB 9. Marni Kamzan argued that SB 9 would open the door to damaging changes in downtown, “the jewel of our city.”

“I cannot urge you more strongly to not allow the SB 9 law to affect the historic conservation districts in the city,” she said. “Once gone, they can never be replaced.”

San Jose recently held a study session to examine how to carry out SB 9 while complying with local development laws. Councilmember Dev Davis, one of the most vocal opponents of SB 9, told San José Spotlight she supports abandoning Opportunity Housing and focusing on enacting the state law.

“We need to do all we can to minimize the potential for SB 9 to harm our neighborhoods and our infrastructure,” she said. Davis and other lawmakers have complained SB 9 will harm communities by permitting unchecked development that will alter the character of residential neighborhoods and strain roads and sewers.

Sweeping redevelopment of single-family neighborhoods is unlikely given financial and site limitations, city officials explained during the Wednesday meeting. A July study from UC Berkeley found just 5.4% of all single-family lots in the state would be feasible for redevelopment under SB 9.

Ferguson said the city’s own analysis aligned with the UC Berkeley study, noting only a small percentage of property parcels will make sense to redevelop under SB 9.

Mathew Reed, director of policy at [email protected], told San José Spotlight his organization supports pivoting from Opportunity Housing to SB 9. [email protected] is a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing.

“The coalition of folks behind Opportunity Housing have been really pushing SB 9 implementation as the sort of next step solution and letting go of this broader conversation about Opportunity Housing,” Reed said.

The San Jose Neighborhoods for All coalition, which supports Opportunity Housing, sent a letter to the city on Oct. 28 urging San Jose to study expanding affordable homeownership and rent in San Jose.

“We do think that it is really important that the council support a separate measure to expand affordability,” Kiyomi Honda Yamamoto, housing policy attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight.

Boosting the supply of affordable homes is a critical issue in San Jose, which is the second most expensive place to rent in the United States, and where the construction of affordable housing is severely lagging.

Vince Rocha, senior director of housing and community development for Silicon Valley Leadership Group, told San José Spotlight implementing SB 9 will provide more housing opportunities for first-time home buyers.

“The key metric for implementing staff recommendations is ensuring they are feasible so that new homes are actually built and accessible to workers and families,” Rocha said.

The San Jose City Council is expected to consider the Planning Commission’s recommendations on SB 9 and Opportunity Housing later this month.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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