Staedler: It’s time to pivot to Affordable Housing 2.0

A lot has been written about the housing tragedy that we are experiencing in Silicon Valley.

I say tragedy because the over-used and trite term “housing crisis” is no longer descriptive of what we’re facing. The housing tragedy that we are experiencing has caused displacement, tearing families apart and nothing is changing fast enough to make it better, which makes it a tragedy in my opinion.

We need to stop taking half measures, spewing the predictable rhetoric and not pulling out all the stops to build affordable housing. Affordable housing developers are competing with market-rate housing developers for sites throughout San Jose and Silicon Valley. The only relief for affordable housing developers in San Jose is the 1.5-acre rule, which allows building housing on commercial sites if it’s 100 percent affordable.

San Jose needs to create a separate affordable housing overlay over all infill areas.

This would allow lawmakers to waive most regulations that get in the way of affordable housing, such as parking requirements, height limitations, setbacks, ground floor commercial requirements and more, etc. Another anchor to the development of affordable housing is the requirement to put commercial space on the ground floor.

The build-out of the commercial space cannot use tax credits to finance its construction. This forces affordable housing developers having to go to the traditional finance market to pay for that, leading to a vacant space which is counterproductive to its goal of activation of the street level.

An example of a well-designed project that doesn’t have commercial space on the ground floor is First Community Housing’s Japantown Senior Apartments. I worked on this project while I was with the San Jose Redevelopment Agency and it was widely supported by the Japantown Community.

Let’s focus on housing families and not adding barriers to affordable housing development. The Categorical Exemption in the California Environmental Quality Act provided should be used to the broadest extent legally possible. This would allow for a streamlined approval process that is needed to cut red-tape.

We also need to change the 1.5-acre rule to 2-acres without limitation of any kind. The mind-numbing set of rules below has thwarted the development of affordable housing across San Jose. If you don’t believe me, check out the rules below approved on Dec. 18, 2018:

To increase the supply of affordable housing, one hundred percent deed restricted affordable housing developments would be allowed on sites outside of the existing Growth Areas on properties with a Mixed Use Commercial or Neighborhood/Community Commercial land use designation if the development meets the following criteria:

  • The site is 1.5 acre or less.
  • The site is vacant or underutilized.
  • The site has adjacent properties with a residential General Plan Land Use/Transportation Diagram designation on at least two sides one side and the development would be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
  • The development would not impact the viability of surrounding commercial or industrial properties or businesses.
  • The site is located within a ½-mile of an existing transit line.
  • The development integrates commercial uses that support the affordable housing project and/or the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Development on properties that contain structures that are on, or are eligible for inclusion on the City of San José’s Historic Resources Inventory should adaptively reuse these structures.

San Jose needs to strike out this criteria and simplify everything with an affordable housing overlay. Santa Clara County seems quite satisfied being the affordable housing bank for financing projects, and the fact that it’s ahead of schedule with Measure A funds leads me to believe that county officials would welcome this action.

The avalanche of jobs about to hit Downtown San Jose will more than make up any lost miniscule number of jobs that could be created on small sites.

We can’t look people in the eyes who are suffering from this tragedy and use excuses like the potential minor job creation loss from developing as much affordable housing as possible. It’s time to take action and show the world that the Capital of Silicon Valley can pivot to Affordable Housing 2.0.

San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at bob@svsynergy.com or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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