Staedler: Opportunity Housing should be decided on by a vote of the people
A single-family home along Schiele Avenue is pictured in this file photo.

One of the most hotly-debated topics in San Jose is Opportunity Housing. It is widely hailed as a leading strategy for solving San Jose’s housing crisis.

Let’s take a look at it. The city of San Jose’s planning website says “Opportunity Housing refers to enabling multi-unit housing on properties with a Residential Neighborhood General Plan land use designation. In San Jose, these are typically properties in single-family neighborhoods.”

The San Jose City Council directed planning division staff to explore Opportunity Housing as part of the General Plan 4-year review. Here is language from a memo from Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez and Sylvia Arenas:

Opportunity Housing: Explore allowing single-family parcels currently designated “Residential Neighborhood” to redevelop to 2-4 units per parcel with the following parameters from the outset:

  • Limit to parcels proximate to transit-oriented Urban Villages or immediately adjacent to residential parcels with existing medium-density building types, e.g., duplexes or triplexes.
  • Develop a set of design guidelines that would maintain current allowed heights and keep setbacks comparable to existing single-family homes to ensure development would be well integrated into neighborhoods.
  • Allow flexibility on the number of units allowed per parcel that would vary based on lot size, location, and other factors.
  • Clarify that any redevelopment remains within the discretion of the property owner.
  • Specify that this would be sensitive to historic neighborhoods.
  • Validate that Opportunity Housing projects are cost effective.

In Feb. 2020, city officials recommended allowing Opportunity Housing on parcels within 0.5 miles of regional or local transit urban village boundaries or properties that share a property line with existing or designated medium/high density development.

Opportunity Housing advocates on the General Plan Update taskforce recommended eliminating the proximity recommendation above and focused on a citywide model. The public feedback on this item was so abundant that the city had to create its own webpage: Opportunity Housing Comments. This page will let you read for yourself the different opinions and recommendations from various interested parties.

The conversation about Opportunity Housing gets heated quickly as advocates and opponents have taken a hard stance on this item. The best argument for Opportunity Housing is access to better schools in places like Almaden Valley, and that is hard to overlook. The downside is the cost to the city for additional services in low-density developments. City officials clearly stated years ago that if new residential development is under 45 dwelling units to the acre, the city loses money.

Let me be honest with you all. I’m not in favor of Opportunity Housing. I’m not writing this column to disparage any group or argue against the concept itself, but I want to throw out a novel concept that will save everyone, including Council and city staff, a lot of time and debate: Let the voters decide!

This is such a big issue that I personally believe that it should just be voted on in the next election.

The next mayor will also be on the ballot in 2022 and maybe some items from the Charter Review Commission. Let the vote be on citywide Opportunity Housing, not proximity to transit corridors. I would include a provision in the ballot measure that if the voters approve the measure, then a new city of San Jose General Plan be initiated beginning the following year.

The current General Plan 2040 protects neighborhoods from major development, and it focuses on growth areas and Urban Villages. If the voters want a major change, then they will let their voices be heard and make it so. Opportunity Housing advocates have already spent money on polling stating that it is widely supported. Then they shouldn’t be afraid of a vote on the item.

Let’s not have the issue get heated this fall with a lot of back and forth, along with personal attacks on nonbelievers.

I believe in a robust public process that takes in all of the voices of our community and a vote of the people will accomplish that. Let’s respect everyone’s opinion and debate the issue on its merits.  I am pro-housing and believe that the city must build up and not out, and my columns have shown that over the last several years. Let’s bring back civil discourse and talk through issues in our community. Onward and upward.

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 [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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