Three Bay Area mayors, including Liccardo, discuss crippling housing crisis
Three Bay Area mayors, including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, discuss the housing affordability crisis during a forum hosted by The Atlantic in San Francisco. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

Three mayors from cities in the Bay Area spoke at a panel in San Francisco Wednesday to discuss long-term solutions to ease one of the region’s most critical political challenges — the housing crisis and its growing aftermath.

The mayors, Sam Liccardo from San Jose, Jesse Arreguin from Berkeley, and Steve Scharf  from Cupertino, weighed in on how the housing crunch and the high cost-of-living are exacerbating homelessness and inequality in the region.

The panel, moderated by journalist Ron Brownstein, was part of a series of conversations on tech’s influence in the region called Building Opportunity for All, hosted by The Atlantic. The first question zeroed in on how local leaders can balance growth while promoting equity in their cities.

Each mayor responded by acknowledging that local governments wield tremendous power over how these problems can be solved, adding that addressing the social need for more housing is a regional — not a local issue.

Rapid job growth and a lack of housing to meet that demand is one of the driving factors of homelessness, said Liccardo.

“I think the easy thing to do is simply blame it on tech,” Liccardo added. “I think we’re all pretty responsible together. Frankly, local government needs to step up in a big way, particularly around building housing. And I don’t think we have done nearly a good enough job of that. And certainly regionally, I think we can be acting more coherently.”

For Arreguin, the housing crisis is not merely the government’s problem—it’s also personal. While growing up during the dot-com boom, the native San Franciscan said he saw displacement firsthand in the city’s Mission neighborhood and that the region is facing that same problem again.

“While I think tech has brought enormous prosperity and growth to the region, that prosperity is not often shared by all,” Arreguin said. “My city has the highest per-capita homeless population, and Alameda County has had a 43 percent increase in homelessness — the largest increase out of any county in the entire Bay Area.”

Arreguin added that rising housing costs and a lack of adequate protections for renters contributes to the problem.

Scharf, who has historically taken an anti-growth stance, said communities in Cupertino are “not getting the housing they need,” but he doesn’t think achieving that housing through costly one-time housing initiatives will solve the problem. Instead, he argued, a regional tax on tech companies needs to be put in place, so that companies don’t rely on relocating to other areas to avoid paying a tax.

But while Scharf acknowledged that there is a “critical need” for housing in the region, he and other Cupertino officials have been met with backlash from the South Bay community for comments related to building more affordable housing. Scharf publicly ruffled feathers in February when he joked that Cupertino will “build a wall” around its borders to keep out growth and make its neighboring cities — including San Jose — pay for it.

Then in June, Cupertino planning commissioner Ray Wang caused an uproar when he called housing advocates “an onslaught of anarchists” and “YIMBY Neo Liberal fascists” on NextDoor and encouraged people to contact their employers.

“Those were totally inappropriate comments,” Scharf told San José Spotlight on Wednesday, though the mayor acknowledged that Wang’s apology “may not be enough.”

Amidst the negative backlash, Scharf insisted that the comments on housing did not reflect Cupertino’s policy decisions. According to Scharf, the city is battling  a developer who wants to build 2,900 units of housing with “zero” affordable units and the council is “not on board with it.”

“We really need some kind of regional tax that keeps coming — so we can keep building now.” said Scharf. “Now, Mountain View passed their small business tax that mainly affects Google, that’s a positive step. But that’s not regional. Companies can say, ‘Oh, I’m going to move over there because they don’t have that tax.’ You can’t operate that way.”

But according to Matt Larson, a spokesperson for the developer Sand Hill Properties, the mayor’s statement about the 2900 unit development is “blatantly false.” The plan the mayor is referencing at the Vallco Shopping Mall, added Larson, had included 20 percent inclusionary affordable housing since the beginning. 

The mayors discussed other initiatives as well. In Berkeley, Arreguin said they were developing a safe parking program for homeless RV dwellers and that his city’s program is being expanded at the regional level to neighboring cities in Oakland and Emeryville. Scharf said Cupertino had recently approved a 19 unit development for senior housing.

San Jose already has a safe parking program and has begun to expand it. The program allows homeless residents who are living in their vehicles to safely park in two different parking lots across San Jose. The controversial program is overseen by the non profit LifeMoves, which provides security onsite.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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