Year in review: Some of San Jose City Council’s major decisions in 2019

As the 10th largest city in the country and the third largest city in the state, San Jose in 2019 set a precedent in creating policy, especially at a time when the interwoven crises of housing and inequality are intensifying.

This year, the San Jose City Council took several momentous actions addressing major challenges the city is facing, while progressing Mayor Sam Liccardo’s goals of producing more affordable housing and enacting stronger climate initiatives.

Here are the biggest takeaways from this year’s leading policy changes.

Housing

Ellis Act: San Jose lawmakers mulled changes to several crucial housing laws in early Nov., among them was amending the city’s Ellis Act. In a historic 6-5 vote, the City Council narrowly approved reducing the number of units developers have to put back under rent control after redevelopment. Lawmakers voted to tweak the amount of rent controlled units that are reinstated in a new building after demolition or renovation, spurred by a fear that the law was halting housing production. The change means that a building with 100 units, for example, would reduce the number of affordable units to 35. Developers can get those requirements waived if they designate at least 15 percent of the new units as affordable. The changes go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Anti-displacement policy: While the city already has some tenant protections such as just cause eviction and rent control protections, city officials say it’s not enough to prevent displacement for as much as 40 percent of San Jose’s at-risk population. So for the past year, city officials brainstormed new strategies, such as including the three P’s of housing policy — production, preservation, and protection — into a new anti-displacement policy. But during the City Council’s study session on crafting the policy, some members disagreed on which strategy to prioritize — producing more housing or preserving existing low-income units — to solve the region’s affordability woes. Leaders will revisit the discussion in early 2020.

Downtown high rise incentive program:  The City Council in September voted 6-5 to extend a package of hefty tax breaks for developers who build market-rate housing in downtown by cutting construction taxes in half and waiving fees that would go toward affordable housing. Opponents criticized the move as a generous handout to “wealthy developers” interested in building in the city, but was seen by supporters such as Liccardo as a necessary tool to get more shovels in the ground as the high costs of development continue to rise. For now, the fee reduction program has been extended until Dec. 2023.

Section 8 discrimination: In an effort to strengthen tenant protections, lawmakers this year voted 9-2 to adopt a law that bars landlords from discriminating against renters with housing subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers. The change means landlords cannot explicitly advertise against or ban applicants with a housing assistance voucher from renting their unit. Two added provisions – a “right to cure” clause and a 6-month grace period that delays enforcement of the ordinance — were added to better educate landlords. The new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, applies to all rentals, with the exception of rooms rented within a single-family home that the landlord lives in.

Building height increases in downtown: More than a decade after it was proposed, city lawmakers in March unanimously approved height increases for downtown skyscrapers. Opponents worried the proposed increase would have negative effects on the Mineta San Jose International Airport, including infiltrating the airspace required by airplanes for emergency landings during inclement weather if one engine fails, as well as a negative financial impact on its operations. But supporters argued the increases will spur denser development in the city’s downtown core. The change means new buildings can have height increases of up to 35 feet in downtown and up to 150 feet in the Diridon Station area.

Environmental Issues

Preserving Coyote Valley: For generations, San Jose has been divided on whether to preserve or develop Coyote Valley, the 7,400 acres of land between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo range. But for the first time in the city’s history, lawmakers earlier this year unanimously voted to preserve the land in the valley’s northern boundary — for good. City leaders pegged $46 million to buy and conserve 937 acres of land into a natural open space reserve. The deal is worth $93 million with the Peninsula Open Space Trust pitching in $42 million and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority contributing $5 million for the land purchase.

Climate emergency: Climate change has been rattling California in disastrous ways, exacerbating hot weather conditions and increasing the scope of natural disasters across the state. But earlier this year, San Jose joined a growing list of cities to step up to the plate and declare a climate crisis. The proposal calls for a wide range of green reforms — attaining “all-electric, zero-net-carbon” new municipal facilities, prohibiting natural gas in new construction projects citywide by Jan. 2023 and partnering with San Jose Clean Energy to provide 100 percent carbon-free energy to residents within the next two years.

Labor

Workforce protections: In a win for labor activists, lawmakers voted 9-2 to adopt stricter workforce and wage theft protections for construction workers this year — almost two years after the shocking discovery of an unlicensed contractor harboring undocumented immigrants in slave-like conditions at the former Silvery Towers site. The new law now requires contractors hire from an “underrepresented” pool of applicants, pay workers a prevailing wage and that local workers put in 30 percent of the work on any city-subsidized project.

Immigration

Sanctuary city policy: The mayor and San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia were caught in the crossfires of an intense debate on immigration over comments in June about Santa Clara County’s sanctuary city policy, after a woman was brutally murdered in her home by an undocumented immigrant earlier this year. The two were heavily scrutinized for calling on the county to revise its ICE detainer policy, so law enforcement can notify ICE when they detain undocumented “violent felons.” While the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted against making any changes to its policy, the contentious move spurred outcry from community activists, and a vast immigrant community who accused the mayor of “playing both sides” on immigration.

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

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