San Jose residents push for developer fee to fund affordable housing

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Over 160 people packed a hall Dec. 4 at Sacred Heart Community Services to press city council members, Madison Nguyen and Sam Liccardo, to support imposing a fee on developers to fund affordable housing. The meeting was organized by Sacred Heart’s Housing Action Committee, a diverse group of residents fighting for affordable housing in a city where renting a modest two-bedroom apartment requires a six-figure income.

Jolene Jones, co-emcee of the event, pointed out that San Jose has the highest housing rental cost of any city in the country, exceeding even Manhattan and Honolulu. San Jose also has the dubious distinction of having the fourth-largest homeless population in the United States-8,000 according to the Census count, but in reality, as Liccardo pointed out, more likely around 12,000-13,000.

The California Redevelopment Agency formerly supplied as much as $20 million a year for affordable housing here. The agency was dismantled in 2011, leaving people seeking affordable housing in the lurch. Bills to reinstate redevelopment funds in some form have been vetoed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

Housing advocates won a first victory this year when the city council voted to fund a so-called “Nexus study,” demonstrating a link (nexus) between new market-rate housing and the need for affordable housing.

“Every family that moves into market rate housing creates a need for teachers, firefighters, workers at the grocery store, and others who can’t afford market-rate housing,” explained Jones.

Because of this, several California cities, including San Francisco, Fremont and Berkeley, have imposed fees on builders of new market-rate housing to fund the affordable housing that new market-rate construction makes necessary. Now that the facts are in, it’s up to the city council here to pass a similar measure.

The measure needs six votes to pass. Thus far, four council members have expressed support and four said they oppose it with two – Nguyen and Liccardo – uncommitted. They were invited to this forum because they must supply the two additional votes.

“Without their yes votes there is literally no plan for affordable housing,” Jones told the crowd. “The developers and the Chamber of Commerce have the money, but we have something much more powerful. There’s power in numbers.”

Liccardo and Nguyen both have a history of supporting affordable housing and other social justice issues, but they are also seen as allied to business interests. They both strongly supported a pension-slashing measure for city employees that passed last year after the mayor warned residents that they would face sharp cuts in city services if the measure failed.

Several participants gave moving testimony on the personal devastation wrought by the local housing market. Claire O’Neil told of how her husband joined the military because it was the only way he could provide health coverage for his family-which disappeared when he was discharged because of injuries he suffered in Iraq. Though both had advanced training and supposedly marketable skills-she in fashion technology and retail management and he as an EMT and auto mechanic-the only jobs they have been able to find are low-level retail that don’t pay enough for housing; they have been living for six years in her parents’ house, in a living room off the kitchen where they have no privacy.

Another speaker, Bruce Roberts, was lucky enough to find affordable housing in a facility for seniors and people with disabilities. “For me, housing means survival,” he said-he has a form of sleep apnea that is life threatening unless he sleeps with special medical apparatus.

Jones, likewise, showed herself a victim of the housing crisis. She has a debilitating condition that allows her to work only 20 hours a week. She tried to get a Section 8 voucher for a rent subsidy, only to find that the waitlist had been closed with 58,000 people still waiting. Other option for affordable housing likewise failed.

“I am being priced out of the city that nurtured me,” she said, “Council members, there’s something that can be done here and now. What specifically will you do to champion this issue?”

Both Nguyen and Liccardo expressed strong support for an impact fee. When pressed, however, whether they would push for the highest possible fee for each type of new housing construction, they waffled somewhat. Nguyen said that they needed to be careful not to kill the goose-meaning the developers-that lays the golden eggs. Liccardo, a proponent of (market-rate) high-rise housing in mass transit corridors, not only indicated that he wants to keep fees low on such construction (or exempt it entirely), but also was indefinite on what fees he would allow for smaller rental buildings.

Both council members, however, urged the group to continue pressuring city hall to act on this issue. Both declared themselves ready to meet again, and Liccardo said, “I look forward to continuing this struggle with you.”

Photo: PW/Henry Millstein


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.