The San Jose Power Poll: A new type of civic dialogue
Starting this month, San Jose Inside is publishing the results of the San Jose Power Poll. This is not a public opinion poll, but an ongoing discussion with almost a thousand people from a wide range of viewpoints. Power Poll asks non-ideological questions about pressing issues to help advance informed dialogue about the City of San Jose.
Our panelists come from government, business, law, nonprofits, the arts, activism, and other sectors. Together, they help shape San Jose’s civic dialogue. So often in contemporary society, the loudest or shrillest voices prevail. At a time that too many journalists and politicians strive to break us into warring tribes, we’ll use this exercise to explore where we agree. Very few of the issues confronting society are truly binary, yes or no, up or down. But journalists often make them so. Never in our lifetime has that been more true than today. Countering that trend is one of our goals at San Jose Power Poll.
As we select the topics and shape the questions that members of our panel receive, we will strive to represent all viewpoints, and allow each of our participants to convey the nuanced and multihued opinions they undoubtedly possess. The San Jose Power Poll is part of a nationwide collection of 26 city-level surveys.You can review our polls and panelists here.
The September San Jose Power Poll
Approximately two out of three respondents to the inaugural San Jose Power Poll oppose a city proposal to permit the construction of denser housing in neighborhoods now limited to single-family homes.
Yet panelists don’t oppose all housing construction. Almost as many respondents support a competing proposal to loosen housing development rules in 68 urban San Jose neighborhoods by pre-approving project locations, design guidelines, community and environmental mitigations, and other ways to reduce housing-approval timelines from years to weeks.
Respondents were roughly split on the question of whether the city should require developers to help alleviate problems such as homelessness and housing affordability in exchange for the right to develop.
Perhaps the most interesting result of our first-ever poll was the support of almost half of our respondents for Mayor Sam Liccardo’s thought-provoking suggestion that Bay Area governments study the feasibility of keeping rising tides from entering the Golden Gate, as a way to combat sea-level rise.
Here are the specific questions and responses to the September poll:
Ninety-four percent of all residential land in San Jose is restricted to single-family homes. The city council will soon consider a proposal to permit denser housing in such neighborhoods. This so-called Opportunity Housing plan would permit the construction of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and accessory dwelling units in such neighborhoods. What are your thoughts about the city’s proposal?
New housing should be limited to neighborhoods well-served by transit — 53.3%
We need all the housing we can get; the Bay Area has a dire shortage — 31.7%
San Jose is big enough. We should not encourage more growth — 11.7%
The proposal doesn’t go far enough. We need even more housing density — 3.3%
No opinion/don’t care — 0%
As part of his proposed alternative to that plan, Councilmember Matt Mahan suggests changing housing development rules in 68 urban neighborhoods across San Jose. He proposes that the city “pre-approve” project locations, design guidelines, community and environmental mitigations, and other elements to reduce housing-approval timelines from years to weeks. What are your thoughts about that?
That’s a great idea. Bureaucracy is partly to blame for this crisis — 62.1%
Not so fast. Every development should be calmly reviewed and critiqued — 36.2%
No opinion/don’t care — 1.7%
Bay Area housing prices have soared in recent decades as job creation has vastly outpaced housing construction. Should the city require developers to help alleviate problems such as homelessness and housing affordability in exchange for the right to develop?
Yes. Office developers need to help pay for the problems they create — 42.4%
No. Let the market dictate when and where housing gets constructed — 47.5%
Yes, but no new offices should be built until housing catches up — 6.8%
No opinion/don’t care — 3.4%
During a recent discussion about safeguarding the Bay Area from sea-level rise, Mayor Sam Liccardo pointed out the undeniable futility of counting on every regional government to independently solve the problem along its shores. He suggested a simple but radical solution — studying a way to keep rising tides from entering the Golden Gate.
It works in the Netherlands. Without a regional solution, we’re doomed — 47.5%
Dam the Golden Gate? Surely the good mayor is joking — 17%
We should just let the sea reclaim low-lying lands like Alviso — 15.3%
Why are we worrying about something we haven’t yet seen? — 11.9%
No opinion/don’t care — 8.5%
Please provide any additional thoughts about housing construction or sea-level rise.
Analysis of the Housing Issue
Housing development has continually failed to keep pace with job growth across the Bay Area as the regional economy has boomed. Consequently, as evidenced by the high number of people who commented in our survey, housing and office construction now evoke strong passions for residents of the nation’s most expensive region.
The poll showed robust support for Mahan’s proposal to streamline the housing approval process. “San Jose charges too much in fees, especially for affordable housing,” wrote one theoretically knowledgeable panelist. Another went further: “Build as much as possible and lower all fees. We need job growth to continue and we need way more homes.”
But most respondents were not prepared to go that far, sharing Mahan’s concern about quality of life issues likely to be exacerbated by a citywide housing-construction spree. “Allowing multi-family buildings in our R1 neighborhoods would destroy the serenity and sense of community, which San Jose has always been known for,” said one panelist. Or as succinctly put by another voter: “Leave the single-family zones alone!”
Several commenters touched on issues not directly addressed by our survey. “Opportunity Housing might bring in more housing but, for me, what is more important is ending exclusionary zoning in historically redlined areas, which has resulted in segregation throughout the city,” wrote one panelist.
Another response critiqued the efficacy of Santa Clara County’s Measure A Affordable Housing Bond. “Get rid of Measure A projects,” the panelist wrote. “They are too expensive and full of political pork. Build tiny homes instead.”
Parking also arose, as in any discussion of housing construction. “If additional growth such as duplexes and four-plexes is permitted, there needs to be a STRICT policy on off-street parking,” one voter said. “Garages and driveways need to be constructed to accommodate the additional vehicles in each household (average 2 but often more) or there will be a crisis.”
A few respondents faulted our survey’s linkage of housing affordability and homelessness. “The homeless crisis is not a result of a lack of affordable housing in most cases,” one panelist wrote. “That narrative is misleading and false. Mental health, drug use, and a breakdown in law enforcement are more to blame.”
Still another questioned whether requiring commercial developers to help pay for affordable housing would actually improve homelessness. “The vast majority of our current homeless will not be employed within the new commercial space nor be able to afford the associated builds by developers,” this voter wrote. “This type of agreement simply brings more people to the city, and creates greater congestion and concentration of the population.”
However, several voters supported the notion of requiring developers to help solve the problems that accompany their projects. “While developers should be required to assist with affordability and homelessness, what is exactly required depends on the size and scope of the project and feasibility,” wrote one. “More attention to ‘middle income’ housing is in order, to allow folks with a decent wage to live in our community.”
Still another didn’t trust City Hall to spend such money appropriately: “Funds raised by developer fees to help pay for affordable housing and homelessness must be deposited into restricted accounts specific to those purposes. Not the General Fund.”
And one panelist questioned Mahan’s motives. “Matt Mahan is wrong about density,” this voter commented. “He should be wanting to govern for the city, not a select few wealthy neighborhoods. Something to consider, as this poll definitely feels like a ‘Should I run for Mayor’ exercise.”
Analysis of the Mayor’s Sea-Level Proposal
Regarding the mayor’s trial balloon about studying a Bay Area-wide solution to the looming issue of sea-level rise, a surprising, at least to my mind, 47.5 percent of respondents supported such a study. “On climate, I'm mostly agreeing with a regional approach being necessary and studying the idea—and all ideas,” one panelist wrote. When the very same question was posed to voters last week in the simultaneous Oakland Power Poll, fully 73 percent of voters there supported the mayor’s idea.
Of course, some favored a more natural approach: “We need to invest in protecting and restoring the bay shoreline, avoiding development in areas that are predicted to be impacted by sea-level rise and groundwater rise.”
Still others viewed the mayor’s take as folly: “Careful on damming the Golden Gate; may seem too radical and take away from other ideas.” Quipped another voter: “The Sea Level rise issue is a joke to me. If the Obamas are buying on the seashore, they don’t seem to be worried about it either.” And one panelist connected the dots between housing and sea-level rise. “Homeless should be a priority for the good mayor, not worrying about issues that may be 50 years in the future.”
Surprisingly, more than 15 percent of San Jose voters are willing to let the sea overtake Alviso — vamoose, Vahls; so long, Zanker Recycling. Interestingly, no voters in Oakland are yet willing to surrender an inch of ‘The Town’ to the ocean.
Analysis of Comments about Power Poll
And what would an interactive community poll be without feedback about the quality of the survey itself? Most of our commenters took our exercise seriously enough. “Great poll,” wrote one. “Thanks.”
However, others expressed a desire to see more comprehensive treatment of the issues in comments that ranged from earnest to snarky. “You need more answer options. … This is a great idea but won’t capture real answers with the limited choices.” Plus: “The response selections in this survey are poorly drafted and don't span the range of opinions held on these questions.” And: “The supplied answers are simplistic and in some cases just plain stupid. Most of these questions require a better choice of answers … Shame on whoever put this together. It does not represent the intelligence level of my Eastside neighborhood.”
Such critiques point out the obvious limitations of our intentionally succinct poll format and are thus a fitting place to end our inaugural survey. Pick an issue worthy of scrutiny and we can all agree that it can’t really be boiled down to a handful of multiple-choice questions. So that’s where we will rely upon the thoughtful comments of participants to advance each discussion beyond the limits of our brief survey.
Think of each poll as just the start of a conversation.
San Jose Power Poll is not a scientific poll. Rather, we ask questions of influential people from a wide range of viewpoints to help advance informed dialogue about the city. Power Poll is studiously non-partisan.