Quality not Quantity

City Hall Diary

San Jose’s population has grown by leaps and bounds and the city has provided more housing—including both market rate and affordable housing—in Santa Clara County and the Bay Area than any other municipality. Once a city filled with orchards, San Jose is now a sprawling suburb and still growing. Although you may see open space in the city, much of it was zoned for housing 2-20 years ago and just hasn’t been built on yet.

When it comes to San Jose being compensated for parks, there is a significant monetary difference between market rate and affordable housing. Currently, San Jose receives park fees when building market rate housing. This money can go to improving an existing park in the area of the new development, or it can purchase land close by (if there is any available to purchase), or the park fee could allow for a donation of land to be used for a new park or trail.

On the other hand, affordable housing is exempt from park fees. The thought behind the exemption was that the development could be “even more affordable.”  For several years, the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) came to the rescue and paid the park fees ($43.4 million) on behalf of the affordable housing developers. However, that well ran dry September 2005.

The city of San Jose has a housing department funded mostly by the RDA and a small amount of federal money. Approximately 20% of the RDA budget must go to affordable housing according to state law. This year, the RDA will give the housing department $38 million for affordable housing, compared to $30 million in 2007. These RDA funds are then bonded out by the housing department to raise more funds.

The housing department has a $9.7 million personnel budget to staff 83 people to provide funding and technical assistance for the construction of new affordable housing and home buyer assistance. Also, they provide direct and indirect assistance to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, and services that secure housing and related services. Finally, they lobby for state and federal money and, alarming to me, they lobby the San Jose city planning department for land conversions from industrial to affordable housing. Currently, the city will allow affordable housing on land that is zoned for industry or commercial (our tax base), but not market rate housing. 

The housing department and affordable housing advocates are on a quest to build as many units possible in San Jose. The financial markets are in the dumps when it comes to financing market rate housing. This allows affordable housing to rise to the top because of its ability to move forward and be built today.

In my opinion, I believe affordable housing should pay park fees or preserve land on site of the development for a park.  If the city continues to exempt affordable housing builders from park fees, then we will be creating problematic neighborhoods. For example, in my own district I have the Richmond/Menker neighborhood. This area is packed with apartments and no place for kids to play, so they play in the street. It is not just my district; District 1, off of Winchester, or District 10, off of Blossom Hill, and countless areas of greater downtown have too many people without enough open space.

We should fund park land acquisition out of the housing department budget and/or developers should pay the park fees. As a hypothetical example, let’s say the council wants to approve 3,000 affordable units in a year with no land/money for parks. Then the City of San Jose should scale down to 2400 units that have parks—quality vs. quantity.

If San Jose is serious about providing good homes to folks who cannot afford market rate, then we should be building affordable communities that have a quality of life and are not just providing shelter. The race to sainthood for the city on how many affordable units can be built might have a nice PR ring, but I believe that without parks attached to these projects, neighborhoods will suffer. 
Poor people need parks as well as market rate people. With new residents, our current parks will become overused.  San Jose should focus on the quality of developments and their amenities instead of meeting some housing quota suggested by people who do not live in San Jose. 
Do you think that affordable housing should be built on land that is zoned for commercial or industrial uses? 

Do you think that the council should stop approving new affordable developments until we figure out a way to pay for parks?


  1. Good for you, Pierluigi, it is good that you can take up the mantle for Mayor Reed who just does not seem to be having fun as Mayor.

    Chuck almost needs his handlers to force him to smile, almost with clips.

  2. Pierluigi:
    Often wondered why affordable housing isn’t done at the county level, with each city contributing on an equal basis, both in terms of funding and hosting the units of housing.  Why does most of the responsibility fall onto San Jose?

  3. Pierluigi,

    Thanks for an insightful column.  But please, please, please be mindful of our water situation.  We can ill-afford to add thousands of residental units here in San Jose without having the water to support them. 

    More housing, affordable or market value, un-developed residental land or industrial conversion land, just doesn’t make sense without adequate water.  One more year of drought and we’re on our arse!

  4. Pierluigi,
    I applaud you for bringing forward this discussion.  Absolutely we should be building quality projects that encourage residents of no matter what income level to stay here, work here and value their living environment.  We need to encourage residents to feel apart of their community and to care for their living space and surrounding area.  If redevelopment’s goal is to clean up blighted neighborhoods, then why not invest in amenities and quality infrastructure along with affordable housing?  This question should be posed to the rest of City Council to find a way to find the missing dollars that RDA used to contribute.

  5. I don’t even believe that most affordable housing projects work.  If you don’t have enough homes, you don’t have enough homes.  The price will rise until homes are unaffordable.

    You can set aside 5%, or 20% as inclusionary zoning.  It just doesn’t matter.  All you are doing is changing who gets a home.  It doesn’t change the number of families or the number of homes.  The number of families who can’t find housing remains exactly the same.

  6. You already know how many of us feel. ‘Affordable housing’ mostly means the rest of us make up the difference in taxes and absorbing other people’s development burdens.

    Despite the downer, I share your optimism about the Redevelopment Agency itself. The important thing is that we have a funded group with the aim of improving our land use. They don’t make the ‘20%’ rule, and they should do their best to make sure there is usable park space for everyone. To earn their salaries, they should follow recommendations like the one you offer here, Pierluigi.

  7. When the Government gets involved in the “help people own homes” business the taxpayers always wind up getting hosed.

    I used to believe that the way to get ahead in this country was to put your head down, work hard, and save your money. That was the old America.
    Now, the smart people have learned that the way to get ahead in this country is to go whining to the Government with your hand out.
    And we the people are so stupid that we give the whiners everything they want.

    The U.S. taxpayers are now going to have to absorb $200,000,000,000 of debt because hundreds of thousands of low-life idiots took stupid loans from predatory lenders, at the behest of crooked, pandering politicians.
    The City of San Jose is doing exactly the same thing that the Feds so irresponsibly did and the hardworking-ask-for-nothing-in-return taxpayers are getting hosed, hosed, hosed.

    Boston Tea Party, JMO? Where do I sign up?

    OK. To answer Pierluigi’s questions:

    No. Commercial and industrial should not be rezoned for ANY new housing.

    Yes. Council should stop approving ANY new housing until they admit that the taxpayers deserve decent park maintenance. I’ve seen some of the parks that developers have built. They were nice when they were built. Then they have gradually deteriorated under the faithful neglect of our incompetent, greedy, and corrupt City.
    What’s the point of building new parks if you’re not prepared to take care of them?

  8. If we want RDA to return to the “good old days” of supplementing the cost of park land for affordable housing units then we should be campaigning to ensure RDA’s funds are not raided (again) to help balance the State’s budget shortfall.

    The Richmond/Menker complex was originally built as market rate rental housing with several dozen 8-plex units and a central courtyard, community room and pool.  The city allowed it to be pieced out decades ago and the result was a mini-ghetto and one of two areas so riddled with gangs that it was legally declared a gang abatement area.  75% of SJPD calls for service in this area came from that one block.  By prioritizing the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the units we re-opened the mid-block area to recreation and community gardens and saw a significant reduction in gang activity and crime.  It will always be a work in progress and will always need to be monitored but there is now more “park” space in that one block than anywhere in the area….and this was done with a combination of RDA and private funding.

  9. Our police department is at 1994 staffing levels. Parks are important but maybe these new housing developments should also pay for some of the cops they are going to be using. Our police services have been getting diluted for years, providing less service for us long term citizens. To be politically incorrect, the new high density low income developments use a disproportionately high amount of police services.

  10. John-

    You advocate a complete ban on new housing. 

    How are young families supposed to find a place to live if it is illegal for anyone to build new homes?

  11. That is pretty politically incorrect, Steve.

    The 95% of San Jose that isn’t high density housing uses a disproportionately high amount of water and water pressure (mostly to maintain antiquated ‘North American Front Lawns’ in environments not suited to them), electricity production and distribution, road infrastructure, gasoline and carbon byproducts from sprawl and lack of low-carbon emitting mass transit, and emergency services in remote areas.

    There are other reasons for high density housing than just packing in the poor.

  12. Where did I ever advocate a complete ban on new housing?
    My objection is to City subsidized housing and to widespread high density zoning that is designed to create a particular demographic makeup in the city.

    Some people can’t afford to buy a house in San Jose? That’s called “life”.

    Posted By John Galt

  13. Along with all these thousand of new “affordable” housing comes the associated increase of police and fire services. San Jose PD is working with 1994 staffing levels. The new housing should also fund some of the city services they use and quit diluting the current services to the current residents of San Jose. Parks are great, but if they can’t be maintained and patrolled, don’t build them.

  14. #17-

    It depends on whether it is ownership subsidized housing or rental subsidized housing.

    Ownership subsidized housing pays less because of the lower purchase price.

    Rental subsidized housing pays no tax because it is owned by non profit corporations.

  15. Pierluigi #15,

    Thanks for making my point. Affordable housing increases the demands on police and fire resources, and these new developments should pay their way for public safety which of course they don’t. What is truly ominous is driving around just the midtown area of San Jose and seeing the thousands of new housing units being built and which will be occupied in the next few years.

  16. Pierluigi #15,

    You actually meant to say that the residents of affordable housing pay proportionately LESS property tax, not that they don’t pay any at all. Right?

    Please say yes.

  17. Pierluigi,
      I agree with Helen Chapman,#6.Consider this on the new project being planned in Willow Glen. “Go with Market Rate Housing”. You are on the right track.