San Jose City Council’s most vocal proponent for commercial linkage fees—a charge on new development to fund below-market-rate housing—stunned allies and adversaries alike by skipping a key vote to advance the policy. Councilman Don Rocha’s absence on Tuesday seemed all the more conspicuous when one of the staunchest opponents of the so-called linkage fee, Mayor Sam Liccardo, cast his vote in support of studying the issue.
With Rocha on a break to catch his daughter’s volleyball game, the motion ended in 5-0-5 stalemate just like it did in June when Councilman Tam Nguyen was a no-show.
“I think everyone was surprised,” says Councilman Sergio Jimenez, one of Rocha’s labor-aligned colleagues who co-signed the linkage fee memo with Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and Councilman Raul Peralez. “But also I think the assumption was that we could have Nguyen for the sixth vote, which didn’t happen. So for folks who are casting blame on Don, I would say look at Tam.”
Oh man, what a rush politics can be. Completely unexpected. We were all silent for a moment, in shock of how the vote came down. https://t.co/2qXqQ9DySk
— Lân Diệp (@LTDiep) September 19, 2018
Though the fee study will likely come back to the council for consideration in the coming month, the stalemate on Tuesday was a big letdown for affordable housing advocates who fought alongside Rocha for the policy these past few years.
“It’s not council member Rocha’s fault that we don’t have a linkage fee,” says Matt King, director of organizing at the nonprofit Sacred Heart Community Services. “He has been the number one champion for years, and Sacred Heart and many other activists in the community have been right there with him. So we were shocked and gravely disappointed that just at the moment we were about to make real progress, he chose to not help get it over the finish line.”
Counting on Nguyen was a head-scratcher, he adds.
“There are several council members who time and again choose not to address our housing crisis, whether it’s getting new housing built or protecting tenants,” King says. “In particular, council member Nguyen has talked out of both sides of his mouth for years. On Monday he will promise to do one thing, and on Tuesday his vote goes the other way. So anyone who has paid attention is irresponsible to have counted on his vote in favor of a commercial linkage fee Tuesday.”
Rocha—who’s running against San Jose Unified trustee Susan Ellenberg for a Santa Clara County supervisor seat—says he understands the disappointment and that he feels it, too. But he says he needed to make time for his family.
“With that said, I have been disappointed for the three to five years I have been pushing this issue unsuccessfully,” he says. “I do appreciate the concern about this matter, which is why I have been fighting—in many cases by myself—for this. I wish the folks who are sharing their concern now had the same level of angst each and every time it failed. Or had the same level of disappointment for the five people who voted against it—not this time but on many other occasions.”
King says he’s disappointed each time the mayor and the council bloc comprising Dev Davis, Lan Diep, Chappie Jones, Johnny Khamis oppose the impact fees. But this week was different—Liccardo’s willingness to OK a nexus study marked a huge breakthrough.
“What makes it especially disappointing is that advocates have worked for years with the mayor to win his support for doing something with commercial development, and Sam deserves credit for showing leadership on this tough issue,” King says. “That’s what makes what happened Tuesday that much harder to take.”
Liccardo spokesman Dave Low says the mayor’s position hasn’t changed since Tuesday, and that he’d probably remain supportive if a similar proposal returned to the council. “But that said,” Low adds, “his position is always tied to the specifics of whatever proposal is before him.”
That’s why Peralez and Jimenez plan to move the memo introduced by the mayor, which would authorize a nexus study along with a feasibility review to explore variables such as city sub-markets and various types of commercial developments.
Peralez says he’s optimistic despite this week’s setback. “Obviously, nobody on the council has driven this issue more than Don,” he says, “and unfortunately, he couldn’t be there this week. But I don’t think we’ll have another 5-5- tie.”
That is, unless Peralez’s wife gives birth ahead of schedule. He expects the linkage fee item to return to the council on Oct. 22; his firstborn is due Oct. 23. “That’s cutting it close,” he says with a laugh. “So we’ll see. It might be my fault if this happens again.”