Outside the [email protected] office, highrises climb toward San Jose’s twilight sky. The office lies just north and across the river from Diridon Station, around which roughly 1,000 affordable homes will be built amidst construction of the new Google campus.
Downtown San Jose is now poised for a housing renaissance that was hard to imagine back in 2015, when Leslye Corsiglia first formed [email protected] She got the organization up and running in its first 18 months, according to Candice Gonzalez, Chief Housing Officer of Sand Hill Property Company.
“She was such a fierce person, and just such a go-getter,” Gonzalez said of Corsiglia, executive director of the six-year-old housing advocacy group. “Even in just the formation of [email protected], how quickly it sprung up, and how passionately she went about it… So many people say ‘We need to do this, we need to do that.’ She actually gets things done.”
[email protected] announced Corsiglia’s departure in April, but the executive director said she would stay with the organization during its search for its next leader.
Corsiglia previously served as director of San Jose’s Housing Department, and when she left the city, she said she did not imagine that she would end up leading another organization.
“I had left the city with the intention of not running anything anymore,” Corsiglia said. “I had a kind of vision of what [email protected] would look like, and I thought it was going to be a three-person organization.”
Six years later, [email protected] has a staff of 12, a budget of more than $1 million according to its 2019 Form 990 and is a leading voice in addressing the region’s housing crisis.
“It’s been really more successful than I thought it would be,” Corsiglia said. “I just feel like the organization is in a good place for me to step down and bring in new leadership.”
The executive director said she’s not certain what she’ll do next, but she knows it will involve housing.
“I’ve worked in housing since I was in college, and I will continue to work in the field,” Corsiglia said. “That’s going to continue to be my passion.”
Gonzalez said prior to [email protected]’s formation, there were not a lot of influential groups consistently advocating for affordable housing at key events like City Council meetings and planning commission hearings, as well as campaigning for funding measures.
“It was hard to get supporters to show up,” Gonzalez said. “[email protected] was on the ground with things like the Measure A bond campaign and Measure E in the city… I don’t know if things like that could have happened without them.”
Kevin Zwick, CEO of United Way Bay Area, said [email protected] is unique in that it recognizes different root causes of the housing crisis, which has led it to take a multi-pronged approach to increasing affordability.
“There’s not one housing crisis, there’s really four or five interlocking crises,” Zwick said. “A lot of organizations focus on one or two pieces of that, and I think [email protected] is somewhat unique in that it works to address all of the pieces.”
Zwick said that prior to [email protected]’s founding, Santa Clara County lacked a “permanent coalition” of pro-housing groups.
“We had a really strong informal coalition of several organizations that all spent some of their time on housing, and would come together when there was a big issue,” Zwick said. “When that issue was resolved, people would go back and do their own work.”
Others see groups like [email protected] as playing an important but not central role in the fight for housing affordability. Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network, said he respects Corsiglia for her commitment and drive and for the organization she’s created.
“She’s a highly skilled professional, she’s very committed and dedicated,” Perry said. As an organization, he said [email protected] has been “an invaluable resource, they’re incredibly sophisticated, professional, expert in policy matters, they do tremendous work.”
However, the organization takes a fundamentally different approach to increasing housing affordability than what Perry and other activists do.
“The people most affected by the housing crisis should be organized and should be taking the leadership in fighting for housing… Silicon Valley at Home is basically organized by corporate groups,” Perry said. “They are what they are, and we are what we are, and we’re different.”
Perry said he can’t say any group has been truly effective in increasing housing affordability, given the rising cost of rents and rise in homelessness.
The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment has increased by more than $1,000 in the last 15 years, according to housing market data from the City of San Jose. For every one homeless person who becomes housed, three more become homeless, according to a recent report from the San Jose Housing Department.
“None of us have been as effective as necessary,” Perry said. “That’s a huge failure, and it means things are getting worse twice as fast as they’re getting better.”
Pastor Scott Wagers, who founded the Cham Deliverance Ministry and has worked on behalf of San Jose’s homeless for three decades, said he met Corsiglia back in the 1990s. He said he respects her work ethic and long-term commitment to housing.
“I was a young activist, firebrand, but she was very focused, poised, always trying to build bridges and figure out a win-win situation,” Wagers said. “She’s a cornerstone person in this community for raising all the money she has for housing… she’s been able to galvanize a lot of people and to make a big difference.”
The pastor said it’s hard to say how effective groups like [email protected] have been at mitigating the housing crisis, since from his perspective, homelessness remains an urgent problem.
“It’s a mixed bag… from where I sit, we’re on the frontlines, and we see the numbers growing,” Wagers said. “I just see the wasteland on the streets.”
Wagers said everyone has their role to play in addressing the housing crisis, and while workers like him on the front lines of the housing crisis see things differently, it doesn’t mean they can’t work with groups like [email protected]
“There’s always been that creative tension between frontline activists and folks who do what Leslye does,” Wagers said. “It’s such a complex world, and the numbers are so great in terms of the unhoused… more can be done, but where do you put the blame?”
Corsiglia said people fighting against the housing crisis can’t afford to let the magnitude of the problem slow them down.
“We’re eternal optimists and we keep working on solutions, even though the problem is so daunting and so challenging,” Corsiglia said. “We know we can’t give up.”