Blog First Comment on San Jose’s Draft 2023–2031 Housing Element

Sept. 20, 2022

South Bay YIMBY is a grassroots group advocating for plentiful, inclusive, and affordable housing in the South Bay. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on San Jose’s Draft Housing Element, and thank staff for the considerable work they undertook in preparing this document.

Since 2014, San Jose has consistently ranked among the worst of California’s major cities in per capita housing growth. It ranked 8th out of the state’s ten largest cities in 2014, 8th in 2015, 7th in 2016, 7th in 2017, 9th in 2018, 9th in 2019, and last in 2020. The status quo is unacceptable, and San Jose must take “meaningful actions” to meet its housing needs during the 6th RHNA cycle. (Gov. Code § 65584(e).)

We believe the Draft Housing Element contains several commendable elements, with sites widely distributed and a promising set of policies. The city’s pipeline analysis, which discounts production based on the percent of entitled projects which have proceeded to be developed, is particularly praiseworthy, as is the proactive inclusion of zoning changes in the Sites Inventory. However, we believe the Draft Housing Element could and should be improved in several ways:

  • The analysis of zoning as a constraint is minimal, while consideration of existing uses as a constraint is inconsistent, and the city does not consider what policy tools it may have to address high construction costs as a constraint.
  • High-impact policies such as ministerial approval should be implemented sooner, rather than later, to make a difference in this planning period.
  • Opportunities for affordable housing remain constrained to high traffic, high pollution arterials, with little to none located in the city’s highest resource census tracts and Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence (RCAA).
  • We commend the city’s anti-displacement and tenant protection policies, but more could be done to strengthen this aspect of the Housing Element.

The Draft Housing Element’s analysis of constraints is incomplete on zoning & construction costs

San Jose’s General Plan and zoning confine housing growth to only a narrow subset of the city’s land, yet the Draft Housing Element does not analyze whether this constrains housing growth within the city. The various zoning districts of the city are listed, but their standards such as setbacks are not assessed for whether they act as constraints. Nor is the relative proportion of different zoning districts considered. San Jose has a particularly high share of its land zoned exclusively for single family homes, covering 84-94% of the city’s residentially zoned land and a majority of all non-agricultural land within the urban growth boundary. Does this abundance of land with the most restrictive zoning designation constrain housing growth in San Jose? The document does not say.

The Draft Housing Element also notes construction costs as a constraint, but does not consider policy solutions within the city’s power to bring down those costs. For example, San Jose’s design guidelines emphasize “articulating the facade,” requiring multiple plane changes and additional corners that add complexity and cost to the construction process. Moreover, the relative lack of multifamily zoned land leads San Jose to plan for all housing growth through fairly high density development (above 50 du/acre). We celebrate and welcome high density development, but in planning for it exclusively, San Jose leaves out the possibility of lower-cost moderate density construction (~30 du/acre). This moderate density development can be built more cheaply, without structured parking, and we believe opening up more of the city to it is an essential part of San Jose meeting its housing needs.

Lastly, the Draft Housing Element’s analysis of existing uses as a constraint on development is inconsistent. In Chapter 4: Constraints on Housing, the city notes that “Long-term landholders may be unlikely to sell because they maintain a low tax base on the property”, and also that “In urban village areas, of which many are transitioning from primarily commercial to mixed-use or residential, there may be properties already occupied by businesses that are paying good rent, and the owner is thus reluctant to sell.” However, in the Sites Inventory, the city claims that “existing prior uses such as retail… do not significantly impede additional residential development on a site” because the value of the land for residential use is greater. These claims conflict with one another. Since some landholders will be unlikely to sell or redevelop such properties, and since the Sites Inventory includes many locations which currently have stable or successful businesses, San Jose should identify additional sites and rezonings in order to meet its housing needs.

Policy implementation timelines place certain high impact (and legally mandated) programs into the back half of the planning period

We are very excited to see San Jose propose moving toward ministerial approval for housing (P-7). However, we are concerned that this policy is not proposed for implementation until 2027, halfway through the planning period. By-right approval of developments with 20% on-site Low Income housing is mandated by state law for a selection of San Jose’s sites (Gov. Code § 65583.2(h)). Since having such a program in place is already a necessity, expanding it throughout the city should not pose additional technical difficulties. We also encourage San Jose to consider adjusting the percentage of on-site Affordable Housing required based on the depth of affordability provided, as is typical in Inclusionary Zoning and Density Bonus policies.

We are also excited to see the Draft consider a study of permitting missing middle housing types throughout more of the city (P-11, P-35). We are eager to participate with the city in developing this policy, which we think has the potential to add a much needed new dimension to San Jose’s housing growth. We would like to see greater clarity on the interim timeline between now and when the policy would come to Council in 2027, as well as specification on how this work would relate to the city’s implementation of SB 9. We also encourage San Jose to expand its popular and successful program of pre-approved ADUs eligible for same day permitting to duplexes under SB 9.

Affordable housing sites remain concentrated on high traffic & high pollution arterials, with little to none in the city’s highest resource census tracts & RCAAs

The city has clearly worked hard to ensure that housing opportunity sites are distributed across all neighborhoods and not concentrated in lower income areas, including proposals for zoning changes to achieve that goal. We commend that work, and are excited for steps that will advance it, such as rezoning Willow Glen’s neighborhood commercial district. However, we see two key remaining shortcomings.

First, very few opportunity sites are located in the Highest Resource census tracts and Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence within San Jose. We encourage the city to seek additional sites & zoning changes that can remedy this.

Second, almost all opportunity sites for Lower Income housing are on high traffic, high pollution arterials. This is why we believe the city’s missing middle study, along with implementation of SB 9 that includes work to support development of dedicated affordable housing, is essential to advancing a truly equitable siting of Affordable Housing in San Jose.

More can be done to strengthen implementation of the city’s Anti-Displacement Framework

We are pleased to see that many anti-displacement and tenant protection policies have been incorporated into the Draft Housing Element. We strongly support the items relating to COPA (R-4) and developing and funding a preservation policy (P-31, R-5, R-9, N-4, R-12). We also support the many priorities communicated in the letter submitted by the anti-displacement equity coalition, made up from members of groups representing populations historically excluded and disinvested from in the city. Like the comments in that letter, we would like to see the city empower tenants to form their own recognized organizations and create a community based code enforcement policy. Not only would this encourage more community engagement among those who have not been traditionally centered in discussions, it builds on itself to create stronger and more stable communities.

We recognize that the Equitable Neighborhoods-Based Investment Strategy (N-1) is a deeply important factor to affirmatively further fair housing. Just as putting affordable homes in highly resourced areas will provide more opportunities, so will reinvesting in underrepresented communities. Core to our values, that reinvestment should include more affordable housing which is not mentioned in the (N-1) strategy. As YIMBYs, we believe housing is not a burden on communities, but a critical tool to prevent displacement and destabilization of our neighborhoods. As we develop in these Racially / ethnically concentrated neighborhoods, we support the city pursuing a anti-displacement tenant preference and the neighborhood tenant preference policies in S-20 to prioritize the residents at risk of displacement in those communities.

Other important policies that we support in the draft include: Study on rent increases and burden in affordable housing (S-10), Eviction prevention - Housing Collaborative Court and other support for legal services (S-12), Expand/amend the Tenant Protection Ordinance (S-31), Right to counsel (S-28), Local Fair Chance / "Ban the Box" ordinance (S-17) and Tenant Resource Centers and violations reporting (S-1). There are many more good and important anti-displacement policies in the draft, but these were the ones we wanted to highlight in support.