Bramson: Removing commercial requirements in San Jose will give the gift of affordable housing this holiday season
Fourth Street Housing, an affordable housing development in North San Jose, is pictured in this file photo.

With the holiday sleigh bells ringing, the season of giving is upon us.

What I really want for Christmas this year is for the city of San Jose to make a common sense policy reform that will help us build more deeply affordable housing so people don’t have to live and die on our streets.

On Tuesday, the City Council will vote on a very important item: the potential elimination of commercial requirements for new 100% affordable housing.

Right now, when new affordable housing is built in many parts of the city (which sadly doesn’t happen anywhere that often), the planning policy that is baked into our General Plan forces the developer to build commercial space on the ground floor. It’s based on a retail dream of bustling coffee shops, bakeries and clothing boutiques on every corner.

While a nice idea in principle, the problem is the reality of it is pure fiction. The funds available for affordable housing development don’t allow developers to spend money on commercial space and there are no other significant sources of funding available. And, in most places, even if you could figure out how to pay for it, finding a business that can support the costs needed to build out and pay the rent in this market is a lofty task. In fact, you might have better luck trying to track down Santa right now.

But that’s only half of the story. The current commercial requirements are also killing new affordable housing developments before they can even be built. It adds millions of dollars to the budget, reduces the total number of homes and makes organizations walk away from what would otherwise be a development that could get families, seniors and other hardworking people inside. Even when the developers do miraculously find a way to cover the costs upfront, more often than not, the ground floor sits empty, adding not a single job and leaving the curbside desolate.

There’s always room for exceptions. Sometimes developments like Quetzal Gardens can work with great nonprofit organizations to create office space, community rooms and other neighborhood-serving amenities. But this shouldn't be forced and it certainly can’t be replicated at scale, requiring considerable funding, partnership and creativity to figure out this complicated equation even at one site.

And that’s why — with San Jose less than 1/3 of the way to its goal of developing 10,000 affordable homes by 2023 — we need to get this roadblock out of the way now. Both the General Plan Task Force and the Planning Commission overwhelmingly voted to completely eliminate this requirement. Without question, this is one of the most impactful actions we can take this year to make sure more affordable homes get developed now and in the future.

It’s up to the council to follow through on Tuesday and make the new year bright.

Lucescamaray Blog columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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