Chester: Common sense for full staffing
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

“Run it like a business.”

It is true in a sense that localities need to be run like a business in multiple ways. Balanced budgets. Quality customer service. Good products. And a full staff to ensure everything runs smoothly. When asked, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan’s office replied, “The city has some business-like functions, he doesn’t necessarily believe the city can be fully run as a business.”

San Jose has a number of necessary improvements such as housing affordability, the job to resident ratio imbalance and traffic. But what can a city do? We don’t create our own currency so we can’t build what we deem needed when we feel like it. We can only implement policies which hope to have the desired effect—limited policies can have the direct effect desired. Putting money directly into building temporary housing is one of those policies, and Mayor Mahan has done this effectively.

Regarding housing, Mahan has called attention to the time it takes from start to finish to complete projects. The time it takes, many say, discourages investors from even trying to build what the city needs to become not just economically sustainable, but financially thriving for all who work and live here.

There is more to the housing problem than slow city reviews. Why are reviews slow? Staffing levels haven’t recovered from the Great Recession for numerous reasons. Funding for developments in San Jose are largely based on the projects that come into the pipeline.

Separately, zoning in our city is largely single-family residential. The most diverse, most useful one might be Mixed Use Commercial (MUC), though the most easily found non-single-family residential is Neighborhood Community/Commercial (NCC). The difference? NCC allows mixed use only if it has low-income housing.

While this is desperately needed, it also makes those lots less likely to be redeveloped since there is less profit to be made compared to what MUC allows: market rate housing. Since nearly all housing, and certainly new housing developments, is a private investment we, for better or worse, need to do all we can to incentivize building homes and businesses if the aforementioned job to resident ratio problem is to be corrected.

While traffic is absolutely a multi-jurisdiction effort, from local to federal, we need to look for local solutions. Things like how to make light rail faster, where to implement bus only lanes, and how to connect suburban neighborhood dwellers with their jobs throughout the Bay Area efficiently are keys to reducing traffic and increasing everyone’s safety.

Ironically, this all takes staff time to study, hold hearings and prepare documents in order to make these kinds of changes. And with limited general fund budget dollars we can’t create the change to allow the developers to propose the plans to fund our staff to speed up reviews to have homes and jobs be more plentiful citywide.

Raising taxes is not an option, but we need to increase tax revenue. We have been living through a funding paradox of needing to increase the potential tax dollars, but not increasing the available space to create the potential tax dollars which fund necessary short and long-term improvements. It’s a circular defense that neatly works against building world class mass transportation systems as well.

Common sense would tell a city to adapt to its needs, not focus on “the market.” In a very “pick  yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of way, instead of limiting how much you can earn, why not work in ways to earn more money? For a city, that means looking at what type of land use has the highest potential earnings for the city, not for the developer or the individual. That would be a mixed-use property. No large car garage is best for developer cost, but no underground garage is the most realistic for cost saving measures and makes it realistic for a developer to be able to attract the most people with current mass transit levels.

Then you would want commercial and residential units, probably at least two small to midsize commercial units to nearly guarantee income always coming in. Residential units, of course, increase the tax value from property tax. So this would inherently be better for the city compared to NCC because the residences above only add value to the current commercial only that is more commonly found.

A much larger increase would be to identify 15-minute walks to rail stations and allow more density, more height and mixed use within any rail station—and hopefully bus rapid transit once full routes have dedicated lanes. The additional unit(s) and/or business in an existing single-family neighborhood would also inherently add tax revenue for the city.

These changes aren’t likely to happen quickly, but once we have more Japantown neighborhoods, more Willow Glen neighborhoods, organic growth would allow the zoning to expand and connect these communities with urban villages and enjoyable trips in between them. Pleasant bike rides or walks rather than today’s standard of being more than likely to need a car to reach the comfort of a friend.

But you shouldn’t expect to see this mayor find common sense to be considered. He was elected with support of people who appreciated his in-person charisma, his pledging to continue action regarding homeless people not sleeping in public spaces. In the primary this was a focus, maintaining single-family neighborhoods. The votes for any one reason support his whole agenda, nobody can blame him for thinking that. After all, his old company Brigade was designed in part to “shape the policies” by working with “like minded people,” per Mayor Mahan in November 2018. But that notion is preventing us from the same common sense solutions to our tax revenue problem, which is why we have a citywide staffing problem.

If any of your favorite companies were not staffed properly they may have never created the product you enjoy the most. Why should we believe in understaffing our own government when the likelihood of having a deficient product—our city services—increase just like it would with businesses? And if it was your business, you’d make sure it was staffed fully if you want the best product.

We have limited ways to increase tax revenue. If not this way, ask your elected official, how?

Gordon Chester is a lifelong San Jose resident with a background in development in the county, and an interest in housing, transit and history.

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