San José Mayor Sam Liccardo on Housing and Suburban Resistance to Building More of It

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San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo stopped by KQED's Silicon Valley Bureau in San Jose to talk about housing on March 29, 2019. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

This week, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing that housing affordability is a top concern for a record-high percentage of Californians: Two-thirds statewide and 80 percent in the Bay Area. So why is it so hard to get new housing built?

There are few local politicians more bullish about housing than San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Housing is one of the top priorities in his latest budget proposal, which builds on his previously-stated goal of building 10,000 new housing units by 2022, some of it affordable.

He doesn't hesitate to link housing and homelessness, either.

More KQED Housing Coverage

This week, the San Jose City Council expanded a program to give people on the edge of homelessness emergency grants to help them stay off the streets.

“I think most folks would be surprised to know that, here in Santa Clara County, we have housed more than 6,000 homeless people over a period of three years, and the overwhelming majority of them stayed housed," Liccardo said. "But the problem isn't any better. Because, of course, the economy's pushing out thousands of others into the street. The only way we're gonna get traction on this problem is to be able to keep more folks housed who are getting pushed out."


But Liccardo says it will take more action from Silicon Valley cities other than San Jose to make a dent in the housing crisis.

"The reality of the political calculus is, we know an awful lot of suburban voters already have got theirs. Right? They own their homes. Those homes are appreciating rapidly in value," he said.

How do you bring those voters on board, without whom it could be hard to find city council members who want to approve a lot of new housing? Liccardo says, "When they recognize that their children have nowhere to live," they might change their tune.

Maybe yes and maybe no.

Earlier this year, Redwood City Councilwoman Alicia Aguirre lost her spot on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) because she backed the so-called CASA Compact, which includes a wide array of housing proposals that, as a whole, have been embraced by the mayors of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, as well as several regional organizations and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

And check out this headline summarizing a recent meeting in famously housing-resistant Palo Alto: Peninsula cities prepare for battle over contentious housing bill.

But Bay Area lawmakers have introduced 13 bills to implement the CASA policies, many of which involve moving control over housing and development to the state. AB 1487, for instance, would authorize a new regional housing agency to levy taxes, issue debt and impose zoning standards in the Bay Area.

Coverage of CASA

For many in the Bay Area's smaller suburbs, CASA is a looming bulldozer to the local control they've exercised for decades on the whether, what and how of residential development.

Local control advocates decry the smaller footprint smaller cities have on the committee that came up with CASA. But the unspoken fear for local politicians is they will be held accountable at the ballot box for locally unpopular housing policies they are forced to enact.

Still, there's little doubt the big cities can't go it alone. Even in "go go go" San Jose and Oakland, city officials acknowledge residential housing developers and their financial backers are failing to meet targets for what Liccardo calls "shovels in the ground," especially for affordable unit construction.

"We've got 99 cities and towns in this Bay Area. And right now the three large cities — Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose — are leaning in hard on trying to get more housing built. We're not going to make progress with just three cities. We need everyone pushing together," he said.