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San Jose State Could Turn This Building Into Housing – But Who Should Get to Live There?

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The state-owned Alfred E. Alquist Building near San Jose State University may be converted into parking, retail and new residential housing. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

In the midst of the Bay Area’s housing crisis, San Jose State University may get a gift it could never afford today: an office building near campus, ripe for razing and replacing with apartments.

In the heart of downtown San Jose, a block from SJSU's campus, sits the state-owned Alfred E. Alquist Building. From a design standpoint, it’s fair to say few people give it a second look.

"This building is ugly," said Charlie Faas, SJSU’s senior vice president of administration and finance. "This building is a three-story concrete pillar-type building that has a lot of open spaces inside, a lot of less-than-good utilization of the space, and it's short."

The state agrees. In fact, California’s real estate division recommended that current tenants — like the Department of Public Health — move elsewhere so that the Alquist Building can be transferred to another state agency free of charge.

San Jose State wants to be that agency.


Housing Help for Faculty Feeling the Squeeze

Faas has big plans: parking, retail and several new residential towers, with up to 1,000 below-market-rate apartments for faculty and graduate students.

"If we don't solve the faculty staff housing issue, it's going to be really hard to have classes and educate students, and at the end of the day that’s what we’re about," Faas said.

The city has been named the hottest housing market in the country by Zillow two years in a row. The median rent is $3,500. It can be difficult even for tenured professors to compete in that housing market.

"You work very hard on a professional degree or a doctorate and you work very hard to establish your career," said SJSU sociology professor William Armaline. "I'm a tenured professor. You expect at least to not live a fully precarious existence in terms of, you know, housing and food."

Armaline and his wife, who works as a social worker, can't afford to buy a house in San Jose. They rent a condo about 2 miles from campus. They got a good deal on the rent, and the landlord hasn’t asked for market rate in seven years. But it’s a tight squeeze for the couple, their foster daughter and their foster grandkid. And it's in need of some serious updates.

"When you're in the kind of situation that we're in, and I think many others are in, you basically start fixing everything yourself and seeing which you can live with," Armaline said. "Because, you know, you're really only living at the generosity of that landlord, who quite frankly has a great deal more interest in getting rid of you."

But What About Homeless Students?

But faculty and staff should not be the school’s only priority, according to Mayra Bernabe of the Student Homeless Alliance.

Student Homelessness

A 2018 survey found that roughly 13 percent of San Jose State students experienced homelessness in the past year.

"Our students cannot go through their four years plus without the basic needs. And that's, you know, food and housing," Bernabe said.

Some homeless students spend the night in San Jose State’s 24-hour library. Juan Marrufo, who just graduated from San Jose State, used to sleep there sometimes between shifts at his part-time job and classes. He says you don’t get good sleep there.

"I would have my backpack around my arms because I was afraid that somebody might steal my backpack or my information," Marrufo said.

The Alliance is asking that 20 percent of Faas' planned units be affordable for very low-income and extremely low-income students. But even if he agrees, it would be several years before anyone gets a door key.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra helped put a $250,000 allocation to San Jose State into the California general budget to help the university create a development plan. It would need to be approved by the state.

"I think it's a win for the state, a win for San Jose State University and certainly a win for the city of San Jose, ultimately benefiting students in need," Kalra said.

What Happens Next?

San Jose State will deliver its plans for the project to the state. California's Department of General Services will evaluate SJSU's plans, and make a decision on the Alquist building's fate.

"[The] decision would be guided by what is in the state's best interest," said Jennifer Lida, a Dept. of General Services spokesperson in an email to KQED.

"But it's a balance of any number of factors, including: our authority; state needs, such as housing; our fiduciary responsibility; the tenant department's needs; the constituents of the tenant departments and other state agency needs."