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Interview: San Jose lawmaker says residents need to see growth before they accept it

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“They always say, ‘We’re in favor of housing, but put it somewhere else’”

Homes on a residential street in San Jose. Photo by PBK_PG/Shutterstock

Chappie Jones joined the San Jose City Council in 2014, representing a neighborhood that borders Cupertino, Santa Clara, and other hot spots for tech companies.

Lawmakers in neighboring cities—such as those who appeared with Jones at last weekend’s Cupertino town hall meeting on housing issues—often want to discourage growth and density, but Jones argues that Silicon Valley needs to grow.

That can be a tough sell in the South Bay. We sat down to ask him why—and what he’s going to do about it.

Curbed SF: Last week you asked where Silicon Valley plans on putting all of the people coming here. What kind of answers do you get?

Chappie Jones: Well, I didn’t really get a lot of answers from my fellow panelists or from the audience. They seemed to just feel that people can leave.

What about when you ask your colleagues in San Jose, or city planners, or your constituents?

I get a mixed reaction, particularly when there’s proposed high density development, people always say we don’t want that here, we’re in favor of housing but put it somewhere else.

I understand that sentiment, but people think of this in a vacuum. They think if we don’t build more then we just won’t have to deal with growth. It’s our job to explain the ramifications: unaffordable housing, increased traffic from commuters, and we won’t be able to attract and retain people who provide basic services. Next time you’re at the Safeway and see two cashiers to eight cash registers, there’s a reason for that.

People might argue with you that we’re having no trouble getting people to move here, that’s the whole problem.

There are people coming, sure, but typically either highly paid tech workers and professionals who can afford a higher cost or lower paid workers who are living three or four families to a housing unit. What’s being squeezed is the people in the middle.

You say it’s your job to educate, what are you doing about that?

Well, that’s why I do things like that forum [on Sunday] and this conversation. I try to pay attention to individuals focused on what’s in it for them and explain how this is going to impact their quality of life.

And then step number two is concrete solutions. If we say high density is the answer but we don’t have a plan for transit, that’s not a good strategy to get people to buy in, and I can’t support that.

Watching that town hall, it doesn’t always look like that outreach is working. What makes you confident this is an effective approach?

That’s a tough question to answer. One of the things that give me hope at least—confidence is too strong of a word, but I’ll take it—is I have two advisory groups, one for Winchester and one for Stevens Creek, made up of developers and residents and stakeholders, and you can see through this process people going from “No development” to sometimes “Okay, some development, some things make sense.” I have seen that evolution. That gives me hope.

Michael Goldman says that San Jose would love to get the kinds of big new office developments he doesn’t want in Sunnyvale. Is that true?

I think he said that perfectly. You can take his quote and put my name on it.

Photo by Matthew Corley

So why aren’t you getting them?

It’s a microcosm of the Silicon Valley attraction. Companies want to be in Silicon Valley because they see it as the epicenter of venture capital and talent. But then once here, they are attracted to Palo Alto and Mountain View as the center of all that activity. Until prices get so high or there’s really no more land available, they’re going to want to be as close to ground zero as possible.

There’s also the issue of amenities. In North San Jose, one of the areas we are trying to get more growth, it really is a desert. You have some buildings, some parking, some apartments, but really nowhere workers want to spend time.

So you can’t get anyone to build there until someone has already built there?


Maybe it’s naive, but wouldn’t you think companies that promote their business savvy so much would see the practical advantages of, say, building closer to mass transit? What’s going on?

I don’t have an answer to that. I guess we could just as easily ask why move here at all, why not move to Portland or Denver instead of expensive, congested Silicon Valley? It’s the same argument, but they want to be here.

Will increased housing density drive prices down or not? I know that’s the basic economics, but Goldman will argue very hard that it’s wrong, and there are others.

I don’t understand his logic. I have an economics degree from UC Davis and I’ll put it up against anyone else’s. I understand economics and—you know, Michael will use an analogy, his favorite theory is that there’s an unlimited amount of demand and that infinite demand will [always] make prices go up.

I use a simple analogy: If you’re in Manhattan and you have 200 people looking for housing and 100 units in a development, obviously you have more demand than supply and that’ll drive up the cost. Now imagine those same 200 people competing for 25 units: a lot less supply, a lot more demand, and that’ll really drive up the costs. I’m trying to put this is as simple terms as possible.

But what about when you’ve got 100 units and 20,000 people, which is probably closer to the real ratio? And if we built 20K new homes, by the time we’re done there’d be even more people. This is what they say.

I understand that in theory, in terms of the imbalance of supply and demand, you’re not going to see the price curve go down significantly. But you won’t see the price curve also increase significantly.

The real question is, if you have such a delta between the demand and the supply, incrementally how much impact do those 100 units make? And once you figure that out then figure out how to build the 20,000 instead of throwing up our hands and saying since the delta is so great there’s no way to meet it, let’s not even try.

Because, you know, those 19,900 people who have to leave, you can’t pick and choose who they are. If they’re firefighters or teachers or even your favorite barista, that’s a problem for somebody.

Photo by PBK_PG/Shutterstock

You say we need transit plans to go with housing plans and it should all be comprehensive. But what can you do for folks who may not have years to wait for those things to get done?

You’re right that government moves a lot more slowly than the private sector, and in some ways that’s a bad thing but in other it’s good because the decisions we make have consequences not just next week but 50 years down the road.

On what we’re doing right now, there are people working hard to design transit solution. Going back to those working groups, one working on an urban village plan. If you get smart people together in a room things can happen a lot faster. Not as fast as people would like, but we can close that gap.

Not to be dismissive of those processes, but some folks need help right now. What about people trying to hold out for six months or the next year?

There are things we can do fast, like VTA is already rolling out our new network with faster routes and shorter waits, so instead of waiting half an hour to an hour people wait 20 or 15 minutes. That is happening now. In my district we’re getting more resources to create innovation zones looking at new technology for traffic issues, like autonomous cars or rapid transit. We are looking at the short term.

Is shorter wait times on VTA something you can really parlay into support for more housing in the near future?

Well, just look at are people using it? If people see buses full of riders, if they see that you put a 600 unit building on a major street but didn’t increase traffic, that’s when they start to believe. But until that happens, they will be skeptical.