August 9, 2019 |
How to fix Silicon Valley’s housing gap? San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says $6 billion and smart people are needed, not a “homeless app.”
Silicon Valley’s tech economy is booming, with executives buying $49 million homes, but the number of people without homes is soaring, too. During the past two years, San Jose saw a 42 percent increase in the number of homeless, while Santa Clara County recorded a 31 percent increase, according to the county's biennial Point in Time survey conducted in January. Silicon Valley magazine is proud to be a participant in the fourth annual SF Homeless Project headed by the San Francisco Chronicle. We asked San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo about efforts to address this problem.
San Francisco gets national attention for its homeless problem, but Silicon Valley has a homeless problem, too. How surprised were government officials at the size of the increase in the homeless population here?
SAM LICCARDO: Homelessness constitutes the dominant challenge in every major city in the West, from Seattle to San Diego, and from Honolulu to Denver. It was obvious to anyone on the street that the problem has been worsening, but not for lack of effort: from mid-2015, when we had a countywide population of 7,400 homeless, to June 2018, we collectively housed more than 6,900 homeless people in Santa Clara County, and most of them stayed successfully housed. Yet our homeless population has only grown, now exceeding 9,000 countywide; simply, for every person, we have housed in recent years, two more end up on the street.
Is what’s happening in San Francisco filtering south, or are the causes of homelessness in Silicon Valley different than in San Francisco?
SL: The primary causes that lead to homelessness remain the same in San Jose and every other major city on the West Coast: rents have risen rapidly, the economy has shifted away from low-skill jobs and safety nets have deteriorated. Affordable housing has become much more difficult to build, due to rapidly rising construction costs, the elimination of redevelopment agencies in California, and federal changes in tax laws that have undermined the value of tax credits used to finance affordable housing. Finally, I also believe that our state’s approach to public safety and mental health has not helped. For example, the shifting of prison populations into local communities—without sufficient resources for housing or job skills—will just push people out into the street. The lack of inpatient mental health and drug rehabilitation resources is a major source of frustration for every big-city mayor.
Since the report’s release, what concrete steps have been taken by any government or nonprofit agencies to address the findings of the report?
SL: The city of San Jose is focused on expanding opportunity, building more housing and prevention. On the opportunity front, we’re employing dozens of homeless people in cleaning our streets and public spaces, while organizations like Goodwill and Downtown Streets Team connect them to job training and housing. To expand the housing supply, we issued $110 million in funding for the construction of more than 1,000 affordable, rent-restricted apartments in January, while several hundred more units are being constructed and leased up. The high costs of construction and land are forcing us to find more cost-effective approaches to building housing, such as converting deteriorating motels into apartments for the homeless. We are constructing two micro-housing communities, which consist of 40 or so tiny homes with supportive services. We are opening more safe parking sites for shelter, and partnering with more churches than ever on temporary shelter solutions. The most promising solutions, however, lie in prevention: by investing less than $4,000 per family in a pilot program last year, we were able to keep housed 97 percent of the 540 families that had been on the verge of getting evicted. So we’re expanding that program with the County, because we know we can save a lot of money—and human misery—by getting to people before they’re homeless.
What are the one percent doing to help?
SL: Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins met with me a couple of years ago to discuss that very issue. To his credit, Chuck stepped up last year with a $50 million commitment to homelessness. Recently, we’ve seen announcements from other companies—Google, Kaiser Permanente. The reality, though, is that we need much more; just building the housing for all of the 9,000 plus homeless in Santa Clara County would require more than $6 billion. Yes, we need resources, but more than anything, we need intelligent, wealthy people to get engaged. I can’t tell you how many times I run into seemingly smart tech people who believe that homelessness is “easy” problem to fix—as if it could be resolved with a “homeless app”—and that they have “solved” homelessness by identifying an innovative way to build a few units of cheap housing. That’s nice, but you still need land, utilities, entitlements, and elected officials willing to allow housing in a neighborhood where hundreds will come out to vocally oppose the project in any public meeting. It takes will, and it takes understanding the problem at a much deeper level than many people are willing to engage. I need smart, caring people to get engaged with great organizations like Downtown Streets Team and Destination: Home to better understand the issues and to learn better how they can help.
Any additional thoughts?
SL: Homelessness constitutes the defining challenge of our generation. Decades from now, our children and grandchildren will be asking us, “What did you personally do to help so many people get off the street?” If we don’t have a good answer to that question, neither they, nor their history books, will be kind in their judgment.
Photography by: the office of Mayor Sam Liccardo