In June, the California Supreme Court ruled to uphold the City of San Jose’s affordable housing ordinance. In one unanimous decision, the court underscored what Bay Area residents already know: housing is expensive and in short supply, and that scarcity puts pressure on Californians at all income levels. Developers in San Jose now must include affordable units. The case, a benchmark for citizens, architects, and developers interested in the social impact of design, dates back to 2010 when the City of San Jose enacted an inclusionary housing ordinance that required new residential developments with more than 20 units to offer a percentage of units for sale at prices within reach of low to moderate households. Before the ordinance could take effect, California Building Industry Association (CBIA) filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court to block it. By ruling in favor of San Jose, the court dismissed a challenge that could have impacted the 170 California municipalities with active inclusionary zoning programs.
Golden State Planning
In San Francisco and Los Angeles, the issue of affordable housing is at peak cause célèbre. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti in his 2015 State of the City address promised $10 million in new funding to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust, a token amount based on demand, but a symbolic gesture nonetheless. In San Francisco, the mega Transbay Transit Center is slated for 35 percent overall affordable housing, with Studio Gang’s potentially 400-foot tall tower reserving 139 affordable apartments for low-income buyers. And battles rage on in SF’s Mission District over community displacement and a moratorium on market rate housing.
Civic impetuousness for housing is no new issue. When the court made their decision, they cited a 1970s section of the Health and Safety Code that then acknowledged the “serious shortage of decent, safe, and sanitary housing which persons and families of low or moderate income can afford.” In predictive language the code reminds us that scarcity leads to inflationary prices and an overall rise in cost. Essentially, what impacts lower income people eventually impacts everyone. This is starkly illustrated across Silicon Valley, where middle-income workers must earn 50 dollars an hour in order to live near their employment.
San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area and the anchor of Silicon Valley, yet the tech wealth on the Peninsula—Mountain View (Google), Menlo Park (Facebook), or Cupertino (Apple)—has largely passed it by. The Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan stressed job creation, a move that reflects San Jose’s attention to monetary concerns (the city declared a fiscal emergency in 2011) rather than housing. Attracting businesses to downtown brings in more tax revenue than residential projects. But for Jacky Morales-Ferrand, interim director of the City of San Jose Department of Housing, this approach is somewhat shortsighted. “Affordable housing can help communities change, especially in areas that rarely see new construction,” she explained, brushing away old myths that low-income housing leads to welfare enclaves. “A new building demonstrates that new investments can be successful.”
Case Studies: Housing
Geoffrey Morgan, president and CEO of First Community Housing, knows first hand the demand for units. The developer’s Japantown Senior Apartments, designed by OJK Architects + Planning, are currently under construction. The infill site is not far from downtown and close to transit and amenities. It sits next door to the Nishioka Fish Market, a historic brick building from 1929. According to Andrew Whiting, a principal at OKJ Architects, the project was originally designed as the inclusionary component of a larger development that went unbuilt. When the market-rate project stalled out as the San Jose economy dipped, the goodwill fostered between the design team and the community kept the affordable component on course.
This is OKJ Architects’ largest housing project to date. The apartments are grouped around a shared courtyard, which sits on top of parking. When finished, the five-story apartment building will offer 75-units to qualified low-income residents. Morgan is already deluged with 600 applications. He can only review 300.
“We live in a very strange economy,” said Morgan. “It’s a place where a studio costs $1,800 a month. The motels are full because people who can’t find a home need a place to stay. Having the inclusionary ordinances will provide funding and incentives to help teachers, janitors, restaurant workers. Establishing a fact that the market is not going to create the number of units necessary. It’s the right thing to do from a policy and a social equity standpoint.” San Jose issued 766 multifamily residential building permits in the first quarter of 2015, according to a city housing report. Just 71 were for affordable apartments.
First Community Housing and OJK Architecture have a track record of award-winning projects. With a bit of mid-century flair, their Gish Family Apartments—35 units over a ground floor 7-Eleven and located at the Gish Light Rail Stop—took home multiple AIA awards in 2008. With deep balconies and a playful facade, the project shows that affordable housing need not be stripped of dignity or design.
As demand overwhelms supply, it’s tempting to create designs that simply fill the vacuum, but First Community Housing with OJK Architecture is committed to a sustainable mission. The Japantown development, like all of the company’s projects, is on track for LEED Platinum and will incorporate a host of green building features, such as low-VOC paint and drought-resistant planting in the common outdoor areas.
In nearby Mountain View, the team recently completed 1585 Studios in partnership with the nonprofit Housing Choices Coalition that provides housing and services for the developmentally disabled population in Santa Clara County. OJK Architecture divided the development into two buildings, each three-stories, placing the bulk of the 27-units (26 are studios) in the rear structure for privacy. Services, such as a fitness center, offices, and a computer room are street side. Similar to Japantown, the development is located close to transit and is eco-minded in its approach to finishes and landscape, with the hopes of a LEED Gold rating.
One amenity common to both projects goes beyond architecture: all units come with a free VTA Eco Pass for unlimited transportation on all buses and light rail lines throughout San Mateo County.
A Mixed Bag
Still, offering bus fare works best when residential buildings are located near transit and in dense, walkable neighborhoods—like downtown San Jose, which is a hub for BART, Caltrain, rapid buses, and eventually high-speed rail. While there has been some market rate development in the area, the tension between jobs and housing persists. Last spring, SPUR issued a report entitled The Future of Downtown San Jose. Its first point reaffirms the city’s employment-forward position: make downtown a jobs center. This means focusing new construction on office buildings and attracting companies, which, among other things, contribute more in local taxes.
Morales-Ferrand suggests that a regional approach would take the pressure off of any one city to fulfill housing and job needs. A healthy Silicon Valley depends on it. Smaller communities in Santa Clara County are just as behind in terms of affordable housing construction. Those that are job rich might be better equipped to take on some developments. “People don’t think about the lines,” she said of municipal borders and the residents looking for a place to live that near their jobs. According to Morlaes-Ferrand, presently each city sets their own unit target, but if the State of California endorsed regions, there could be opportunities to trade targets.
Just up the 101 Freeway, David Baker Architects (DBA) is in construction on two affordable housing projects, 2500 El Camino Real in Palo Alto and Onizuka Crossing Family Housing in Sunnyvale. Affordable housing developers MidPen Housing and Charities Housing created a partnership to take on the Sunnyvale site. DBA is working with MidPen to develop 58 units of housing for formerly homeless and low-income families. The scheme groups one-, two-, and three-bedroom units around a series of courtyards. Strategically placed outdoor spaces break up the building’s massing and help to integrate the high-density structure into a residential neighborhood.
Commissioned by Stanford Research Park in partnership with the Related Companies, 2500 El Camino Real is 7,000 square feet of ground floor retail topped by 70 multifamily one-, two-, and three-bedroom affordable apartments. The project is divided into two distinct buildings, one clad in light-colored panels and the second in dark. There’s a public café and a private courtyard for residents. In addition, the design provides space for the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. David Baker Architects considers the design a first step toward a more equitable jobs/housing balance in Palo Alto and the project may eventually demonstrate that mixed use in this context is a successful model.
Funding, of course, is the driver that will ultimately change the future of affordable housing across Silicon Valley. First Community Housing’s Geoff Morgan recalled that the statewide dissolution of redevelopment agencies stunted new affordable housing development (especially infill housing in urban areas) just at a moment when California needed it the most. “When there wasn’t funding, construction dropped by two-thirds,” he said.
New sources, however, are coming on line. In April, a bill by California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins passed the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee. The Building Homes and Jobs Act is designed to create a more permanent funding source for affordable housing through f ees levied on real estate documents (roughly 75 dollars per transaction).
Morgan is optimistic: “Future is looking brighter and you’ll see a big boom.”