San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo opened up his second-to-last State of the City address Thursday evening with what he called “an open conversation” about the city’s “greatest failure” — Homelessness.
“I take responsibility for that failure and for every unhoused neighbor in camps, in our parks, our creeks and our sidewalks,” Liccardo said. “It certainly isn’t their fault nor the fault of any of the resourceful nonprofits or our staff … Rather it’s the failure of decisions predicated on the belief that if we just keep doing the same things the same ways, eventually progress would come, contrary to the palpable evidence on our streets.”
As of the city’s 2019 homeless count, San Jose had more than 6,000 unhoused residents — a figure that spiked 42% from 2017 to 2019. Over the last year, Santa Clara County’s Supportive Housing network provided permanent housing to nearly 5,000 residents countywide and the number of new unhoused residents seeking assistance declined by 29%.
Still, the city has a long way to go, especially given the expiration of rental assistance and protections offered during the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for more residents to be evicted in the coming months.
Despite recent efforts to stand up more homeless housing sites and make it easier to build affordable housing developments across the city, San Jose is still far behind its housing goals and seriously lacks enough shelter beds for thousands of residents currently without a roof over their heads.
During the speech, which Liccardo delivered virtually for the second year in a row because of COVID-19, the mayor called for “immediate solutions rather than merely waiting for permanent supportive housing to get built to address the crisis.”
“This crisis demands faster, cheaper, and more nimble solutions while we build permanent housing,” he said, speaking about the modular emergency housing sites the city has stood up during the pandemic.
Jennifer Loving, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Destination: Home, said she commended the mayor for acknowledging the magnitude of the city’s homelessness crisis but she called Liccardo’s comparison of modular units to permanent housing a “mistake.”
“These modular units provide a better version of shelter and should be embraced, but people aren’t going to live in a 6 by 6 room on the side of a freeway off-ramp forever,” Loving said. “These small modular rooms shouldn’t be replacing permanent homes. We need to do both.”
As for the mayor’s plan, Liccardo said the city must identify more sites to set up “quick-build” homeless housing sites, find ways to improve incentives for neighborhoods to participate in solutions and incorporate the experience and insight of unhoused residents to make sure the new approaches meet their needs and get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.
Along those lines, the mayor touted the city’s San Jose bridge program, which employs unhoused residents to help clean up the city, and its Cash for Trash program, which gives unhoused residents $4 for every bag of trash they pick up.
Addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing, Liccardo said the city must increase its housing supply but took a dig at an approach like Senate Bill 9, the state law that goes into effect on Jan. 1 and allows up to four new units on a lot previously restricted to single-family homes.
“We can start by rapidly expanding housing supply, not by inundating our neighborhoods with density that merely exacerbates traffic-choking sprawl, but with the construction of more high-density housing near transit hubs,” he said.
Throughout the rest of his speech, the mayor touched on the city’s investment in community safety — reinforcing his opposition to efforts to defund the police — and renewed efforts to combat blight across the city and take advantage of the city’s public outdoor spaces, pointing to the city’s outdoor dining Al Fresco program and new financial investments in the city’s cleanup efforts.
“It’s these public spaces that captivate us,” he said, “Yet too many of our public spaces have been anything but delightful when we see trash and blight and graffiti that make our city feel less loveable.”
Liccardo ended his annual address on an uplifting note, talking about the city’s promising future, highlighting the city’s latest environmental goals and new programs the city launched this year to get young adults employed and to help high school students transition to college and trade schools.
“For all of our challenges, San José’s future has never shone brighter,” he said. “The opportunities for San José are the envy of every other city in the nation.”