Interview by Sharon McElhone
Do you have a vision of how to bring more multiculturalism to San Jose?
“Yes, that’s a great question for me because I think that has been the hallmark of my 21 years of elective office. In fact, two of the biggest festivals in San Jose came out of my office. The “Day In The Park” festival, which happens in District 8, at one point had about 7,000 attendance before we left office. Then we created “Day On The Bay,” the multicultural festival in Alviso, which last year drew 12,000 people from all over the county. The idea there is to break down barriers that exist within the multicultural community. When I first took office in 2001, most people identified themselves by where they lived, by the subdivision they lived in and associated primarily with the ethnic group they were part of. The idea was let’s do everything we can to start getting people to convene together because we have this huge opportunity here to create a place that’s known worldwide for peace and prosperity among a multitude of different cultures. That doesn’t really happen in many places around the world. One of the highlights of my career thus far was getting invited back to a worldwide organization called “The Parliament of the World’s Religions” in Australia, (I paid for my own trip by the way) as a County Supervisor to receive an inaugural award as one of the top six multicultural communities in the world that is furthering the non-violence movement. It’s the kind of community I stand for here.”
Do you have plans to improve the downtown area? What plans do you have?
“We need dense residential housing downtown. It’s been the goal for a number of years going back to when I was on the City Council. And you really have to seize the up cycles and opportunities to do that. There have been windows of opportunity to get high-rise housing downtown and then they disappear real fast because of downturns in the economy. This happened once in the 90’s and twice in the last decade at least. So we have to be very opportunistic in terms of seizing the day, you know, carpe diem, when it comes to residential density downtown. It’s huge because there are a lot of businesses that people expect to see in an urban neighborhood that can’t exist without neighborhood traffic. Think about just ordinary things like a shoe repair shop, although those aren’t ordinary anymore: A small corner type grocery store, or a yogurt shop, those are locations that people frequent in the evening. They are geographic; they are not destinations. To have a downtown that looks like the great urban downtowns that you see, whether a small place like Boulder, Colorado or a big place like San Francisco or Florence, Italy, you have to have lots of stuff going on downtown, which means you have to have lots of people to support all that activity.”
How would you address homelessness in San Jose?
“As a County Supervisor, I’ve been involved very directly in several major initiatives thus far including “Destination Home.” The county put 1.2 million dollars directly to housing the homeless. That’s working to the extent that there has been over 300 chronically homeless housed through that program, and we know that it is cost effective because we know that it keeps them out of other county systems that cost a lot of money over the course of a year. But we are just scratching the surface even though we have been doing things like that. We put a million dollars into subsidizing the Section 8 Voucher program just a few months ago because the Federal government had started to cut it off. Those folks were all going to be homeless and we’ve diverted the money that we are now getting from the dissolution of the redevelopment agencies, particularly from San Jose. Twenty percent of RDA money used to go to affordable housing. That 20 percent is now going first to the counties, the state, and the school districts; so we are taking our portion of that as a county and redirecting that back to the housing trust. We’ve already voted on that. So there are things we’ve done thus far, but even then you still have over 7,000 homeless, 5,500 of them who are in the City and the count keeps growing. We have the largest encampment, at least one of the largest in the country off of Story Road, and I think we need to start focusing in on the different aspects of the homeless demographic and helping those who we can enroll quickest in benefits and services. For example, we know that 10-15 percent of the homeless are veterans, and they are veterans who qualify for veterans administrative support. So there is no reason for them to be out, certainly out without a bed and a roof over their heads. One of the causes of that is because the veterans administration is completely slow and backlogged on paperwork, and it is taking them 180 days to process the paperwork. That’s not fast enough for a homeless person. They will either move on or get chased away. So we need to take care of the veterans. We need to expedite the process for them. We need to ask the VA to cooperate with us on that immediately and you will be hearing more from me on that. And children—25 percent of the homeless population are now under the age of 18… not only is there no excuse for that, there is a county system or state system available for any youth that is neglected, so we need to focus in on enrolling those two populations immediately and get them the assistance that they need. I’m not sure why the Mayor and the current City Council are not working in that direction. They are still doing 52 police sweeps, once a week, all year. It costs a lot of money to do that and it’s not solving any problems. It’s just pushing people around from one encampment to another. I would rather use the same personnel to enroll people in programs that are available to already help them out.”
What is your position on the high rents we’ve seen in the last six months and do you foresee a time when the middle class can’t afford to live in San Jose?
“I think we already have a problem where we are losing part of the middle class, and we are losing some of that to homelessness. If you go talk to the people in the emcampments like I have, a lot of that growing homeless population, have been evicted from middle class situations and are very good bright people that really don’t have the kind of serious mental health problems that we’ve seen in the past with the chronically homeless. We do have a rent control ordinance in the city. When I was on the City Council, at my initiative, we created a hardship mediation program. For example, if a single mother with children in the middle of the school year gets an eviction notice, and she is meeting her month to month rent, the landlord is required to demonstrate that the parent needs to be moved out immediately. That means there needs to be cause in that situation. If there is no cause, then the City can automatically grant an extension of time. We created that extension of time so it gets the children through the school year. But when the rental market heats up like this and it gets to 99 percent occupancy, it’s not healthy for any body and the City can’t regulate that. You generally want regulation to be minimized when it comes to business because you don’t want it to become an unpopular place to do business but at the same time these kinds of cyclical markets require us to regulate. I think the laws on the books right now are probably enough if we are enforcing them.”
Do you see how we can avoid high-density housing?
“Well, I don’t think high density should be located in single-family neighborhoods, and I’m a little worried about the current general plan because it calls for Urban Villages. I think Urban Villages really need to be defined as transit villages. Where you have a transit station or urban transit corridors, that is where you need high-density housing. Certainly you need it in the downtown because it is a very urban environment, and that is what you want back there. Even in the middle of single family neighborhoods in places like Willow Glen, call for a much higher density now. More than anything we’ve ever done before, sometimes five or six or seven times more dense, and I think that needs to be looked at again. I’m not sure those are compatible uses. I understand the mentality. We do need to build a lot of housing over the next few years if we don’t want to sprawl, but there should be a balance there.”
Do you see any problems with our water supply if our population keeps growing with the current pace of high density housing being built?
“We have a problem with water supply in general right now. We’re in a very, very serious drought. It’s now spring and we went through winter, but we didn’t have a winter. According to the water district, if that happens one more year, they don’t have any more water reserves. So, that could really be the crisis of all crisis. I think this community has always been really, really good at volunteering conservation… in this area already, we already conserve a lot. I think you will see us looking at new technologies as well. There are desalination plants that are now mobile, that are shipborne, that are much more effective than what was around 15 or 20 years ago technologically. I mean at some point we will all start looking at how realistic it is to generate water through evaporation systems, desalination and other sources if we need to. It’s fortunate we have a good water recycling program in the City of San Jose. It generates a lot of water. Unfortunately, it’s not hooked up everywhere it needs to go, and it would take a lot of money to hook it up everywhere it needs to go overnight. So we are only using a fraction of the recycled water that we could. Again that needs to be looked at in the future.”
What inspirations have you garnered from the successes of Mayor Susan Hammer and Mayor Janet Gray Hayes?
“Both Mayor Susan Hammer and Mayor Janet Gray Hayes did a lot of wonderful things. With Susan Hammer, I got to work with her directly as president of the East Side Union High School District Board of Trustees. I was on that board for eight years, from 1992-2000. It was with her cooperation that we created the first schooling services program, the first active shooter code red programs in the school districts before Columbine even happened. She was very willing to work collaboratively with the county district to create safe neighborhoods and safe schools. To me that is her primary legacy. Obviously she balanced eight budgets in eight years, but everybody does that. Sometimes the voters don’t completely understand but in local, in city and county government, you have no choice but to balance your budget. Janet Gray (Hayes), I mean really, her legacy of course was leading the way in terms of women’s leadership here. She took over as a woman for the first time in the history of the City as I know it and she really had that mantra that she lived by of “San Jose needs to be better before it is bigger.” She believed in balanced growth and I believe that set a long-term pattern for the City. We’ve grown in fits and starts. She set the tone for making sure the growth of the City didn’t turn us into another Los Angeles.”
What do you think needs to be done in order to restore San Jose’s title as one of the safest cities in America?
“When I left the City Council, a little over five years ago, we were the safest big city in America. At one point, we were number two. There was always an argument if it was us or San Diego. Now we have one of the fastest growing crime rates in the country. According to FBI statistics, there were more auto thefts in 2013 in San Jose, than in all five boroughs of New York City put together. They have five times our population. So we have a public safety crisis to the likes of which we have never faced before here and the problem right now is retention and recruitment. The Mayor and the Council did a good job in identifying the problem—fiscal reform and pension reform—but the way they went about it has really backfired. They decided to try to force their way by putting a measure on the ballot that was flawed and the courts rejected it now, and the City spent five million dollars trying to litigate that; and I know my opponents are saying that they are willing to back that litigation for years until it gets to the Supreme Court. There is no way you can recruit and retain employees with that cloud hanging over your head. They don’t know if they are going to get more or less or somewhere in between. And there are 400 other jurisdictions where they can go to work. Especially our law enforcement people because we have some of the best people in the State being pirated and recruited by every jurisdiction around us. So we have to put a stop to that. We can’t roll back any of the pension achievements that have been accomplished because we do need the two-tiered pension system. We can’t pay 90% pensions. In fact, I was the only council member who in 2005 voted against the 90% pension. We knew it wasn’t affordable then, but arbitrators were awarding it to the public safety units no matter what the council said back in those days, and it became a problem. So, I’m glad the Mayor identified the problem, but he needed to maintain a dedicated work force and they’ve really gone too far now. We need to restore trust and we need to get our public safety employees back to the bargaining table and work out a solution like we’ve done in years past.”
If you become Mayor of San Jose, what do you think your biggest concerns will be?
“Public safety, infrastructure, the backlog—the 800 million dollar pavement order that is backlogged is more than daunting. It’s going to take eight million dollars a year for 20 years just to get us caught up. So that is going to be a huge challenge… restoring library hours, getting back to building parks and making sure all the communities have community centers open. Those are the biggest issues I see right now.”