Santa Clara County Supervisor and mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez said San Jose needs to “build faster and more” to ease the city’s housing shortage.
To tackle San Jose’s housing and homelessness crisis, Chavez wants to expedite construction of affordable units and make it easier for the state to appoint guardians for those on the streets who can’t care for themselves.
San Jose has too many “barriers to building housing in appropriate places,” Chavez said. “So one is, I would change those rules.” Chavez suggested expanding the number of times the city council can reevaluate the general plan that determines where housing can be built.
In an interview at her San Jose election headquarters with the Peninsula Press on Oct. 25, Chavez said that if elected, she would streamline the housing permitting process, expand mental health services, and foster a more robust and inclusive police department. The Peninsula Press interviewed her opponent, Matt Mahan, Oct. 20.
Chavez, 58, serves on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. She previously served as a member of the San Jose City Council and served as vice mayor in 2005 and 2006. She also served as the executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.
A goal to “treat housing like medicine”
To meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness, Chavez said she supports a “housing-first model.” This strategy, she said, contrasts with approaches that require people to achieve sobriety before receiving access to housing.
Chavez said she instead wants to “treat housing like medicine” – providing those experiencing homelessness with secure housing first, while simultaneously offering services such as addiction treatment and job training to “help them stay housed.”
Chavez said that as mayor, she wants to ensure that people experiencing homelessness receive access to services more quickly.
“We’ve got to get much, much faster… we have got to get to same day access,” she said.
“We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there,” she added.
Chavez’s mayoral opponent, Mahan, has expressed his support for Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently passed Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act, which created a new judicial framework where first responders and family members can petition a judge to order treatment for people experiencing severe mental illness or addiction.
While Chavez largely supports CARE Act and its new court systems, she said the state’s powers should extend further, especially in terms of conservatorship — court-appointed guardianship for adults deemed unable to care for themselves. The state’s current strict limitations on conservatorship constrain cities’ power to mandate treatment.
“My fear is that we are telling people that CARE Court’s going to be a solution when, in fact, we’ve not changed the rules around conservatorship enough to provide the ability to conserve someone—even when they so clearly, clearly cannot make decisions for themselves,” Chavez said.
While Chavez acknowledged lenient conservatorship laws had enabled abuse in the past, she also said that changes in legislation are necessary if CARE Court is going to be effective.
“What I think is the pendulum swung so far in one direction that it really has impeded our ability to help people that we know need the help,” Chavez said, adding that she hopes the city will invest in analyses that will better enable the judicial system and members of the public to intervene when someone needs care while still protecting that person’s civil rights.
Mahan told the Peninsula Press he supported 90-day periods of mandated care for people experiencing chronic homelessness and addiction. When asked if she agreed with that, Chavez said: “The city of San Jose doesn’t have the power to do that. That’s just, that’s not a real thing.”
“We need to build faster and more of everything”
Chavez supported Measure A, a $950 million housing bond passed in 2016, to provide funding for 4,800 affordable housing units across Santa Clara County. High inflation and increased building costs have slowed down housing projects in San Jose, and if elected mayor, Chavez said she wants “faster and more” affordable housing developments.
For people in a wide range of income brackets, housing affordability is a problem.
“You have to make $54 an hour here to be able to afford an apartment,” Chavez said.
“Measure A and all the work that we’re doing as a county is really imperative to stabilizing and sustaining people,” she added. “But the root cause is building more housing, making the permitting process move faster.”
She pointed to her time on the San Jose City Council when there were four opportunities each year to rezone properties for housing development. Now that chance comes annually. If elected mayor, she said she wants the city to make the rezoning process more accessible and efficient.
“We have to change those rules while we don’t slow down the pipeline,” she said.
To address the dearth of housing for professionals such as teachers, nurses, and firefighters, Chavez said, the overall housing shortage needs to be addressed.
“We need to build faster and more of everything,” she said.
She said that due to the high cost of living in San Jose, many working people are just a paycheck or two away from homelessness.
Part of that is ensuring reliable employment. Chavez urged San Jose, Santa Clara County and private entities to partner and create a jobs training consortium to help low-income individuals find jobs that provide mobility and stability rather than short-term employment. She cited Caltrans as a good example of an employer that trains new hires and after a provisional period evaluates them for possible permanent jobs.
Tailoring police responses to community needs
Chavez has campaigned for expanding the police force to respond to the growth of San Jose’s population.
“When I served on the city council 16 years ago, we had 200 more police officers…than we do today. We have 100,000 more people,” she said.
Chavez said the shrinking police force has meant longer wait times for responses to calls dealing with emergencies such as assaults or missing children.
“We used to get to those calls in less than ten minutes, and now we’re at 20,” she said. “So, there is no, in my opinion, no denying that we absolutely need to continue to restaff the police department.”
Chavez said she is conscious of the issue of systemic racism within the police force. Recent reporting by the Marshall Project, as well as state audits, found instances of bias and excessive force in the department.
The San Jose Police Officers’ Association and local civil rights activists have endorsed Chavez.
“That’s really important because to get both of those parties engaged, they have to trust that there’s going to be a process that they’re all going to be heard in,” she said.
She said that although changing the police culture will take time, she is excited for the opportunity to work with different coalitions “to decide what we want the culture of these institutions to be and then make it so.”
Working towards carbon neutrality in San Jose
Last November, the City of San Jose pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. While Chavez supports the goal, she points to two critical areas in which she believes progress must be made: energy storage and electric transportation.
“Becoming fossil free is going to be our ability to store energy,” Chavez said.
Chavez said she supports research and development of battery technology to support renewable energy’s storage and on-demand release. Without sufficient energy storage, guaranteeing the energy needed to power the region is not possible during periods of high demand or when renewable sources are unreliable, such as overnight or in winter.
However, energy storage is only half the battle. As of spring 2022, more than 50% of San Jose’s carbon emissions come from private automobiles or other transportation sources. Chavez pointed to the need for expanded electric transportation options.
“I want to support the infrastructure development for transportation, including making sure that we’re moving our Valley Transportation Authority’s bus fleet onto electric vehicles.”
According to data from the City of San Jose’s Vision Zero Task Force, 2022 is on track to be the deadliest year on record for traffic crash fatalities—including pedestrians and cyclists—since at least 2011.
Chavez said more enforcement was needed. “Something happened during Covid-19 where people started driving aggressive and angry, and without enforcement, people know that they’re not going to get pulled over,” Chavez said.
Editor: Hannah Bassett; Lead writer: Grace Doerfler; Contributors: Andrew Cao, Janelle Chavez, Alex Dakers, Mengyu Dong, Kalyn Epps, Shayna Freedman, Hannah Freitag, Alex Hughes, Malia Mendez, Evan Peng, Phoebe Quinton, Lisa Setyon, Savanna Stewart, Özge Terzioğlu, Gilare Zada, and Tracy Zhang.