Perhaps, no other single issue — except for the COVID-19 pandemic — has provoked as much debate and angst in the Bay Area as its housing and the homeless crisis.
So the region’s most populous city is turning to a podcast in hopes of educating more residents about the context surrounding the issues and unpacking the topics in a way that’s easier to grasp.
Launched this month by the San Jose Housing Department, the new podcast, called Dwellings explains convoluted housing policies and proposals and informs residents about the work the agency is doing to address the city’s homeless population and build more affordable housing.
And it has wasted no time wading into contentious waters.
So far, the department has aired two episodes of Dwellings — the first centered around Santa Clara County’s Community Plan to End Homelessness and the second, released this week, explored a controversial concept that San Jose refers to as “opportunity housing,” which would change the city’s zoning code to allow for duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes on a single-family lot.
In San Jose, it’s currently illegal to construct anything other than a single-family home on 94% of the city’s residential land. Opportunity housing would effectively wipe out that city law and traditional single-family zoning.
The cities of Minneapolis and Portland and the state of Oregon have all recently passed regulations that eliminated traditional single-family zoning in recent years. The cities of Sacramento, Berkeley and Tacoma, Washington are moving forward with similar plans.
While housing advocates across California view opportunity housing and the densification of single-family neighborhoods as a promising way to boost “missing middle” housing stock for moderate-income earners, many homeowners fear the zoning shift would decrease property values, create parking shortages and cause an overall knock to their quality of life and neighborhood character.
In this week’s episode, podcast host Alli Rico spoke with Michael Lane, state policy director for the public policy nonprofit SPUR and a South San Jose resident, about what opportunity housing entails. They discussed how single-family zoning has perpetuated the exclusion of lower-income people and people of color from certain neighborhoods over time and how organizations like SPUR are trying to change public opinion around the densification of single-family neighborhoods.
Rico, who acknowledges that as a city housing staffer she supports additional housing in San Jose, at one point during the podcast asks Lane: “How do we as government employees, as advocates, as nonprofits change that conversation so it’s a more positive conversation?”
Lane offered ideas like ensuring strict design standards are in place and working to educate residents through public outreach and podcasts like Dwellings that “it doesn’t have to be scary.”
“We’re not trying to harm people’s lives, we’re actually trying to help create a more healthy way of living in the world,” Lane said.
Despite the highly-debated topic of the podcast’s second episode, Rico, who also serves as a content specialist with the city’s housing department, said she hopes that residents opposed to opportunity housing “wouldn’t feel offended by the episode.”
The show, she said, is meant to make it easier for residents to get up to speed on homeless and housing issues in their communities and to feel empowered to get involved.
“Housing is a pretty significant issue in the Bay Area, nationally too, but it’s also really complicated and definitely not the easiest thing to understand at times,” Rico said. “So we really wanted to create something that would provide residents with information that was a little bit easier to digest than say reading a council memo.”
Lee Clark’s experience living on the street gives him the expertise required to help nonprofits like @DSTNHome help unhoused residents.
— San José Housing Dept. (@sjcityhousing) February 16, 2021
By the end of each episode, Rico said her goal is for residents to “feel a little bit more empowered.”
“We hope that they can finish the episode, walk away and say ‘I’m going to listen to a city council meeting and provide input,’” she said.
The first season of the podcast will run through April 1, with new episodes released every Thursday. Each episode will feature conversations with experts from local nonprofits and staff within the city’s housing department.
Jennifer Loving, CEO of the housing nonprofit Destination: Home, was featured on the first episode along with Lee Clark, a formerly unhoused resident who now aids nonprofits like Destination: Home with outreach to the city’s homeless residents.
Loving, who has served as a housing advocate in the South Bay for years, said residents are constantly asking the city to solve its homeless and housing affordability crises, but that when projects are proposed around them, they “fight with all their will to stop them.” She hopes that continued education, such as the city’s new Dwelling podcast, might help reverse that trend.
“Hopefully, this podcast will allow for differing opinions and perspectives about what’s going to be the right solutions,” Loving said in an interview. “And for the people who listen, I think it could allow for some centering around the facts.”
This is not the first podcast produced by the city of San Jose. The city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services this summer unleashed a podcast, called “A Walk in the Park,” to educate residents on what was going on behind the scenes and in the city’s parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Five episodes of the podcast were released during the summer and fall.
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