SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - posted on bayarea.com on AUG 11, 2002

"Is San Jose blighted?"

- Mike Zapler

Mention urban blight and an array of images comes to mind: crack houses, boarded-up stores and vacant lots in places like South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit.

But in San Jose, city officials cite a different set of ills. To justify spending tens of millions of dollars to spruce up the city’s older neighborhoods, they’ve found blight in overgrown yards, shabby roofs, graffiti tags, and garages converted into bedrooms.

San Jose has decaying buildings and aging neighborhoods, and even the lesser problems detailed in the city’s blight study are eyesores by most definitions. But a Mercury News review of San Jose’s 160-page report – the work of consultants and inspectors who searched block by block for blight – raises questions about whether the conditions are severe enough to meet the requirements of state law.

City officials could soon find themselves defending contradictory claims: On one hand, as Gonzales often says, San Jose is a safe, livable city, but on the other hand, it has concluded that 20 neighborhoods are so blighted they “burden” the community.

The answer has huge implications for thousands of residents hoping to benefit from the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, an ambitious effort to pump $120 million from the redevelopment agency into what officials call neglected communities.

“Neighborhoods age and they need maintenance,” Mayor Ron Gonzales said. “This can best be done with redevelopment because the dollars are available there and not elsewhere.”

But to use redevelopment money, San Jose had to first declare those areas – one-tenth of the city with nearly one-third of its population – blighted.

Now that determination may wind up in court

In a likely prelude to a lawsuit, attorneys for a downtown property owner filed a complaint last month alleging that San Jose’s blight falls far short of the legal definition. Under state law, a neighborhood’s decay must be “so prevalent and so substantial” that it becomes “a serious physical and economic burden on the community” before it can be declared blighted. A city also must show that the blighted area can only be fixed through redevelopment.

City officials could soon find themselves defending contradictory claims: On one hand, as Gonzales often says, San Jose is a safe, livable city, but on the other hand, it has concluded that 20 neighborhoods are so blighted they “burden” the community.

Janet Kern, senior associate counsel for the redevelopment agency, predicted the blight report, written by Keyser Marston Associates, would withstand a legal challenge. “We have a lot of confident in how we did this,” she said. “There has been very little private investment in these areas, and we don’t think it will improve alone without the agency’s assistance.”

64,338 violations

A close look at the blight report shows that San Jose relied, in part, on code violations that may not be “serious,” as the law requires. The report also argues that the center of one of California’s wealthiest cities is economically depressed. And it highlights that the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative will not directly address much of what the city cites as blight. A key underpinning of the blight finding is some 64,338 code violations that city inspectors identified over four months in 2000 and 2001. Inspectors conducted the surveys from cars, making marks on survey sheets. The infractions are impossible to verify because inspectors did not note addresses.

But more than two-thirds of these violations were conditions that the city usually fixes through code enforcement. They include overgrown weeds, lack of landscaping and overflowing garbage.

The report notes more than 6,000 cases of graffiti and vandalism – an incidence of one in every five parcels – as further evidence of blight. But just months before the blight report was approved, San Jose officials touted an anti-graffiti program they said had reduced tags citywide by 85 percent.

Officials say the initiative will pay to add seven code inspectors to the current 56.

The report notes more than 6,000 cases of graffiti and vandalism – an incidence of one in every five parcels – as further evidence of blight. But just months before the blight report was approved, San Jose officials touted an anti-graffiti program they said had reduced tags citywide by 85 percent.

In many neighborhoods, the report mentions garages converted into living space as a condition of blight, saying they cause defective building design. But at the time inspectors conducted the survey, residents could legally convert their garages as long as they obtained a city permit.

“We didn’t research whether people had permits or not,” said Jamie Matthews, the city’s code enforcement manager, “but the vast majority looked like they didn’t.”

Economic blight

State law requires cities to make findings of economic as well as physical blight. In San Jose, that means showing that the core of a city that was until recently the envy of the world is now economically depressed. In the neighborhood initiative area, property values rose by 29 percent between 1996 and 2001. The blight report says the increase is “not the result of new building or rehabilitation activity,” but rather “inflated sales transactions.”

But inflated sales would seem to be a sign of economic vitality, not blight. The report also points to a lack of new building construction and business permits issued in the initiative area compared with the rest of san Jose. But most of the neighborhoods are well-established and predominantly residential, so one would not expect many news businesses to open there. Even so, there was a 19 percent increase in business licenses issued from 1997 to 2000, according to the city.

Crime rates are higher in the project area than citywide – 33 incidents per 1,000 people vs. 29 incidents per 1,000 people citywide in 1999. But proving that crime makes blight is difficult. San Jose has to show that criminal activity is so prevalent that it is a serious threat to safety.

The report also draws attention to the somewhat tenuous relationship between the blight San Jose cites and the goals of the neighborhoods initiative. The city says that overcrowded housing is a major problem. But according to Matthews, “it is not our intent to reduce the number of people living in homes.”

The initiative does allow the city to build affordable housing in a larger area, which could help ease overcrowding.

Some of the top neighborhood priorities include parks, community center and traffic control – important issues for residents, to be sure, but only tangentially related to the problems the report cites.

The mismatch between the blight San Jose identified and the programs residents are proposing is stark in some neighborhoods. In the Washington neighborhood, officials cite buildings too small to be developed, overcrowding and garage conversions as big problems. But neighborhood leaders want to build a park and recreation center, fix alleyways and sidewalks and alleviate bad drainage on one street.

Two tours last week of some neighborhoods in the initiative illustrate the challenge city officials face in backing up the blight finding. In Delmas Park, a fire-gutted building at the corner of Auzerais and Bird avenues is boarded up and fenced in – a noticeable contrast to the handsome homes across the street.

Down the street, car repair shops and a bar butt up against homes. Around the corner, piles of garbage litter a cul-de-sac of dilapidated homes. “I’d be totally stoked to see this cleaned up,” said Rich Maes, a contractor who lives in Delmas Park. “It’s an eyesore, to say the least.” But overt instances of blight are rare in much of the redevelopment area.

Room for improvement

The Edenvale neighborhood, also declared blighted, looks like a typical suburban community. With few exceptions, the streets are lined with clean, well-kept homes and the neighborhood park is beautiful. The King/Ocala neighborhood has more code infractions – cars parked on front lawns and yards without grass, among other eyesores – but appears to be a livable, though lower-income, area.

Still, there is wide consensus that these 20 neighborhoods could use improvements. And community leaders, who worry that a lawsuit could derail two years of work, applaud San Jose for spreading the redevelopment agency’s money around.

“It sounds a little like creative financing,” said University neighborhood leader Lisa Jensen. “But it’s a great thing. The more opportunities neighborhoods like ours have for funding, the better.”

Councilman Chuck Reed, the lone vote against the initiative, thinks the city’s blight report will not stand up in court. He said the city erred by insisting on the power of eminent domain in the expanded area, inviting a lawsuit.

“Don’t get me wrong, the neighborhoods need these improvements,” said Reed, a lawyer who is the only council member without an initiative neighborhood in his district. “But people who are upset about eminent domain are looking for ways to attack this, and the weakness is the blight report. I’ve read the case law. Ugly ain’t bad enough.”