January 31, 2020

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo on why his city is the coolest in America

The mayor says a combination of innovation, collaboration, and Eggo Waffles are a few reasons that San Jose is so special.

In the spirit of collaboration, Mayor Sam Liccardo high-fives Andrea Mackenzie, General Manager of Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. Photo courtesy Peninsula Open Space Trust.

While Mayor Sam Liccardo has accomplished a lot since he first took office in 2015, the Santa Clara County native still has big goals he wants to achieve during the rest of his tenure, which ends in 2022. This includes tackling the city’s housing crisis, which he’s approached by collaborating with big businesses, nonprofits, and the citizens of San Jose.

We spoke with the mayor about innovation, diversity, and that crucial spirit of collaboration in San Jose, and why he believes that those factors make the tenth largest city in the country also it’s coolest. But no matter the issue or topic put before him, Liccardo believes that one of the greatest challenges for mayors is “to just keep forging ahead.”

You can follow the mayor on Twitter at @sliccardo. This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

In your Twitter bio, you say San Jose is the coolest City. I’m guessing you’re a little biased, but what makes you think that San Jose is the one to take that title over any other city?

How long do you have for this call? There aren’t many places in the world where we can say that people come from all over the planet to create a community that is the most innovative
in the country. One objective measure of that is we have the highest rate of patent authorship than any other city in the country, by a large margin.

Diversity can create challenges in many communities, but in San Jose it works incredibly well, and we certainly have our own challenges, but I wouldn’t trade our difficulties for those of any other cities.

What would you say is your city’s most underutilized resource that could be used to overcome challenges?

The most underutilized resource, I think for San Jose and for many cities throughout the country, is the silver tsunami. I’ve got thousands of credibly experienced, skilled people who are retiring every year who are looking for a way to contribute, give back, and to continue to participate in building their community in some way and none of us are taking advantage of those opportunities enough.

What was the job that prepared you the most for becoming mayor and what surprised you once you took office?

I was a criminal prosecutor here in San Jose and I prosecuted in the sexual assault unit in the DA’s office. We had many victims who had been through horrible, traumatic events. The job taught me how to listen, how to hear someone’s pain without being able to fully understand the trauma that they’ve experienced, and allow that to inform me while I then go about a job that I have to take on with objectivity.

We cover nonprofits a lot at The Renewal Project. What do you see as the role of nonprofits in San Jose?

It’s twofold. One role is to do an awful lot of heavy lifting and of course, we know how nonprofits do a lot of heavy lifting throughout the country, but particularly in San Jose because we have the most thinly staffed City Hall of any major city in the nation. So we lean very heavily on our nonprofit community to, for example, run many of our community centers.

The second major role I see for nonprofits lies in being thought partners and thought leaders. A huge challenge for lots of cities in California is the coordination between the city and the county in addressing homelessness. Counties in California handle health, meaning mental health and drug rehab. Cities tend to be in the development business. Coordinating all that when you’re trying to get permanent, supportive housing built along with services and other efforts that you’re undertaking is difficult

Whatever it is you’re doing you really need to have everybody working together. For many years we didn’t work together and a nonprofit by the name of Destination: Home has really helped to bring the city and county together with other nonprofits to ensure that we’re not tripping over each other, that we are breaking down barriers to share data and to share resources, and most importantly setting common goals and aligning policies.

Destination: Home has also helped us secure resources. For example, I got a phone call from the CEO of Cisco, Chuck Robbins, saying, I want to help you do something about homelessness. What can I do? And I said great we need your money! He said, we want to understand the situation first. The first thing I did was call Jennifer Loving at Destination: Home and he sat down with her and she was all about focusing on solutions and how we can do things differently. Chuck got excited about thinking more innovatively about how we can tackle this problem and a few weeks later he made a commitment of $50 million and then subsequently made another $20 million commitment to another nonprofit.

In your first term you unveiled your Smart City Vision to make San Jose the most innovative city in America by 2020. It’s 2020! Have you achieved your goal?

My Chief Innovation Officer, Shireen Santosham, and I were just talking about this. [Editor’s note: Santosham has since left the role of Chief Innovation Officer.] Recently, The Center for Digital Government named us the second best digital city. [Editor’s note: It placed second to San Diego.] And of course, we took that with extraordinary disappointment, but really a great sense of accomplishment because of where we started.

When I took over in 2015, we had emerged from the Great Recession and we were still hurting as a city. So I came in with a commitment of the two things I was going to do about it. One of those was to force us to be much more outward facing and leverage the creativity and technology of the incredible community around us, Silicon Valley. Secondly, we were going to really invest in data and technology as a force multiplier.

We had to address a lot of tech debt and a lot of old systems that were stuck together with chewing gum and staples. We had to make some big investments in software, but most importantly we had to make some big investments in people. What was refreshing to see was how employees at City Hall really yearned for this innovation. They wanted to better utilize data and be more responsive to residents.

We just launched the nation’s first digital inclusion fund to close the digital divide. We’re ensuring that our low-income students in many of our communities can get the broadband access they need to achieve academically and succeed economically.

We are increasingly using data now to really help us save lives. We’re trying to identify those apartments that are most at risk of fire and other life safety risks, and we’re using predictive analytics with very sophisticated algorithms to help us identify where code inspectors should go first and what they should most be focused on to identify safety risks in homes. It’s a huge challenge for us because we are so badly under staffed and now we’re dramatically improving our ability to identify those parcels where families are most at risk. That goes back to my original point, which is why we’re the coolest city!

What’s the next big thing you’re tackling as mayor that you want to get done before you leave office?

We’re spending a lot of our time, as you’ve probably guessed on affordable housing and homelessness. It’s a giant challenge here. We’ve got a lot of things brewing, but one additional I think is particularly interesting is how we could dramatically reduce the cost of building affordable housing. Today if you were to build a 100-unit apartment complex in the city of San Jose, it will cost you about $700,000 per unit to construct it. That’s how bad construction costs are out here. So if you’re going to subsidize it so it’s rent restricted and affordable, that’s more than $200,000 of public money for every unit. That’s not a way we’re going to conquer this crisis, in which I’ve got more than 6,000 homeless residents in my city.

What we’re launching is a backyard home initiative, where we’re identifying parcels throughout the city, 121,000 single-family parcels. We’ve surveyed residents and homeowners and we think about 30 percent of them are willing to build a backyard home.

It doesn’t even need to be that high for us to achieve dramatic expansion of affordable housing and we’re working on ways with prefabricated modular construction where we could build backyard homes at a much lower cost. We’re waiving fees, streamlining the process and creating incentives to help homeowners who want to build these if they’re willing to restrict the rent to make it affordable.

We love talking to mayors about what they’re reading. What book are you reading now, or have recently read, that you would recommend to other people?

Oh gosh, this is going to bore the heck out of you. I’m reading The Grid, by Gretchen Bakke, which is a book about the world’s largest machine, which is our electricity grid, and the challenges of sustaining it. Now, I wouldn’t recommend that for every cocktail party. I’ll also add Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation, for those who are interested in contemplative meditation.

What is your favorite place to hang out in San Jose when you’re not on the clock?

I’ll say either walking with my wife or running through Backesto Park, which is a park that’s a block or two from my home. It’s actually a park my dad played baseball at 70 years ago.

I love Backesto Park because any given Saturday afternoon if I’m able to take a run, I’ll hear four or five different languages spoken and see people of all ages enjoying public space. In a time when too many of our children and adults are glued to their devices and communicating in every form except in the human form, it is refreshing and joyful to see people out and enjoying their 300 days of sunshine a year in Backesto Park.

I heard that burnt almond cake is a San Jose specialty. Is that true? And do you have a favorite bakery that makes this cake?

Yeah, Mayors aren’t allowed to give their favorite places because it’s trouble. First I’m going to answer your question and then I’m not going to answer your question. So the answer is yes we have great burnt almond cake.

But here’s a long-winded story for you: There are two competing, rival bakeries in San Jose for burnt almond cake. One is named Peter’s. The other is named Dick’s. And here’s the funny thing—they’re brothers and they’re on opposite sides of town. One is on the West side, one is on the East side and there’s a whole lot of intrigue about the families and their rivalry. But those are the two great sources of burnt almond cake in the universe and they’re located just a few miles away from each other here in San Jose.

But can I brag for a moment about other important food innovations here in San Jose? This goes back to why San Jose is cool: The Eggo waffle was invented in San Jose and fruit cocktail was also invented here. I should also note that the garlic fry was introduced by a San Jose company, Gordon Biersch.

Well now, I’m getting hungry for dinner! I’m sure you are too. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.