Although all redevelopment agencies in California are required to consult local residents, San Jose goes far beyond that mandate.
Through its Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI), San Jose takes a grassroots approach to neighborhood improvement. In many communities, citizen advisory committees generally attract participants who are already familiar with how local government works. SNI’s model opens the process to a wider range of residents and lets them set the agenda.
SNI’s mission is to create affordable housing, clean neighborhoods, vital business districts, and safe and attractive streets, parks, and community centers in San Jose’s redevelopment project areas. Working in 19 neighborhoods that comprise nearly a quarter of the city, SNI employs community organizers who help residents articulate their wants and needs for the neighborhood, which are incorporated into the city’s planning. The community organizers bring residents into contact with city workers from a range of departments.
This in itself isn’t unusual, as redevelopment agencies regularly collaborate with other government departments. What is unusual is the degree to which residents are seen as an equal partner, rather than an obstacle.
In addition to bringing the city government to neighborhoods, community organizers also “bring the city back to city hall,” says Kip Harkness, who managed SNI from its inception in 2000 until 2006 and is now a senior project manager at the San Jose Redevelopment Agency.
“SNI has really pushed the city on community engagement,” he says. “There’s a new level of consistent expectation that community members will be actively involved in decisions that affect their lives.”
Funding and technical support for communities
Each SNI neighborhood is represented by a Neighborhood Advisory Council, an informal group of community members that meets monthly to discuss local issues, set top priorities for revitalization, and give input as projects proceed. Redevelopment dollars fund neighborhood priorities that have been adopted into the city’s redevelopment plan.
SNI is exceptional because in addition to securing funding from redevelopment and other sources, it provides a great deal of technical support to residents, enabling them to become more directly involved in the planning and execution of new projects. The culture of SNI fosters a cooperative relationship between community members and the city, says Harkness. “It’s civil—there’s a welcoming form of dialogue,” he says. “If you go after city employees with a baseball bat, they’ll put on helmets and fight. But if you invite city staff to a party, they get the point. That’s been fundamental to SNI’s success.”
SNI’s accomplishments are visible in the form of community centers, parks, new streetlights, traffic calming, new housing, and improvements to existing homes and businesses. SNI’s investments have also had measurable economic benefits: the appreciation of homes in the SNI area far outpaces that in the rest of the city. Its projects have improved the quality of life, increased social capital and a sense of neighborhood pride in neighborhoods, and decreased crime. According to a 2007 report by Siefel Consulting, an economic consulting firm, SNI’s work has “fundamentally changed the way residents view themselves and their neighborhoods.”