SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - posted on on JULY 27, 2002

"Blight claims in San Jose don't ring true"

- Joe Rodriguez

Something just didn’t sound right when San Jose declared one-third of itself blighted.

I mean, if our city is so run-down physically or economically, why are home prices still going up so fast, even in poorer neighborhoods? Why does the city’s population continue to grow? Why is ours the safest city in America year after year? Do our crooks do their crimes in Palo Alto?

Clearly, my San Jose didn’t square with the redevelopment agency’s San Jose. The agency wants to spend $120 million to eliminate blight and promote economic development in 20 neighborhoods covering 10,000 acres. Even after you subtract the non-blighted properties, that’s still a lot of blight.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that San Jose isn’t that blighted. I’m happy to report that somebody is finally saying so.

Elaine Evans owns property in a redevelopment area downtown. Like many others, she fears the agency’s power of eminent domain to seize property in redevelopment zones.

“You don’t know which properties they’ll grab when they have the authority,” she says.

One point (O'Brien and Kelleher) hammer on was the agency's failure to identify even one unsafe or unhealthy building, a key requirement for blight under state law.

Loose definition

Meanwhile, she’s hired two lawyers, Colleen O’Brien and Daniel Kelleher, who specialize in defending property owners. They’ve written a letter challenging the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, as San Jose’s redevelopment scheme is called.

Basically, they argue the redevelopment agency has failed to find any physical or economic blight defined by state law and instead used the city’s looser – and therefore impermissible – definition of urban blight.

One point the two lawyers hammer on was the agency’s failure to identify even one unsafe or unhealthy building, a key requirement for blight under state law.

It’s a reasonable requirement. Otherwise, redevelopment agencies could cite a broken window here, a cracked sidewalk there, overcrowding around the block and broken toilets half a mile away. Add them all up and presto! Suddenly a whole neighborhood’s blighted, on paper anyway.

I wondered if San Jose’s redevelopment agency was up to such a scam to justify its existence, empire building and fat salaries, so I called spokeswoman Peggy Flynn.

I asked for the address of one building found to be blighted according to state law.

“What do you mean?”

I mean a building that’s unsafe or unhealthy for the people living or working there. That’s what state law says. I looked it up myself after reading what Evans’ lawyers wrote.

“We have many of those buildings,” Flynn said.

All I need is one.

“I’m not going to give you an address.”

Why not?

“It wasn’t that kind of survey,” Flynn said. “We were looking for the prevalence of blight in neighborhoods. We’re not going to single out a building. Just because there’s one blighted building doesn’t mean the whole neighborhood is blighted.”

Still looking

Maybe not, I said, but it seems reasonable to expect the agency to find at least one building that meets the state’s definition of blight.

“I’m not saying there are a lot of buildings,” Flynn said. “I’m saying there’s a lot of evidence of blight in those neighborhoods.”

Wait! Didn’t I just hear that you had found many of those buildings?

“I don’t know why you’re picking on a single address.”

Because those two lawyers are picking on it, and I think they’re right to pick on it.

“You’ll have to look at the blight report,” Flynn said. “There are lots of pictures of blight in it.”

But I want to see a building for myself. Just one would do. Can you look at the blight report for an address?

“OK, I’ll call you back.”

She never did. Who knows, maybe she’s still looking for the address.
And maybe blight in San Jose exists mostly in the imagination of an arrogant redevelopment agency.