Voters in San Jose’s District 6 face a stark decision in the city council runoff between a Green Party candidate and a nonpartisan incumbent who disagree on everything from rent control to development fees to one of the hottest button issues recently — the fate of San Jose’s single-family neighborhoods.
A biomedical engineer and Green Party candidate, Jake Tonkel, will square off against the incumbent and a nonpartisan, Dev Davis, in a battle to represent San Jose’s District 6, which includes the neighborhoods of Willow Glen and Rose Garden.
The outcome of this race — one of two city council runoffs taking place on Nov. 3 — could shift the balance of power on the city’s 11-member council from a six-person business-backed majority to a six or seven-person labor-backed majority, depending on the results of this race and the race of the District 4 seat between Berryessa Union School Board Member David Cohen and incumbent Lan Diep.
Tonkel, who has never served in public office, is backed by some of the city’s largest labor organizations like the South Bay Labor Council while Davis, who was elected to this seat in 2016, is supported largely by the city’s business organizations, such as the city’s largest chamber of commerce, the Silicon Valley Organization.
Tonkel, 29, is running because he feels “politics, as usual, isn’t working.”
He supports implementing a higher commercial linkage fee, averse to giving developers fee waivers — as the current council majority has repeatedly voted for — and takes pride in not being under the influence of “special interest groups.” He’s frustrated with the city’s slow pace of building affordable housing, its failure in meeting housing goals and the amount of sway he believes developers and realtors have in the city’s elections and politics.
“My community and I want to create change that fixes the problems that we are continually seeing not just use band-aids,” Tonkel said in a recent interview. “I want to address money in politics because that alters the representation that we have had in government for decades.”
Davis, 42, has historically voted in line with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the rest of the business-backed members on the council. During recent split votes on the council, she has voted to waive fees for developers and to put a measure on the ballot to give the mayor more power and two additional years in office — although the concept was later dropped.
In recent months, Davis has pushed for the city to work with outside agencies like Caltrans to address blight on their properties and advocated for the city to set aside additional funding through the end of the year to start cleaning up large illegal dumping sites.
“I’m not not going to be making any promises to people that are unrealistic given the times we are in and the limitation of our local city government,” Davis said.
Although she has raked in tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers and real estate companies, Davis refutes the idea that the donations have any influence on her and decisions that she makes on the dais. “I can’t be bought at all,” she said in a recent interview.
The candidate chosen to represent District 6 for the next four years will play an integral role in the shaping of the Diridon Station area, deciding on a community benefits package that Google will be required to provide in exchange for approval of its transit village project and updating the city’s general plan to potentially increase housing density in single-family neighborhoods.
In San Jose, 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes — significantly higher than both San Francisco at 37 percent and Los Angeles at 75 percent.
The city’s General Plan Task Force in August voted to recommend that the city council over the next two years study the potential for “opportunity housing” across the city, which would allow property owners to build up to four units on a single-family home site. Many residents in District 6, which encompasses some of the oldest and wealthiest single-family neighborhoods in the city, quickly took to social media and neighborhood groups to balk at the idea, with some residents claiming that the city was going to “wipe out single-family zoning.”
Tonkel, who supports the idea, says it’s not about “eliminating single-family zoning” but exploring “all the tools we can get in order to build affordable housing in our city.”
“We’re opening up the ability for our community to have a diverse type of homeownership and a diverse type of tenants within single-family neighborhoods,” he said. “Looking at maps all over the city, we already have these types of units on the edge of street corners, sprinkled through neighborhoods, and most families don’t even know they’re there.”
If elected, Tonkel said he would work to educate his constituents on what “opportunity zoning” would really look like and how it’s already discreetly present in neighborhoods across the city without ruining a way of life for residents.
Davis, on the other hand, supports increasing density in the city’s “urban villages,” which are designated development zones around public transit, but not in areas of the city outside of those zones.
“I understand the importance of our single-family home neighborhoods, how it promotes families and the quality of life, and I’ll fight to protect them while also fighting for housing in urban villages, near transit, where it makes it easier for people to get around,” Davis said in a recent interview.
In a 4-person race for the seat in the March primary, Davis raked in 13,175 votes while Tonkel brought in 7,596 votes. Davis has raised nearly double that of Tonkel on the campaign trail — $285,097 including a $5,000 personal loan compared to Tonkel’s $167,068 with about $10,000 in personal loans. Tonkel, however, slightly outraised Davis during the last reporting period.