Racial tensions overshadow hearing on affordable project

City Hall

Racial tensions and segregation concerns over an affordable housing proposal on the west side added to an already chaotic public hearing Tuesday, as city council members repeatedly traded barbs with speakers and fostered an open, heated dialogue that defied open-meeting rules.

As tensions rose, Councilwoman Pauline Valdivia referred to speakers as unprofessional, lectured project opponents for calling prospective low-income neighbors “them” or “those people,” and responded about residents’ references to multiple-family homes with illegal immigrants by saying officials “don’t know” if people on Hollister’s west side are undocumented and that the city is “not the INS patrol.”

The hearing was an appeal, filed by neighborhood critic Jane Dabo Cruz, to the planning commission’s September approval of the Community Services Development Corp. proposal. Officially, opponents were appealing the architectural and site review, though the discussion touched on a range of concerns about traffic, parking, lacking notices to neighbors and property values. Most opponents claimed the buildings would be out of character in the mostly single-family-home neighborhood.

The project at 560 Line St. is on 0.82 acres and calls for two, three-story buildings with a total of 15 units.

Valdivia’s immigration-related comments were a response to two speakers among the 12 people who shared input.

The first of those two was a neighborhood resident, Angela Hagins, an educator who said she had been a liaison for homeless and foster students at R.O. Hardin School on the west side. She pointed to statistics showing most families there are low income and “double or tripled up” in homes. Hagins contended “so many” are immigrants and “probably not legal,” noting that they might be leery about even applying for the housing.

Another speaker later referenced Hagins’ comment about illegal immigrants and contended officials haven’t put together a plan for balanced housing.

That other speaker was Marty Richman, who writes a weekly column for the Free Lance. After public commenting was done, Valdivia spoke and singled out Richman for mentioning an illegal immigration population.

“I think Marty said that the people are illegal,” Valdivia said. “We don’t know if they are or not. We are not the INS (immigration and naturalization services) patrol. I’m sorry. We are not the INS patrol. No, I know what you were referring to.”

Watching from the seats among the crowd after he had spoken, Richman took exception and interjected. A verbal exchange ensued.

“Don’t pick on me!” Richman shouted from his seat.

Valdivia responded, “No, I’m just saying.”

“Don’t pick on me!” he went on. “I’m really angry because you’re not telling the truth.”

“OK, so anyway,” Valdivia reiterated, “we don’t know if it’s illegal people anyway. But anyway, I took offense to that.” 

“I took offense to that!” Richman said. “I took offense to you accusing me. The teacher brought that up.”

Their argument spurred Mayor Ray Friend to halt the meeting and call for a five-minute break, from which council members returned and voted 3-1 to approve the project and deny the appeal. Friend had the dissenting vote, while Councilman Victor Gomez was absent.

Richman had a chance to speak again, though, and called Valdivia a “racist.” He criticized her statement – that she was offended by speakers’ perspective there are illegal immigrants on the west side – and alleged she was trying to paint others as discriminatory.

The fiery exchange between Valdivia and Richman was just one segment in Tuesday’s saga. It also was the sixth and final time in which council members exchanged dialogue with speakers during the public hearing, which is intended simply for residents to share their insights.

City Attorney Stephanie Atigh at one point spoke up and warned, “This is the public’s opportunity to speak – it is not their time to be asking council members questions.”

During the break, and before the microphones were turned off, Valdivia’s voice was audible as she talked to Friend.

“This thing about going back and forth, it should not happen,” Valdivia said lightly, still seated at the dais during the break’s commotion. “We’re having a hearing.”

On four of the council’s six exchanges with the public, Friend was involved. After Dabo Cruz was the first speaker at the podium, Friend responded and expressed one of the common criticisms from council members at the meeting – that opponents hadn’t attended prior public gatherings leading up to the appeal, such as hearings before the 2005 general plan adoption that set the guidelines allowing high-density residential in that neighborhood.

“I don’t believe you were ever at a general plan meeting and I don’t believe you were ever at previous planning commission meetings where other ideas were turned down because they were eyesores to that neighborhood,” said Friend, reacting to her statement describing the new, low-income building on Fourth Street nearby as, “what an eyesore.”

They continued exchanging thoughts, as she claimed the city gave inadequate notice for related meetings.

Another speaker later criticized Friend for his treatment of Dabo Cruz. Marvin Jones, chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee, called it “very unprofessional.”

“The first speaker, Ms. Cruz,” Jones said, “rather than attacking her message, you got very personal. That’s not professional.”

He went on: “I think you were very unprofessional. I’m disappointed and a little bit angry.”

Close to the hearing’s end, Friend offered an apology.

“If I offended some people, I’m sorry,” said Friend, a former city planning commissioner. “But I feel very strongly about these committees that spend a lot of time going through this process to come up with a decision – then we have to reverse it or we have the opportunity to reverse it. It just kind of slaps everybody in the face.”

Also during council members’ final comments before the vote, Valdivia referred to low-income families in pronouncing that “people need to live somewhere” and alluded to words used by speakers.

“Also, talking about professionalism,” she said, “I think we need to refer to people as ‘families’ and not refer to them as ‘those people’ or ‘them.’ I think that’s really important.”

Residents point to project design, demographics

Such tensions became an overriding backdrop to a hearing where residents and officials debated over an array of serious issues.

Speakers contended that the city has focused its affordable housing efforts on the west side, aggravating existing poverty in that section of town and further segregating Hispanic residents from other ethnic groups. 

Hagins, the educator, said many homes of people she knows include eight to 12 people crammed into 500 square feet, and that 90 percent of students at the school are on the free or reduced lunch program. She argued that having most low-income units on one side of the city – which council members denied was the case, citing such examples as a 100-unit affordable project near Ladd Lane School – has “segregated our town terribly.”

“At some point,” she said, “our city has to become responsible and make choices that help desegregate our town and help balance this out.” 

Sharry Jones was among the neighbors who criticized the city from another planning perspective. She contended that the general plan – despite the document designating her area for high-density residential – also states that new structures must fit the neighborhood’s existing character. Houses nearby are all one-story homes, she said.

“It looks like you put a 2012 building among homes from the 40s and 50s,” Jones said.

Some critics also expressed concerns about parking. Helen Rose is age 81 and has lived across the street from the site since 1965.

“There’s no parking, period,” she said. “Are you listening – really?”

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