Arjun Batra’s best asset

San Jose Councilmember Arjun Batra is new to politics and said he doesn’t think like a politician — but that’s what he feels is his best asset.

Batra’s background doesn’t include the typical long-running list of political positions — instead, he is a retired Intel executive and software engineer who forayed into government a few years ago after working for former Mayor Sam Liccardo’s Office of Technology and innovation. Now that he’s entered the political fray, Batra said his goal is to address slow government processes and to give back to the South San Jose and Almaden neighborhoods where he’s lived in the same house since 1987.

“I’m not here to make any money. I’m not here as a stepping stone for another job like mayor,” Batra told San José Spotlight. “My only goal is to make San Jose a little better than how we found it.”

Arjun Batra wins last seat on San Jose City Council

The city council appointed Batra to the open District 10 seat after his predecessor, Matt Mahan, left to serve as mayor. Unlike his fellow freshman councilmembers, Batra has only been in office for five months and his term ends next year. He plans to run for re-election and is focused on tackling bigger goals, including increasing the city’s housing stock, improving public transit, and addressing public safety — particularly around schools.

The growing homeless and housing crisis is what motivated Batra to serve on the council. On his first day on the job, he set up tours at temporary housing sites to understand the plight of those living on the street. Batra choked on his words recounting his conversations with some of the homeless residents he encountered.

“One woman said she was grateful the city gave her the shelter and was feeling almost so confident that within a short time, she is going to be able to move out of this place,” Batra said. “She said ‘Once I get out of this place and I have my own place I’m going to come back here and volunteer to help the people who are in similar situations.’ It just really moved me.”

Unplugging backlogs

Batra regularly meets with city administrators to find ways to speed up the city’s permitting and housing development process, which has become increasingly backlogged over the years.

Outgoing Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand said Batra is more engaged than most council members and seeks to understand the city’s complicated financing system. He’s particularly focused on speeding up housing development with more affordable rents to lower the overall cost of living.

“He’s making suggestions and wants to figure out how he can be effective in the whole housing conversation,” Morales-Ferrand told San José Spotlight. “He also has an open mind and for a councilmember, it’s good that he is still saying “I’m interested in learning” versus I already have a position.”

Behind the scenes

Batra said most of his work as a council member is behind the scenes. He’s introduced and collaborated on 11 memos so far. As a former member of the Measure T Oversight Committee, he took the lead to ensure tax dollars were prioritized to build more fire stations — as the 2018 voter-approved measure intended. He also worked on opening the city’s safe parking site at a South San Jose VTA lot and is exploring policy to reduce the number of cars the city tows — about 4,600 a year — by encouraging people to request junkyard pickups that may pay for car parts.

Batra said residents tell him they care deeply about making streets safer. In response, he approved 15 new speed bumps across his district, repainted certain streets to make them appear narrower, and placed speed radars to encourage slower driving.

More crossing guards added

In this year’s budget, Batra secured 10 new school crossing guards and $190,000 to add more lights in the Hoffman Via Monte area. He’s working on creating bike routes so children and parents can safely ride to school campuses.

He also secured $150,000 to host the district’s annual 4th of July fireworks show at Almaden lake — one of the several community events held by his office.

Richard Sanders, a member of the Almaden Senior Association, said he appreciated Batra’s candor and sincere efforts to listen to community concerns.

Politically, Batra is best described as a moderate, though his votes are not always predictable or align with any one particular side. He said he doesn’t have go-to allies on the council because he tries to work with everyone to find the best solutions for San Jose.

“He always has information about what’s going on, he is straightforward and he has grown a lot into this role since I met him in February,” Sanders told San José Spotlight.

This article was first published in the San Jose Spotlight
This article is part of a San José Spotlight series examining the newest San Jose council members and their first six months in office.