San Jose’s plan to build tiny cottages for the homeless ran into vocal opposition, with people at one meeting literally chanting “build a wall” to block out the impoverished.
Weak public outreach by City Hall and backlash from residents resulted in the number of potential sites shrinking from 99 to four, then three and now, potentially, two.
San Jose’s elected leaders now have to figure out how to salvage the project, which originally aimed to house 250 people at 10 sites—25 people in each City Council district. The council on Tuesday will consider ideas on how to move the plan forward.
In a memo released Friday, Mayor Sam Liccardo recommends meeting the original goal of building 10 villages, but to start with a few to model the concept. Gensler, a world-renowned architectural firm, offered to donate its design expertise.
“Residents justifiably have many concerns about how a homeless housing project could impact their neighborhood,” Mayor Liccardo wrote in a proposal co-signed by Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and council members Raul Peralez, Chappie Jones and Sylvia Arenas. “Yet more than 4,000 homeless residents already live in our neighborhoods—in our streets, parks, and creeks. Living outside subjects each of those individuals—and the entire community— to extraordinary risk of harm. Our neighborhoods will be far safer, cleaner, and more livable if these same individuals have housing.”
Liccardo wants city staff to come up with a list of sites within two months and to demonstrate a “proof of concept” for the so-called “bridge housing communities.” Seattle started with just 28 tiny homes on one site managed by a nonprofit, he pointed out. After proving success for two years, more sites were built.
Meanwhile, the mayor added, City Hall needs to come up with a better way to engage the public about homeless housing. Residents need to have a chance to weigh in, he said, but they also need to understand more about the needs underlying these projects.
Plus, last year’s voter approval of hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing funds for the homeless—on the ballot as Measure A—means the public has to accept the fact that more low-income, transitional and supportive housing needs to get built.
“This merely marks the beginning of many difficult conversations with our community about how and where we can house our neediest residents in the city of San Jose,” Liccardo wrote. “Our failure to successfully engage our community now will mean that our voters’ approval of $700 million of Measure A funding for homeless housing will go for naught.”
A second memo from council members Sergio Jimenez and Johnny Khamis suggests eliminating all city-owned land from the list and placing a pilot tiny homes village on a single privately owned site away from residential neighborhoods. They also propose forming a citywide task force on homelessness—much like the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force—to bring together a broad coalition of stakeholders to tackle the issue for years to come.
“Our homeless population is vast and diverse, as are its needs,” Jimenez and Khamis wrote. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this problem. The root causes of homelessness are decades in the making, from the defunding of mental health institutions by the federal government to the ever-rising cost of living in the Bay Area. Because the problem we face is immense and complicated, we should be innovative and resilient in our approach.”
Tiny homes are one of many ways Silicon Valley is trying to deal with its growing population of homeless residents. The most recent census put the number of homeless people in San Jose on a given night at 4,350. Seventy-four percent of them are unsheltered and 28 percent have been homeless for years. The state law that sanctions tiny home villages sunsets in five years, which means local governments must act quickly to take advantage of the option.
In the past five years, San Jose’s housing division has managed to fund only 500 permanent supportive housing units. Meanwhile, the number of unsheltered children, families and young adults continues to rise. As does the homeless death toll, which saw a 164 percent increase from 2011 to 2016, according to a recently released report by Santa Clara County’s Medical Examiner-Coroner.
Phil Mastrocola, co-founder of Winter Faith Collaborative, a collective of dozens of religious congregations that help the homeless, said the outrage expressed at public meetings about tiny homes stemmed not only from concerns about property values and crime, but also from a lack of understanding about what the project entails.
“It’s important to engage the community from the very beginning,” Mastrocola said. “The attitude in this case was for people to get up and yell. Nobody was asking questions.”
But he’s hopeful that the city will be able to advance the plan, especially if it involves dedicating a task force to the cause.
“It’s a hugely complex problem, and there are no easy answers,” he said. “But I think we can do this.”
More from the San Jose City Council agenda for August 29, 2017:
- The city expects to pay $700,000 to settle a police brutality lawsuit. The federal case stems from the 2015 DUI arrest of Eliel Paulino, who was pummeled with baton strikes by San Jose police as he laid face down on the ground after a fall. A bystander caught the beating on video and a federal jury ruled in favor of Paulino after a trial this past July. Of that settlement, $450,000 will go to Paulino and the rest to attorney fees.
- San Jose plans to renew its declaration of a local emergency because it’s still dealing with the fallout from the February floods, which left hundreds of people displaced. The emergency declaration allows the city to qualify for state and federal funds and provide continued assistance to the households that haven’t yet recovered from the disaster.
WHAT: City Council meets
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260