UPDATE: On Tuesday, the City Council voted in favor of zoning changes to allow churches and other places of assembly to house homeless people throughout the year. A proposal to build affordable housing in Willow Glen for teachers was denied.—Editor
Faced with burgeoning homeless population, particularly among children and young adults, San Jose will consider changing up its zoning rules to allow for more shelters. At its first meeting back from summer recess, the City Council will debate whether to permit any existing assembly place—churches, community centers and meeting halls, for example—to house people year-round.
Two linked proposals are coming before the council. One would allow assembly buildings take in up to 30 homeless people for three months twice a year. The other would allow them to shelter up to 50 people year-round as long as the building’s primary use remains for assembly. The council unanimously approved the latter at its last meeting in June, but the city is now considering easing up a prior condition that would have set a 150-foot buffer between incidental shelters and residential homes.
“I believe requiring such a large setback for the permit exception may miss the intended purpose of this ordinance,” Councilman Don Rocha warned in a memo to his colleagues.
Jolene Jones, co-founder of the homeless charity Winter Faith Collaborative, called the proposal unprecedented.
“This is truly historic,” she told San Jose Inside. “I searched and searched, but couldn’t find any other city in the nation that has a shelter ordinance that is as robust as the one we’re seeing here in San Jose.”
The proposal stemmed from a grassroots effort prompted in 2015 by a showing of the locally produced film Exodus from the Jungle, which documented the city’s dismantling of Silicon Valley’s biggest homeless camp.
“Basically, we had a discussion about what to do,” Jones said. “We were asking ourselves, ‘Are we people of faith or aren’t we? Are we going to open our doors or aren’t we?’”
The resulting initiative came to be called the Winter Faith Collaborative, which has since rallied more than 75 religious groups to shelter 700 homeless people. This past year, the coalition launched a year-round rotating shelter network, Village House, that houses 15 women at a dozen sites throughout the South Bay. It has also opened up parking lots at nine different places of worship for homeless people to spend the night, several daytime warming centers and a year-round shelter for 12 people.
If the city approves the zoning changes this Tuesday, Jones said, the Winter Faith Collaborative would be able to ramp up its efforts throughout the city.
“This will literally open the doors to so many more options,” she said.
The zoning changes, which the Planning Commission OK’d in a 5-0-2 vote in June, come as the region grapples with a growing population of homeless youth and families.
According to the latest point-in-time census, which took place over two days in January, the number of houseless kids and young adults in Silicon Valley nearly doubled from 2015. People younger than 25 now comprise a third of the region’s homeless population.
In all, nearly 7,400 homeless people in the South Bay were counted—an increase of 838 over the tally two years prior. More than 2,500 of them were children unaccompanied by a parent or young adults aged 25 or under. That’s despite an unprecedented regional effort to house the unsheltered, which has resulted in a decrease in the number of veterans and chronically homeless people on the street.
The numbers may be higher than the official census indicates, as the homeless count only tallies people visible to census takers, which excludes an untold number of couch surfers or families bunked up in garages, sheds or discreetly parked vehicles.
Experts call the uptick a sure sign of displacement, which has only worsened as the cost of living climbs, wages stagnate and public funding for affordable housing and rental subsidies dries up.
“It is well known the city of San Jose has an affordable housing crisis and is home to many unsheltered individuals,” Councilman Sergio Jimenez wrote in a memo going before the council this week. “Our places of worship and non-religious assemblies continue to provide temporary shelter to unsheltered individuals, many of whom are vulnerable women, and families. As the city works to create more affordable housing options we must move forward with interim solutions to protect and house our most vulnerable residents from exposure, victimization, and harm. Creating a permanent ordinance that allows for year-round incidental shelter is the right thing to do.”
More from the San Jose City Council agenda for August 8, 2017:
- Climate change. With President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, San Jose plans to reaffirm its commitment to the pact’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases. In a resolution, Mayor Sam Liccardo vows to join more than 290 mayors representing more than 60 million Americans in pledging support to the international agreement. “Climate change is widely recognized by government, business and academic leaders as a worldwide threat with the potential to harm our economy, safety, public health, and quality of life,” the mayor wrote. “With the passage of this resolution supporting the principles of the Paris Agreement, San Jose joins a chorus of cities in the United States that are raising their collective voice on climate change issues. Local governments play a critical role in accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy and shifting towards a low carbon future. With passage of this resolution, we commit to science, and to remaining engaged on climate change—one of the pressing issues of our generation.”
- Coyote Creek flood. San Jose’s failure to warn people about the flood that devastated several neighborhoods along Coyote Creek in February resulted in tens of millions of dollars in property damage and protracted displacement for hundreds of households. A new report lambastes the city for its lack of preparation for the disaster, saying the city repeated mistakes made during a similar flooding in 1997 and depending too much on flood projections from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. But the report by consulting firm Witt O’Brien gives the city props for its recovery efforts, which involved 30 nonprofits, 4,000 volunteers and more than 300 city employees. The coordinated cleanup has resulted in more than 1,900 people receiving nearly $7 million in donations. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 buildings have been inspected and OK’d for occupation and about 7,500 tons of detritus have been cleared.
- Emergency management. The Witt O’Brien report also recommends that the city bolster its nine-employee Office of Emergency Services (OES) with up to 15 more hires. But Liccardo and several other council members note that it will be difficult to beef up emergency staff when the city faces a $35 million shortfall in next year’s budget. “We face at least five years of projected general fund shortfalls, however, which is why it’s important for the city to be more resourceful,” Liccardo wrote in the memo signed by Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and council members Raul Peralez, Lan Diep, Tam Nguyen. We should focus on the highest-priority hires for now, but we must augment our pursuit of public and philanthropic sources of grant funding for OES personnel and equipment, technology, planning and capacity building.”
- Teacher housing. A landowner who wants to build affordable housing for teachers on Lincoln Avenue is facing opposition from city leaders, who want to preserve the parcel for commercial use. Sarah Chaffin proposes building 16 apartment units on her own plot with her own money. Though the city is in dire need of more affordable housing, it’s also trying to preserve land zoned for jobs, which bring in more tax revenue for City Hall. In a memo signed by Carrasco and council members Dev Davis and Chappie Jones, the mayor said that if Chaffin had contacted the city before acquiring the property back in 2010, she would have found out that it was zoned for jobs and that the city supported no residential use there. “We must not set precedent on Lincoln Avenue, which will undoubtedly spread to other active commercial corridors throughout San Jose,” Liccardo wrote, “including The Alameda, West San Carlos Street, Japantown, Blossom Hill Road, Cottle Road and Santa Teresa Blvd, East Santa Clara Street, Alum Rock and Story Roads, Union and Camden Avenues, Tully and Capitol, to name a few locations where our small and ethnic businesses are mostly located.”
- Urban villages. The council will consider updates to two urban village plans, one for the Stevens Creek corridor and the other for Santana Row and Valley Fair. Both plans have generated backlash from neighborhood groups and nearby cities, which worry that the added density will overwhelm existing infrastructure. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) wrote a letter on behalf of constituents in Cupertino who fear their city is ill equipped for the proposed density, which would include buildings up to 120 feet high. The cities of Santa Clara and Cupertino urged San Jose to take a more collaborative approach in planning the urban villages, which would impact neighboring jurisdictions. Some residents expressed concern that the plans would eventually lead to the city buying up their property via eminent domain. The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley echoed concerns about displacement and a lack of affordable housing. “[W]e are concerned that, without amendment, the current plans will not achieve the 25 percent percent housing affordability goals in urban villages and that development pressures will continue to displace lower-income residents from their homes,” Law Foundation attorney Diana Castillo wrote in a letter to the city.
- Clean energy. San Jose plans to establish a new city division to oversee its foray into the clean power sector. The Community Energy Department will oversee the fledgling San Jose Clean Energy, a municipal program that allows ratepayers to opt for a higher mix of renewable electricity. PG&E will keep charging customers for transmission, but will no longer have a monopoly on deciding where its energy comes from. The staffing plan for the new energy department proposes several positions for this fiscal year—a director, two spokespeople, an analyst, a technician, an office clerk and legal counsel.
WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260