Roark Clayton first learned unhoused residents in Santa Clara County may be the newest tenants of a long-vacant Willow Glen senior housing complex during what he characterizes as an unilluminating neighborhood Zoom meeting in November.
Many questions lingered. For instance: How long will people stay in the housing project? Where will the roughly 80 to 90 renters and their guests park? Who qualifies for the rooms?
Local officials tried to answer those questions during a second Zoom meeting this month led by Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing Director Consuelo Hernández, County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg and San Jose Councilwoman Dev Davis. Clayton said he logged off feeling backed into a corner, balancing compassion for the people the project would help, but skeptical the county thought through all the details in the lead up to the May 17 move-in.
“It’s fine if everything works out fine, but if things go haywire, what do we do?” he said. “That’s what we want to know.”
The effort to place homeless residents in the building at 1185 Pedro St. was set in motion March 10, 2020 during the same board meeting officials declared a local health emergency over the novel coronavirus, which was rapidly spreading in the South Bay.
A unanimous vote approved a two decade, $20 million lease with the building’s landlord, San Mateo-based property management company Chang USA, and a 10-year, $19 million onsite services contract with Abode Services. Part of the deal was that Sobrato Philanthropies and Destination: Home Silicon Valley would each kick in $4 million to support the program for the first 10 years.
But amid the start of a global pandemic and emergency ordinances punctuated with some of the largest fires the state has ever seen, a heat wave that led to rolling blackouts and a year of national civil unrest, it’s fair to say the details of a zoning permit wasn’t top of mind, Ellenberg acknowledged.
“I think there have been a lot of shortcomings in this process,” Ellenberg told San Jose Inside. “The county purchased the property in March, and not even weeks later, most of our Office of Supportive Housing was deployed to emergency response.”
The building was fitted with repairs and upgrades through the summer while most residents remained unaware that there was a new plan for the building. “I think there is responsibility from my office and the Office of Supportive Housing to be more responsive to the community's interest in the project and make sure we set up reliable lines of communication,” Ellenberg said.
But Ellenberg is also worried about losing momentum when the county has a chance to get vulnerable people into safe housing during the pandemic, while good health and safety information can be especially hard to come by on the streets.
Some residents who spoke to San Jose Inside say they think the county is cutting corners in the process and “hiding the full story.” Their suspicions have been heightened by a series of letters between the county and San Jose officials over whether all the correct paperwork has been filed to move the project forward.
“I have no interest in hiding or obfuscating anything,” Ellenberg said. “All I want is transparency and clarity, but the reality has been that there's been an ongoing debate between the two governmental entities, both of whom are experts in land use, being very certain that their position is the correct one, and I'm not weighing in, frankly, on which is correct, because that's not my expertise.”
The answers would normally be found in San Jose planning department file-cabinets. In this case, replacing a retirement home with formerly unhoused residents would typically need what’s known as a Conditional Use Permit. True to its name, the document would carve out an exception to the zoning code to let a special project move forward. But it comes with requirements, often including a public hearing through a planning commission meeting.
San Jose officials knew last fall that 1185 Pedro St. was to be transitional housing for people living in motel rooms that would soon lose funding, according to a letter from the San Jose planning department to county housing officials obtained by San Jose Inside.
County CEO Jeff Smith told Santa Clara County Supervisors in a recent report on the matter that the city also informed the county in February that a conditional use permit wouldn’t be required.
But city officials claim they didn’t know the county was planning a temporary shelter—rather than transitional housing—and intended to bypass the conditional use permit by using a state bill and the County’s Shelter Crisis Ordinance to make it happen, according to Chu Chang, acting director of San Jose’s Planning, Building and Code Enforcement.
Chang told Consuelo Hernández, director of the county’s Office of Supportive Housing in an April 1 letter the agency would need to file for a conditional use permit and the process was now way behind schedule.
County officials maintain that the city has its facts wrong about how the state law and local ordinance work together. They appear to be moving the project forward unencumbered by the disagreement.
Abode Services and county staff members will host an open house at the retirement home-turned-homeless shelter between 10am and noon on May 8. Another community meeting is set for May 17—the day the new residents are expected to arrive—with Smith, the county executive, to go over “the vetting process with a clinician,” and talk with residents.
Rosalynn Hughey, San Jose’s newly appointed deputy city manager and former Planning, Building, and Code Enforcement Department director, said the two agencies are working “to finalize, make sure we all have the same understanding.”
“I think there are still, perhaps, some unanswered questions about the scope and the operations, and we know that's important to the community as well,” Hughey said. Whatever the final project will be, she adds, she thinks those plans may still need to go through the city’s entitlement process, which typically takes six to nine months.
In the meantime, Clayton said neighbors are still desperate for answers before the new residents arrive.
“It certainly seems like a done deal, unless someone sues them, and I don't know who that would be,” Clayton said. “The county’s already invested millions of dollars, so I guess my gut feeling is this is probably going to happen.”