The Back Story: Homelessness, Quick-Build Housing, and Our Neighborhoods
Recent controversy has emerged over the City Council majority’s decision to construct “quick-build apartment communities,” as I call them (or “emergency interim housing communities,” EIHCs, as they’re more bureaucratically described) for unhoused San José residents. I strongly advocated for that outcome, but admittedly it has made plenty of folks unhappy.
In this Back Story, I’d like to explain what these quick-build communities are, and why we’re constructing them. Next, I’ll explain what the Council decided, and an important set of proposed changes that will ensure these communities are good neighbors, and that neighborhoods have a clearer opportunity to be heard. Third, I’ll describe efforts still underway to explore alternative and/or additional sites in relevant council districts, and how you can participate in that effort. Finally, I’ll address a particular controversy that has arisen at one site in the Berryessa area, where community members insist the City committed not to build a housing community on Noble Avenue.
Pardon the length of this missive, but there’s a lot of ground to cover. Here goes:
- Why Quick-Build Housing?
In every major city west of the Rockies, our homelessness crisis has worsened dramatically over the last decade, and the impoverishing impact of the pandemic raised the specter that it could worsen still. Remarkably though, we found our local “point-in-time” census count this year revealed that we’ve halted the growth in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals through the pandemic. That is, the total number of unhoused people increased, but fewer people actually found themselves living on the streets of our City, because of sharp increases (about 74%) in those homeless individuals finding transitional housing like motel rooms and quick-build apartment communities.
Amid rising unsheltered street homelessness elsewhere, that’s no small detail.
We’ve had to think differently about how we house the unhoused. The traditional model has California cities assembling a complex combination of public funding sources–federal housing vouchers and tax credits, state bonds, and local dollars–to build apartment buildings with subsidized rents. I supported the County’s effort to expand funding for that traditional model in 2016 with Measure A, a $950 million bond measure.
Yet the homelessness crisis worsened far faster than the traditional approach could respond. Statewide, apartment buildings typically take at least four or five years to get from proposal to ribbon-cutting. Six years after the passage of Measure A, the County recently reported that only 965 apartments have been completed–including pre-existing affordable apartments that were rehabilitated–despite everyone’s best efforts. Thousands more units appear to be moving along in the development “pipeline,” but in the meantime, nearly 10,000 residents languish in homelessness countywide. At a cost of roughly $800,000 per unit, moreover, we lack the public dollars to rely upon this approach as the sole solution to the crisis.
We’ve long needed a more nimble model for moving people off the street into housing.
Our experience nationwide shows that congregate shelters don’t work and often sit with many unoccupied beds each night, because unhoused residents often don’t find them safe, can’t bring pets or belongings with them, have no privacy, and can’t stay for more than a night at a time. We need real dignified housing–with private units–but we need to get it built faster and more cost-effectively.
Throughout my tenure, I’ve pushed for more innovative approaches to building housing, with varied success. We converted two deteriorating San José motels for homeless housing in 2016, and by 2020, Governor Newsom’s Homekey program made these motel conversions a statewide model. In contrast, two “tiny cabin” communities at Mabury Road and Felipe Avenue have provided transitional bridge housing to many residents, but cost a lot to operate, and won’t last more than a few years.
Through trial-and-error, I came to agree that a more replicable solution lies in prefabricated, modular construction that could last several decades, while providing dignified living quarters with private bathrooms and a much-needed pathway to permanent housing. The impetus to pilot these quick-build apartment communities emerged in the first weeks of the pandemic, when public health authorities instructed cities to reduce contagion risk by removing medically vulnerable residents from congregate shelters. In March 2020, I huddled with top city officials, and posed a challenge: using $24 million, how quickly could we build prefabricated housing for hundreds of our unhoused?
Within six weeks, then-Deputy City Manager Jim Ortbal led a city team to launch construction of prefabricated, modular dormitories on three underutilized sites owned by the City and Caltrans. Pandemic emergency orders cleared red tape and streamlined approval processes, and local philanthropists Peter and Susanna Pau contributed millions more to launch a family-serving site.
Over the next year, we built three quick-build housing communities for 317 residents. These were built not at the $800,000 for a traditional apartment, but at close to $100,000 per bed; not in multiple years, but often in a few months. The transitional tenures of the tenants–often six months at a time–enable them to get back on their feet, find permanent housing, and make room for others to move in. Local nonprofits provide employment and other services. The low-slung design facilitates community-building, featuring shared space for gardens, dog runs, shared kitchens and dining commons. One tenant, Sandy, shared with news reporters how her new Bernal Road community made her and her neighbors finally feel like “human beings, not statistics.
Success breeds success. Philanthropic partners embraced the model, and the Pau’s committed millions more for a fourth site on Taylor Street –now under construction–where residents will secure paid jobs providing maintenance, rehabilitation, and support for nearby Guadalupe River Park. A fifth site is underway with help from John A. and Sue Sobrato. Although the media hasn’t paid a lot of attention to this new approach, other cities have–and are increasingly inquiring about how to bring it to their cities. Mountain View opened its first prefabricated community last year, Redwood City and Palo Alto are planning construction of communities this year, several East Bay cities are exploring it, and at the urging of Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee, the County of Santa Clara voted at the end of last year to begin investing in such projects countywide.
- Expanding Quick-Build Housing Communities: The Perils of Site-Selection
In my budget for this year, I proposed to spend $40 million to continue expanding quick-build apartment communities, to have 1,000 prefabricated units completed or under development by the end of my term in December. The Council unanimously agreed, and Jim Ortbal and the rest of the City team have worked furiously to meet the single greatest challenge in getting this housing built: finding suitable sites.
Site selection becomes difficult because for housing to be truly “quick-build,” the City needs a readily available and inexpensive site. That requires good access to electrical, sewer, and water infrastructure, and a relatively flat site that does not require a lot of expensive grading. It also requires that land be under ownership by those public agencies that commit to quickly build this housing — so far, only the City of San José and Caltrans. If we try to compete with other housing developers for typical privately-owned sites, we lose the ability to build nimbly — costs skyrocket, acquisition processes stall construction, and our homelessness crisis persists unabated.
Regardless of location, any proposed site routinely encounters concerns from unhappy neighbors. Some of those concerns will appear well-founded, and require concerted City attention, while others appear driven by misunderstanding and fear. A year or two after the project opens, we generally find that the fears never materialize, and investments in good management and security make these communities good neighbors.
Why not heed the neighborhood opposition and simply refuse to move forward? Because nothing will get built. Every conceivable site is located near somebody’s neighborhood. Every one of our neighborhoods is deeply frustrated by rampant homelessness in our parks, our creeks, and on our streets. As we’ve seen repeatedly where we’ve built the quick-build housing, those concerns evaporate when people are housed.
The only path to end that unsheltered street homelessness–particularly amid our Valley’s intense shortage of accessible housing–comes by building accessible housing. Our crisis of homeleness worsens with every day of inaction; we must muster the collective courage to act.
To the credit of my City Council colleagues, the leadership in San José generally has not wavered. Councilmembers Dev Davis, Sergio Jimenez, Matt Mahan, and Raul Peralez have all proactively worked with neighbors to address their concerns, and ensure that quick-build communities in their own districts would succeed. The Council has also acknowledged the importance of distributing the locations of quick-build sites equally citywide.
¹Critics of these projects will point to what they assert is a notable exception: near the Rue Ferrari quick-build housing community, where many RV’s remain parked with residents living inside. However, the presence of those RV’s pre-existed the housing commuinty’s construction in late 2020. The City is currently securing two sites where it can provide “safe parking” for those RV dwellers, and thereby restore the area for the benefit of the surrounding community.
On June 21, 2022, the Council voted to move forward to achieve our 1,000-unit goal by constructing quick-build projects on four new sites and expanding two existing sites. Based on that vote, we will densify existing quick-build communities on Rue Ferrari Avenue and Taylor Street with 120 more units between the two sites, and commence design and construction at two new locations, at Great Oaks Boulevard / Highway 85 and Noble Avenue, later this year. Additionally, we have prioritized sites in other districts–on Jackson Avenue and Prospect Road– for future construction.
The Council agreed to other important requirements at that June 21st Council meeting. First, as I have long urged, we directed staff to return with a policy that prioritized housing the homeless residents in the immediate vicinity of the quick-build community, to ensure that the surrounding neighborhoods appreciably benefit by hosting the project. On too many other past projects, county and federal policy required projects to accept unhoused people through what is known as the County’s “coordinated entry” system, resulting in San José unfairly taking responsibility for housing other cities’ unhoused residents. We sought to put an end to that.
Second, we heard concerns from neighbors. Residents expressed objections to the proximity of the Noble Avenue project to an elementary school, library, and park. Residents near the Great Oaks project objected to the disproportionate concentration of facilities serving the unhoused in that part of districts 10 and 2. We directed the Housing Department to consider restricting the housing on Noble Avenue to an appropriate sub-population of unhoused residents, such as women, families, or medically vulnerable seniors. Finally, at the urging of Councilmembers David Cohen and Matt Mahan, if either the Noble Avenue or Great Oaks locations prove impracticable after further investigation, further exploration of other sites within the same council district will continue for 120 days–but with a commitment to move ahead with design of the recommended projects in both districts on a parallel path.
- Exploring Alternative Sites
At the June hearing, the Council and I sought to craft a process for the community to help the City find better sites if such sites really exist– and to voice their concerns. The following week, I issued a proposal with Councilmembers Foley and Jimenez that would require notification of all nearby residents and a public hearing before the entire Council in November to explore the feasibility of other sites within the two council districts, and a policy for service response to preserve the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods, including the implementation of “no encampment zones” within a radius of each site.
Please participate in this effort if you’d like to help shape the plans for these new housing communities, and particularly if you’ve got some good ideas for new or alternative sites. You can find out more about the public meetings, and participate directly in the community process by going to this link . We encourage you to keep in mind the site-related factors that enable the housing to actually get constructed–on time, and on budget.²
In November, the full Council will have an opportunity to review what we’ve learned through our exploration with the community, and to decide either to stay the course, or to select an alternative site in Districts 4 and 10. In either case, we must move forward.
- Controversy on Noble Avenue
As noted earlier, residents in any neighborhood near a proposed site invariably and understandably insist that “there must be a better site” than the one proposed. Unfortunately, in a city largely built out with single-family neighborhoods, with little City-owned land to spare, few easy options remain.
In the Council’s June hearing, residents near the proposed Noble Avenue site referenced a nearby school, library, park, and percolation ponds as bases for objecting to the siting of a quick-build community there. Some insisted that the City already considered and explicitly decided against installing a project on Noble Avenue. Those residents are right about the location–it is far from optimal–but mistaken about the history.
It’s important to understand how we got here. When staff scoured the city for homeless housing sites in 2017 and 2020, it compiled a list of nearly 100 potential parcels, on which the Noble Avenue site was identified on that list, and scored as “somewhat viable.” Several sites that scored better were selected for project construction in 2017 and 2020, but the other sites were never “removed” from the list, and there have been no City assurances to that effect. When we pushed ahead to identify more sites to reach the 1,000 unit goal in September of 2021, City staff clarified that given the City’s scarce resources, only sites under public ownership would likely be feasible. So the site on Noble Avenue, which remains under City ownership, remains a prominent option.
² A quick-and-dirty summary of the factors City staff have been using to evaluate potential sites for quick-build housing:
¹Size: Sites must be a minimum of 1 acre, but two acres are strongly preferred to enable approximately 80 units project and sufficient parking and necessary amenities.
²Grades and Slopes: Sites must be fairly flat to be considered for development of an EIH community given the urgent need to deploy and open them, and the high costs of site grading and utilities installation.
³Shape: sites need to have a shape suitable to safely configure an emergency interim housing community. Square/rectangular parcels make for more feasible projects.
⁴Site Access: Sites must be readily accessible to the City street system for occupants, fire, and other emergency vehicles and personnel, and to connect to utilities. Landlocked sites with little or no vehicular access will not be considered.
⁵Access to Basic Amenities: While close proximity to services like groceries and transit are important, potential sites lacking proximity are not necessarily ruled out. Sites with public transit located ½ mile or less are preferred, but the City and its site operators may provide other transportation options in lieu.
⁶Ownership: To build and operate EIH, the City must legally own or control the property through a lease, or be able to acquire access to land belonging to other public agencies (e.g, the County, or Caltrans) at minimal cost. Purchasing or leasing property from private owners usually poses impractical financial barriers.
⁷Geographic Location: The Council has directed staff to equally distribute sites, and to prioritize those council districts where quick-build projects do not exist today (e.g. CD 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10). Avoiding proximity to sensitive locations such as schools or day-care centers is preferred, but not always possible.
More recently, we’ve learned that City plans created in the 1990’s called for the use of some or all of the Noble Avenue site for parkland. A proposal to build a dog park there several years ago was not supported by the community, however, and no funding has been available in any budget to commence development of any park-related amenity, and no other plans have been discussed. Accordingly, the land remains under public ownership, but not park-dedicated under our City Charter.
Nonetheless, City staff and the Council will listen carefully to community input, and continue to explore feasible options in the months ahead. Regardless of where to build, we have decided to build–as we must.