AFSCME Local 1101 President Steve Jovel speaks in front of a crowd of about 50 at the VTA Cerone Yard, standing at a podium over a field of dried grass.
Union leaders asked supporters to attend a VTA board meeting and back the staff recommended plans for the 200 tiny homes coming to Cerone Yard. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

After a monthslong debate between local leaders, North San Jose is set to receive 200 temporary homes for homeless residents.

The VTA board of directors unanimously approved building the homes at its Cerone bus yard on Thursday. The consensus by the 12-person board comes as a surprise after deep political divides and ongoing disputes threatened the housing plans.

The vote allows VTA to lease 7.2 acres of its Cerone site to San Jose for five years. The Federal Transit Agency requires VTA to lease the land at market rate—which would be a significant cost to San Jose—so VTA will explore whether that requirement can be waived. The homes must be built in a phased approach and the city is required to provide case management, rehabilitation services, food and transportation services for homeless residents.

To ensure worker and safety concerns are addressed—a sticking point for labor union groups—two committees focused on safety and community care will be created. The city will also develop a maintenance and security plan that details how it will keep residents and workers safe. The plan must be approved by VTA before operations begin.

The vote is a big win for San Jose, with councilmembers advocating since last November. Mayor Matt Mahan, Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei and Councilmembers Pam Foley and David Cohen lobbied for the Cerone site as the most cost effective option and the only site big enough to accommodate the tiny homes Gov. Gavin Newsom is building for San Jose. The state will cover construction costs and the city will be responsible for security, case management and other services.

“Throughout the process and despite many objections and obstacles, San Jose residents voiced their support for bold action and held all of us accountable for taking action tonight,” Mahan told San José Spotlight after the vote. “I’m grateful to VTA’s staff and workers for engaging with our team at the city to figure out how to get to ‘yes’ together. By placing all 200 units at Cerone, we will save time and money so we can accelerate our effort to end the era of encampments.”

There are approximately 6,340 homeless residents across San Jose, 4,411 of whom live on the street, along rivers or in tents, according to county data. San Jose’s unhoused population shrunk by 4.7% over the last year, and officials like Mahan credit it to the city creating more temporary and affordable housing opportunities.

The road to securing all 200 homes at Cerone wasn’t without tension. At the last VTA board meeting, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and labor-backed allies said they wanted to explore splitting the 200 homes between other VTA sites due to safety concerns expressed by union workers. VTA staff also did not recommend that all homes be put on Cerone because the transit agency intends to electrify its bus fleet, and said it needs the space at Cerone to do so.

But at Thursday’s meeting, a VTA staff report showed Cerone as the only viable site to house homeless residents. The transit agency detailed steps the city would have to take to ensure workers not only feel safe, but are part of the conversation throughout the development process.

For those reasons, the site eventually won the support of the South Bay Labor Council and the union workers it represents. Chavez distanced herself from her earlier stance and instead strongly supported placing all homes at the Cerone site. She emphasized previous debates were not about politics, rather just creating good policy.

“I don’t think there’s anybody up here who isn’t prioritizing homelessness,” Chavez said. “We all had genuine policy disagreements about how to proceed, not if we should proceed.”

Before the vote, transit workers held a news conference at Cerone and expressed similar concerns over the safety of workers and future residents. AFSCME Local 1101 President Steve Jovel pointed out the city’s chosen location for the tiny homes is adjacent to where VTA plans to build an electric microgrid to support the agency’s zero emissions goals.

“When you talk electricity, if there’s an emergency, the city has to take responsibility for evacuating the residents and all of that and ensuring (resident) safety, not VTA,” Jovel told San José Spotlight. “That’s our concern, that all of these safety measures and responsibilities are going to be put on VTA staff.”

Jovel, who has been a VTA employee for over 25 years, said putting the transit agency in charge of the site’s safety would put too much pressure on its employees. Because the proposed site for the interim housing is next to the bus access road, he added the location could also lead to traffic safety issues.

Cohen, who represents North San Jose where Cerone is located, said the site could be ready in as soon as eight months—though that has not been confirmed. This will be the first homeless housing project in North San Jose, Cohen said, but it will help the region overall.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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