On a Tuesday evening in January, San Jose City Council sat in chambers considering a rezoning application and planned development permit for a piece of property on Evans Lane. The site, a city-owned parcel purchased for the purpose of affordable housing over a decade ago, had sat vacant for years, with the grass growing high at times on the six-acre lot.
But now, after considerable community outreach, discussion and planning, the city was finally ready to move forward with a development that would include 61 homes for formerly homeless adults, a community garden, a new public library and a dog park.
Councilmember Dev Davis, who represents the district, was in strong support and input from local residents had been incorporated into the design. And the county had already committed up to $12 million of Measure A Bond funding to the development just a few weeks earlier.
All in all, a wonderful project leveraging a variety of resources, that would get people off the streets in the near future while also providing some sorely needed neighborhood benefits for the good folks already living in the surrounding area.
By the way, absolutely no one from the public was there to speak in opposition. A victory in it of itself, to be sure.
Then, despite the fact that the evening’s action focused solely on a land use decision, the inevitable question of project cost came from the council. The answer: $600,000 per unit. $2,500 per square foot.
How can it be so high?
Why can’t we get the price down? Isn’t there some way to get better value here? Why don’t we look elsewhere for better deals? It just seems exorbitant and a waste of money.
All reasonable questions that any fiscally-minded citizen would want their elected official to ask when spending tax dollars. And, to be fair, the costs are high to build new deed-restricted apartments on an undeveloped lot where you need to pave a road, bring in utilities, provide ample parking and mitigate for a variety of environmental and traffic issues.
Moreover, building deeply affordable subsidized housing also means spending more per unit to keep rents low, along with increased labor costs due to local, state and federal regulations that go hand-in-hand when using public money.
So, yes, this work can be expensive from a brick and mortar perspective. But that’s not really the point.
First of all, it’s worth noting that this is an investment — not charity.
When government partners commit funds to these types of projects it is in the form of loan, which is repaid over time and then reinvested in future affordable housing developments. San Jose has built more than 20,000 apartments and homes over the past few decades with this type of funding and will continue to do so as long as there is a need for affordable housing. This project, already backed by a strong commitment from the county and vouchers from the Housing Authority, will be built quickly and start paying returns soon after. Bottom line: it’s a safe bet with known partners and guaranteed returns.
Secondly, when we talk about money, we should also think closely about the other side of the coin: the cost of keeping people outside.
A 2015 report, Home Not Found, revealed that we are spending more than $500 million dollars each year managing homelessness in Santa Clara County. From the hospital to the courtroom, leaving people out on the streets hits our pocketbooks the hardest.
Not surprisingly, the study showed, when we get those same people housed, the impact and costs do dramatically decrease by an average of $42,000 per person annually. Now, I’m no math whiz, but these cost savings, when applied to the 61 new homes planned in the project, sure seems like it would add up quick.
And, lastly, let’s not forget that this site is going to be a major community amenity, too.
Cut-off by Almaden Expressway and Highway 87, it’s not an overstatement to say that the current residents of Evans Lane are on somewhat of a barren island right now, but that will all change once the project is approved.
Kids will now have a place to study in the new library, working families can gather together, learn about sustainable agriculture, grow fresh food in the community garden and seniors can take their pups out to play in the dog park. None of this existed before and it will all happen because of the great plan in place for this particular housing development.
The Evans Lane land use changes were approved unanimously by the City Council, and the project is expected to return for a potential funding allocation in late February or early March.
In fact, when you look at the whole picture, I’d say there’s a pretty favorable cost benefit analysis to be found after all. Strong reasoning for all of us to keep pushing this good work forward now and in the future.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @rbramson on Twitter.