The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors took the right action in saving an East San Jose homeless veterans complex from the wrecking ball — but the property was in total disrepair by the time it did so.
The four-plus acres at 10 Kirk Ave. sits on a swatch of land that former owner, Swenson Builders, was ready to sell off for redevelopment, according to county documents. When the board of supervisors learned about the plans, Supervisor Otto Lee, a Navy veteran, began talks with Swenson to acquire the property. That was three years ago, and along the way the county discovered the welcoming appearance on the outside gave way to appalling conditions on the inside.
The county had an inspection report done in 2023 before the property was acquired, and has known about problems since 2019, when a county building official issued a notice and order related to electrical, plumbing and mechanical deficiencies, the deputy county executive said. It was sent to the owner of the building and the nonprofit operator leasing the building. This is the only citation on record with the Department of Planning and Development, according to the county, and it doesn’t appear Swenson addressed the problems or the county following up.
The county didn’t negotiate with Swenson to shore up any needed repairs before the sale, including evidence of sanitary sewer failure, damaged ceilings from roof leaks, a nonfunctioning heating system and unsafe electrical wiring. Instead, officials purchased the property for $14.5 million “as is,” meaning you get what you pay for, with Measure A funds.
Why would the supervisors do that? The answer may lie in who had the leverage, and that appears to be Case Swenson, company CEO. If he didn’t like the terms he could have easily walked away from the deal, looked for a developer and sold. Supervisors would have lost a critical property they had committed to preserving and expanding for homeless veterans. It looks like the county had to choke down the deplorable conditions it uncovered to acquire the facility. Conditions that grew worse during a deep-dive inspection in January, after purchasing the property. Due diligence be damned, the supervisors were stuck.
Swenson was no longer on the hook for any repairs, but there was no doubt that structural damage fell squarely on his shoulders.
The company purchased the property, a former retirement center, in 2007. It became transitional housing for homeless veterans a little more than a decade ago. The nonprofit Homeless Veterans Emergency Housing Facility, an organization that helps veterans with resources and housing, became the operator.
Hector Guerra, the facility’s lead case manager, told San José Spotlight there were constant problems with the property, and he’d reach out to Swenson asking for help to no avail.
In the meantime, Swenson collected $60,000 per month or $720,000 annually in rent. Yet the landlord, who could have easily maintained the property, behaved like a slumlord. The builder appears to have shown little compassion for the formerly homeless veterans. The property was just a money machine.
The complex comprised of eight single-story buildings can provide a respite for up to 100 veterans. But there is black mold, bed bugs, head lice, a lack of warm water, disconnected fire sprinklers and hazardous materials improperly stored. The tenants live with a nonfunctioning heating system that requires unsafe use of space heaters in the residence rooms to stay warm.
Allowing this facility to deteriorate in such a manner is a disgrace.
Why didn’t the veterans speak out? Most likely they feared being kicked out. They just sucked it up because warriors understand how to survive when necessary. They are veterans with a roof over their heads and steady meals, which keeps them off the streets. But that doesn’t make it right.
In the end, the supervisors saved the facility, but find themselves responsible for costly upgrades. Now the county needs to move swiftly and clean up the dangerous mess Swenson left behind to ensure the property is accessible, safe and habitable for every veteran seeking shelter.