The exterior of a housing complex for veterans in San Jose
Santa Clara County acquires a homeless veterans emergency facility in San Jose after reports of property neglect. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

For years, homeless veterans housed at an emergency facility in San Jose have lived with bed bugs, black mildew, fire hazards and a lack of warm water — and they’re relying on outdated evacuation plans, disconnected fire sprinklers and unsafe electrical systems.

These are the conditions described in a Santa Clara County inspection report for the property at 10 Kirk Ave. in San Jose. This comes less than two months after the county acquired the eight, single-story buildings on 4.26 acres for $14.5 million last November from one of San Jose’s largest developers, Swenson Builders.

It’s unclear from the inspection report when the property fell into disrepair. But homeless veterans have sought refuge at this facility for more than a decade. Since 2009, Swenson had been leasing the site month-to-month to the nonprofit Homeless Veterans Emergency Housing Facility.

Hector Guerra, the facility’s lead case manager, said the rent comes primarily in grants from the Veterans Administration, and it’s not cheap.

“Roughly, we paid $60,000 per month,” Guerra told San José Spotlight, “and we don’t even own a teaspoon of dirt from this facility.”

Mold at 10 Kirk Avenue in San Jose. Courtesy of Santa Clara County inspector’s report.

Finger pointing

County officials and the facility operators told San José Spotlight the neglected upkeep happened under Swenson’s ownership.

“The county became concerned that the facility’s condition wasn’t satisfactory, so we began to explore ways in which we could acquire it and then work with the operator (HVEHF) to improve the property over time so that the operator could continue to provide this critical service,” Deputy County Executive Ky Le told San José Spotlight.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the acquisition last September, but didn’t close on the property until late November, Le said.

“Since then we have been working with the Fire Marshall and the operator to identify deficiencies,” Le said.

Hazardous materials stored improperly at 10 Kirk Avenue. Courtesy of Santa Clara County inspector’s report.

The county inspector’s report this month describes multiple rooms filled with floor-to-ceiling furniture and combustible junk; doors to certain rooms locked with no key; flammable liquids, solids and gas cans unsafely stored in the garages and basement; and the improper use of space heaters in place of central heating.

The only emergency planning materials on-site for fire evacuations and drills were from a previous tenant dating back to 1997, according to the report.

Residents at 10 Kirk Avenue use space heaters in lieu of central heating. Courtesy of Santa Clara County inspector’s report.

Le said issues like the furniture and evacuation plans are the Homeless Veterans Emergency Housing Facility’s responsibility.

Guerra said his organization is responsible for some of the conditions described in the report.

“Some of the rooms not being occupied were being used for furniture and usually when a veteran leaves for a new apartment, some of that furniture is given to other veterans, and bed bugs, they come in once in a while,” Guerra told San José Spotlight.

But he said Swenson is responsible for key safety issues in the facility.

“We’ve been here a little over 10, 11 years … all that time, have there been problems? Oh yeah,” Guerra said. “Barry Swenson and company have been the owners and we have gone to them to correct and rectify. Unfortunately, sometimes they didn’t respond or there was lack of response.”

Company spokesperson Nick Adams and President Case Swenson did not respond to requests for comment.

Swenson has faced criticism in the past for rent gouging, violating a state law passed in 2019 that limits annual rent increases to no more than 10% until 2030.

Broken fire water supply at 10 Kirk Avenue. Courtesy of Santa Clara County inspector’s report.

Neglected housing

One veteran, who was afraid to give his name for fear of retaliation, said there are huge spiders, body lice and bedbugs. He said sometimes there are no working washers and dryers for the roughly 50 people living there.

“We did not have hot water in one wing,” he told San José Spotlight.

A Jan. 16 entry in the county inspector’s report found black mildew in multiple rooms, but said it was unclear if mold testing had ever been completed. Another entry found the entire electrical system was compromised with multiple outlets not working, and electrical control panels displaying open wiring.

An inspection of 10 Kirk Avenue found the electrical system was compromised. Courtesy of Santa Clara County inspector’s report.

Other entries reported that residents found bed bugs and lack of warm water for bathing and hand washing. The report also found that on-site workers did not follow proper fire watch guidelines, and that the property’s main fire water supply had an underground leak and the street valve was closed.

“None of the buildings’ fire sprinkler systems, with the exception of the residence/ pool house, have a connected water supply,” the report read.

Le told San José Spotlight the county planning department may have issued a citation to the property in 2019, but was unable to confirm if it issued additional citations in the 10-plus years the site has been operating.

When county officials purchased 10 Kirk Ave. last year, they described the buildings — built between 1963 and 1993 — as in “fair to average condition” in a county report attached to the September approval.

During last September’s board hearing Supervisor Cindy Chavez brought up the condition of the property briefly.

“I know we all got a letter that explained some of the challenges with the facility, and I just want to make sure that we are doing two things at once,” Chavez said at the meeting. “One is making sure that the programs being provided are to the quality and standard that county would like to see them and second, that if there’s any interim work that needs to be done at facility to make sure it’s habitable and safe … that you are doing that.”

Supervisor Otto Lee, in a November news release publicizing the purchase, hailed it as making headway toward ending veteran homelessness. But there was no mention of the condition of the property or what the veterans were enduring.

He later learned about of the property’s deplorable condition.

“Those problems are unacceptable for any resident, and certainly not for our heroes that served our nation,” Lee, a Navy veteran, told San José Spotlight. “Since the close of this purchase, we’ve discovered latent problems and we’re devising a plan to relocate these veterans to allow repair to be conducted ASAP.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Reporter Lorraine Gabbert contributed to this story.

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