San Jose squashes proposal for prefab homeless housing
A mom and her daughters take a walk around the Casitas de Esperanza at the Civic Center tiny home community for homeless residents in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The week started with San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan announcing an ambitious proposal for housing up to 5,000 homeless residents on public land by the end of next year. His colleagues killed the plan before the week was out.

Mahan told San José Spotlight he’s disappointed by the outcome of Wednesday’s Rules and Open Government Committee meeting, where other councilmembers refused to advance his idea of creating modular prefabricated housing on county-owned land.

“I think unfortunately our current approach is just too piecemeal and incremental,” Mahan said. “I really fundamentally believe that the city and county need a more ambitious and comprehensive plan that identifies tens of acres across the county (for housing).”

Lack of experience

Mahan’s proposal called for the city to create a list of potential sites throughout San Jose and Santa Clara County to place modular houses—units that can be assembled quickly and cheaply while a foundation is being built at a final location.

There is a growing demand for both temporary and permanent shelter for thousands of homeless San Jose residents. Mayor Sam Liccardo recently launched a similar program to build prefab modular homes to eventually shelter 1,500 unhoused residents. Mahan’s proposal, which envisioned building new homes to shelter thousands of people by the end of next year, drew immediate opposition from Councilmember Raul Peralez, who claimed that Mahan, with only months on the council, lacked the background to understand why his proposal was flawed.

“I do recognize that Councilmember Mahan, in being new, doesn’t have the benefit of having been present for all the conversations that I and my other colleagues have been a part of,” Peralez said during the meeting. “(Staff) indicated, in fact, that what Mahan is asking for is being done today, has been prioritized previously. And I know that personally because much of the work that has been done has come from directives that I’ve either led or signed off on, dating back to as early as my initial terms on the council.”

As examples, Peralez and city officials discussed the fact that the city is already working on applications for Project Homekey funds—state monies available for emergency housing projects—for five shelter sites.

Mahan pushed back that while he’s new to the council, he’s not ignorant about this issue.

“I vetted this memo through the City Manager’s Office,” Mahan said. “My request is not for a long list… I’m not asking for a list of hundreds of sites. I’m very specifically asking that the city manager come back before the end of the year with at least six sites we can move forward on.”

Been there, tried that

Mahan’s fellow councilmembers struck a conciliatory tone, but also echoed concerns about the response the proposal would likely trigger.

“We’re trying to give you a perspective that maybe we’ve been through it a little bit, and we’ve been through the trenches,” said Councilmember Dev Davis. “When you say you’re asking for a list, we’ve been through that. And that list got publicized—I think 99 sites were listed—and the community exploded.”

Davis appeared to reference a 2017 proposal to build tiny home villages. The city initially had plans to build bungalows for 250 houseless people throughout San Jose, but downscaled plans following severe public outcry.

Residents criticized Mahan’s plan, with some raising concerns about the impact on public safety. Several speakers were alarmed at the prospect of masses of homeless residents living at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds—a fear Mahan said is baseless because his plan doesn’t call for concentrating residents on an individual site.

“While we recognize that the unhoused are one of our most vulnerable populations here in the city, we do think having all of them congregate in one specific area (District 7), especially one that is already 20% busier than any other police district or firehouse in the city, might not be the best option,” said Corey Condren, a firefighter and representative of the Local 230 union.

Huascar Castro, associate director of housing and transportation policy at Working Partnerships USA, said temporary emergency shelters have a history of labor violations in San Jose.

“We’d like to note that there have been numerous attempts at temporary housing solutions where wage theft violations have taken place for workers that are building those projects,” he said. Earlier this year, San José Spotlight reported that workers were being cheated their due wages and faced safety hazards at the Bernal Monterey emergency interim housing site.

‘We know how it ends’

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas told Mahan she also had experience receiving a hard no on a housing proposal, citing her failed attempt to create a safe parking site in her district. Mahan’s proposal called for using the state funds, as well as city funds through Measure A and Measure E, to pay for the prefab housing.

“We need immediate housing, and we need to prevent people from being unhoused,” Arenas said. “So getting the word out about the state funding and rental assistance and legal assistance is, for me, the utmost priority.”

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones sympathized with Mahan, noting it was a disappointing experience for him. He reiterated that the councilmembers didn’t question Mahan’s intelligence or experience, but his idea had been tried before and failed.

“If you have a situation where you just produce a list of sites, again, we’ve seen this move before, we know how it ends, and it doesn’t end well,” Jones said.

Some homeless advocates spoke out in support of Mahan. Scott Largent, an advocate who attended the meeting, told San José Spotlight that Mahan seemed to appreciate the need for a fast solution to homelessness in the city, unlike other councilmembers.

“They were like ‘we’re the seniors on campus, you’re just a little freshman, you need to submit,’” Largent said. “He stood his ground, but I felt sorry for the guy.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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