San Jose council approves safe parking, co-living downtown
Homeless residents sleep in their cars at the Seven Trees Community Center in San Jose.

San Jose is taking the bold step of allowing homeless residents to park their vehicles overnight at certain churches, community centers and libraries.

City lawmakers on Tuesday voted to expand San Jose’s safe parking beyond a single city-owned lot to allow parking in places of assembly.

Last October, the City Council approved a $250,000 pilot program to allow up to 17 families to sleep in their cars at Seven Trees Community Center. The homelessness nonprofit, LifeMoves, provided security and case management to help families move into shelters or more stable housing.

But Tuesday’s discussion wasn’t about expanding the format of the current pilot program. The decision instead legalized safe parking programs already in place at churches, libraries and community center lots.

“This is really, in its most basic form, another shelter solution,” said Jacky Morales-Ferrand, the city’s Housing Department Director. “We don’t contemplate at this point providing case management. The feedback we got from providers was that’s not what they’re set up to do.”

But some members of the council, like Councilmember Maya Esparza, felt that the city should provide more support to those in safe parking lots. In a memo before the meeting, Esparza suggested handing out hotel vouchers to those who can’t sleep in their cars because of illness or harsh weather conditions.

“If we’re setting these rules forward we have to consider the safety and the health of the person who would be sleeping in their car,” Esparza said. Her proposal, however, didn’t move forward.

Councilors also had a robust debate about the distance between the safe parking sites and homes. The proposed city law set the distance at 65 feet with the opportunity to move to 35 feet, if there’s a sound barrier between the lot and a neighboring property.

“I don’t want to see our current safe parking church operating lots run out,” Councilmember Raul Peralez said of the rule.

The council ultimately directed staff to tweak the rules to require a distance of 30 feet or less. The adjustments will be made at a future meeting, said City Attorney Rick Doyle.

‘Dorms for adults’ comes to San Jose

The City Council on Tuesday green-lighted a new housing concept in downtown that city leaders called “affordable by design.”

Often referred to as “dorms for adults,” co-living is a community of individuals who rent out private bedrooms and share common spaces, like kitchens and bathrooms, with other tenants.

The concept, which has taken off in big cities like San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles, was lauded by local developers and housing advocates on Tuesday.

However, some critics questioned the affordability of the trendy new apartments.

“Creative solutions are going to be necessary to achieve the goals we have set for housing downtown,” said Matthew Reed, Silicon Valley at Home’s policy manager. “However, this is not affordable housing that is being proposed… Rents in these types of properties are generally well above what can be considered affordable for lower-income households.”

Real estate developer Starcity, which owns a few San Francisco co-living communities, bills its rent anywhere from $1,575 to $2,100 a month, according to its website. This month, the group purchased land in downtown San Jose in anticipation of the council’s decision.

“The Bay Area has tremendous unmet demand for middle-income housing,” Eli Sokol, Starcity’s development manager, told San José Spotlight. “So we are excited to have the opportunity to bring a world-class product right to the heart of San Jose.”

“I think this is something to add to our arsenals for housing stock,” Councilmember Lan Diep said while listing the wide variety of housing ideas the city has taken under its wing.

Diep later joked that the concept would also increase “pre-marital relations.”

Raising building heights downtown

The San Jose council also debated the issue of raising building heights in downtown, though a vote on the controversial proposal won’t come until mid-March.

City officials recommended raising building heights up to 35 feet downtown and up to 150 feet in the Diridon Station Area. But with the Mineta San Jose International Airport just two miles away, Tuesday’s debate focused on the potential consequences of taller buildings cutting into the air space that airplanes have to land if one engine fails during inclement weather.

Councilmember Johnny Khamis supported an alternative plan that makes no changes to downtown height limits but raises the Diridon Station Area height limit up to 115 feet. Airport commissioners recommended also maintaining downtown limits but increasing heights up to 55 feet in the Diridon area.

“For me, it’s the viability of our airport that is the most important thing to me,” said Khamis, referring to the possibility that airlines would leave San Jose due to weight penalties from downtown height increases.

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, however, voiced her support for the city’s recommendation.

“It’s ambitious and I like that it will potentially double the housing stock for us,” she said.

On Tuesday, Airport Commissioner Cathy Hendrix called out the council for rushing a decision on the issue.

But Mayor Sam Liccardo emphasized that the decision to allow taller buildings, which was considered in 2007, has been thoroughly studied. “People want to build again,” Liccardo said of the discussion’s resurrection.

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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