As San Jose scrambles to find new sites for homeless housing, its latest idea might leave residents scratching their heads—using extra land by highway on-ramps or cloverleaf interchanges.
“We have to be very creative,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said at a housing news conference earlier this month. “We’re going to try to find that land in every way possible, and obviously we need to build very safely and humanely. And we’re going to do that. But one way or another we have to find land.”
A cloverleaf interchange is named for the shape it creates when two highways intersect without using traffic stops or traffic lights. Liccardo floated the idea to officials at Caltrans and members of the media, though his office told San José Spotlight discussions are in the early stages with nothing concrete yet. Liccardo’s office declined to comment further.
‘An outrageous idea’
The city already has housing communities near highways, including one at the Almaden Expressway exit near Evans Lane, at the intersection of Bernal Road and Monterey Road and a bridge housing site on Rue Ferrari in South San Jose. All housing at these sites are prefabricated modular units—houses prebuilt at a factory that can be transported quickly to a predetermined site while a foundation is built. The units are designed for temporary housing, with on-site services such as job training and mental health services.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, San Jose added more than 300 interim housing units to three different sites across the city. The cost of prefabricated housing is also cheaper: $100,000 to $110,000 per unit. Permanent housing costs are approximately $750,000 per unit.
These programs look to put a dent into the exploding homelessness crisis in the city. In 2019, the number of unhoused residents exceeded 6,100. A new count was set for this year, but the county canceled its biennial homeless census in January citing COVID-19 concerns.
The cloverleaf idea has gotten some choice words from at least one elected official, Sheriff Laurie Smith.
“That is not only dangerous, it is an outrageous idea,” Smith said on a recent episode of The Podlight. “You know when you take those curves either exiting freeways or changing freeways? A lot of those curves are blind curves and you want to put homeless people in the middle of that… Take care of the homeless population in your city without outrageously stupid ideas.”
Better than living outside
Though the idea is innovative, studies caution against building too close to freeways.
In 2016, Los Angeles resorted to building homeless housing and affordable housing near heavily polluted freeways. Of the roughly 2,000 affordable homes approved in Los Angeles that year, one in four was within 1,000 feet of a freeway, according to city numbers. Recent tiny home projects for the unhoused have cropped up in Los Angeles along freeways just this year: One opened in April in the city’s North Hollywood neighborhood and another broke ground in September near the on- and off-ramps of the 134 freeway.
California air regulators have long warned against building near freeways, since studies have shown an increased risk of asthma, heart disease, cancer and other health problems in those who live near freeways. But in 2017, the California Air Resources Board changed its stance, instead recommending anti-pollution features in developments such as air filters and sound walls to reduce the health risks. State officials said communities can build while simultaneously reducing exposure to traffic-related pollution.
“Living on the streets is tremendously bad for your health, obviously. In that sense, it’s probably justified to house them anywhere you can,” Scott Fruin, a professor in preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, told San José Spotlight. “But if these residents have diabetes or heart conditions or (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or anything with a high COVID risk, that’s not a good place to put them, even temporarily.”
Even if there are concerns with building, some housing experts—including those who have worked with the city—hope the region can find more innovative solutions for land.
“There is nothing more unsafe than living outside, unsheltered and exposed to the elements,” Aubrey Merriman, CEO of homeless resource nonprofit LifeMoves, told San José Spotlight. “As our local governments work to quickly implement cost-effective transitional housing, we should all support their efforts.”