San Jose councilmember proposes prefab housing for homeless
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.

    San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan has a solution to help end homelessness: Prefabricated homes on public land.

    That’s the proposal the District 10 councilmember will bring before the city’s Rules Committee on Wednesday. He hopes San Jose and Santa Clara County can identify sites to build prefabricated units, or housing that can be assembled quickly off-site while a foundation is being built at the final location.

    Such a plan could effectively place 5,000 unhoused individuals in prefabricated homes by the end of next year—if the city and county can agree on it.

    Mahan says it’s possible, so long as local government moves quickly and at a big scale.

    “The money is there, the need is there, the land is there if you include other public agencies like the county (and) the cost-effective shelter is there now that prefabricated modular units have become mainstream,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “All the ingredients are there to end street homelessness in our community, but there’s been a lack of political will across all levels of government to do it.”

    An ambitious plan

    The city and county have worked on solutions to try to curb the area’s homelessness crisis in recent years. But there have been delays in getting housing programs approved, a rejection of sanctioned homeless encampments by city leaders and San Jose’s plan to build 25,000 housing units by 2023—with 10,000 deemed affordable—is still far short of its goal.

    The project is ambitious, Mahan says, but he believes the city and county can partner to build the sites, ramp up mental health and addiction treatment and end street homelessness locally. To do so, he says government must be willing to mandate individuals to accept safe and secure shelter.

    Mahan wants the city to look at building prefab housing for homeless on public land in each of the six city districts that currently don’t have bridge or emergency housing sites—Districts 1, 4, 5, 8, 9 and Mahan’s own District 10. That includes any sites owned by the city, Santa Clara County, Caltrans, VTA and Valley Water. The proposal would give homeless residents living in and around project sites first choice for units. Projects would be funded by a combination of the state’s Project Homekey and county and city funds through Measure A and Measure E.

    “There’s new money from the state, and we really need to leverage what’s available,” said Mathew Reed, director of policy at Silicon Valley at Home, a San Jose-based housing nonprofit. “As has been the challenge for finding sites, there’s been no lack of work done, but we should acknowledge that we’ve been through this process before, so it will take a new kind of political will.”

    The cost of prefab projects

    Santa Clara County has looked to prefabricated units to house homeless residents before. In February, the county opened a site of 25, 100-square-foot units in the parking lot of San Jose’s former city hall. A 2019 project proposed in Willow Glen stalled in part because of its massive cost: $600,000 per unit made of recycled shipping containers.

    Mahan believes his proposal can build affordable units quicker and for much less: $35,000 for each prefabricated home, totaling approximately $150,000 per unit once fully built out with utilities, furnishings, common space and facilities for onsite services.

    By contrast, some multi-million dollar affordable housing projects cost upwards of $600,000 per unit and take years to build, as opposed to just weeks for some prefabrication projects.

    “We have found a quick strike modular solution that we think is high-impact and low-cost and brings people indoors in a dignified and safe way,” Aubrey Merriman, CEO of LifeMoves, a nonprofit that has overseen prefabrication projects, told San José Spotlight. That includes a project in Mountain View with 100 units. “We need to think more like the Jetsons and less like the Flintstones.”

    Committing to end homelessness

    An acre of land can hold approximately 100 prefabricated units, per Mahan’s proposal. To build enough units to house roughly 5,000 people on the street, the city would have to set aside 50 acres. According to the city’s 2019 homeless census report, 6,097 people in the city are homeless.

    Should the Rules committee vote in favor of the proposal, it will go in front of the City Council at a future date. Mahan aims for the city manager to come back with a list of potential sites for modular houses by December.

    “If the leadership of the city and county were fully committed to ending street homelessness by the end of next year, it would be possible,” Mahan said. “We spend a lot of money on the Band-Aids of abating encampments and picking up trash and shuffling people around. These Band-Aids aren’t making anyone’s lives better. So I’d rather we put our energy into identifying the sites where we have the land and securing the tremendous amount of new state funding to build safe shelter with scale and speed.”

    The San Jose Rules and Open Government Committee meets Wednesday at 2 p.m. You can watch the meeting here.

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at l[email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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