San Jose officials pressure VTA for homeless housing
San Jose Councilmember David Cohen urges the VTA board of directors to support building 200 homes for unhoused residents at the Cerone VTA Yard. San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei and Councilmember Pam Foley, who sit on the board, also support housing there. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Whether a result of politics or caution, San Jose’s hopes of opening an interim housing site at a public transit lot in the northern part of the city may not happen exactly how leaders want.

    The VTA board of directors is voting Thursday on where to build 200 homes for homeless residents. The 12-person board is seemingly split, with most San Jose representatives pushing for all 200 to be at the transit agency’s Cerone Yard. But other board members, like County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, want alternative sites to be considered so that not all 200—if any—go to Cerone.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei and Councilmembers Pam Foley and David Cohen gathered on Wednesday at Cerone in an attempt to rally VTA board members to vote alongside them. Cohen does not sit on the VTA board.

    “This isn’t just the city of San Jose’s problem. Homeless people are crossing (city) borders all the time,” Cohen, who represents North San Jose where the yard is located, told San José Spotlight. “If we turn this into a large enough site, we can earmark a number of those spaces for people that are in other cities … we should be able to make this a win-win for everybody.”

    There are approximately 6,340 homeless residents across San Jose, 4,411 of whom live on the street, along rivers or in tents, according to county data. San Jose’s unhoused population shrunk by 4.7% over the last year, and officials like Mahan credit it to the city bringing more temporary and affordable housing online.

    After a contentious debate last month, the board voted to create draft agreements to build 200 homes with state help at the Cerone yard. VTA’s Cottle, Hostetter and Berryessa North stations across San Jose are also being considered.

    Mahan and most of his council colleagues want all 200 homes at Cerone because they say not only is it the most cost effective option, it’s the only site big enough to accommodate the tiny homes Gov. Gavin Newsom is building for San Jose. The state will cover construction costs and San Jose will be responsible for security, case management for residents and other services. Splitting up the homes across different sites nearly doubles the cost of services from nearly $5 million to as much as $10 million, according to the mayor’s office.

    “What could you do with $4 million? You can restore hours at all of our library branches to (pre-pandemic levels), hire 20 new police officers or 18 new firefighters,” Mahan said at the news conference. “Or you can build another interim site and help another 200 people get off the streets.”

    But at the last board meeting, Chavez and labor-backed allies said they are interested in exploring other options because of safety concerns expressed by union workers. VTA staff also did not recommend that all homes be put on Cerone at the last meeting because the transit agency has plans to electrify its bus fleet, and said it need the space at Cerone to do so.

    Behind the scenes, the South Bay Labor Council worked to lobby elected officials to move away from the Cerone site, several sources said.

    Executive Director Jean Cohen said of course she lobbied elected officials to ensure union voices were heard, but insisted the labor council supports emergency housing options on compatible land.

    “What we’ve been working on is making sure that we can welcome our unhoused neighbors in a way that is responsible and safe for them and for the VTA employees,” Jean Cohen told San José Spotlight.

    However, Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley — who is a VTA board member — said there seemed to be inconsistencies around arguments coming from the labor side, which previously supported interim housing in neighborhoods.

    “We are all trying to sell to all of our constituents that (interim housing) is okay, be open minded, we’re just trying to help people,” Blankley told San José Spotlight.  “And then we come up against a labor group that says that’s fine, but not here. And because they’re a labor group, instead of a neighborhood, they managed to have more strength with the elected officials that they support.”

    John Pospishek, vice president of ATU Local 265, said 200 homes at Cerone is not ideal, but if the board votes to move forward there needs to be a detailed safety management plan in writing.

    “We all know that there’s an unhoused crisis within San Jose, and we all need to work together to solve it. And we’re (in favor of) finding homes for the unhoused,” Pospishek told San José Spotlight. “But when it comes to the safety within this location, we just want certain safety and security concerns addressed and we can’t get them to commit to our concerns (in writing).”

    The VTA board of directors meets Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and the interim housing item will be heard at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will be held in person at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors chambers and streamed virtually.

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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