More than 200 South San Jose residents and housing advocates spoke at a virtual town hall Monday night to express concern or applaud a plan to fast-track dozens of new housing units for homeless residents during the region’s shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As a city, we really have two emergencies on our hands — we have the COVID emergency, but we have the ongoing homeless crisis and shelter crisis,” Jim Ortbal, the city’s deputy city manager, said during the town hall. “On March 20, our city manager declared both of those were in effect and we needed to take immediate emergency action.”
This month, the city approved allocating more than $17 million from the Homeless Housing and Prevention program to build modular homes for homeless residents to self-quarantine as the coronavirus spread across the county. The City Council approved temporary homes to rise on a city-owned 2.5-acre plot of land located in District 2 off Monterey and Bernal roads following a contentious council meeting last week.
The first 80 temporary homes are set to rise on the site within 16 to 20 modular buildings, each accommodating three to five people.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who led the townhall Monday, said the city must be prepared with emergency shelter for future waves of coronavirus infections.
“We know about every contagion, every pandemic, there is typically a second wave and quite often a third wave,” he said. “Even when the pandemic is done, we will then face the challenge of pushing out hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless people back out into the street. Having places where those homeless individuals can live in on an emergency basis or transitional basis will be critical for us.”
Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, who represents District 2, was not at Monday’s meeting. Liccardo said the two had arranged for the mayor to lead the meeting instead.
Jimenez was one of two lawmakers to vote against placing a bridge housing community at the Bernal location during last week’s council meeting. Councilmember Johnny Khamis also opposed it.
The council approved two other potential interim-housing sites at Evans Lane at Almaden Expressway in District 6 and a third site on Rue Ferrari in District 2. Jimenez proposed eliminating the Bernal site and instead building the modular homes at Rue Ferrari since it’s larger and farther away from residents. He added that each district should be limited to one site.
“I made my opposition to this decision very clear and I am disappointed in this outcome,” Jimenez wrote in a letter to residents.
The Bernal site was proposed for a tiny home community three years ago, but city leaders struck down the proposal following outcry from residents. Now, much of the District 2 community is up in arms, concerned about property values, safety, crime, as well as a lack of supportive services for many mentally ill homeless residents.
“If it is legal, it was immoral, unethical to push this short term justification of COVID for a long term impact of residents who have done nothing but follow the rules and pay their taxes,” resident Roger Lee said during the meeting.
Many participants in the meeting said city leaders have used the pandemic to override the community’s wishes. The state of emergency declared during the pandemic allows city leaders to bypass city rules on holding community meetings and environmental regulations, which are typically required during the development phase of a new project.
Resident Sushmita Singla called the move “corrupted politics.”
Some residents, however, disagreed and said they were pleased the city took the initiative to find a location to shelter the homeless.
“It’s critical that we house our unhoused people especially during this pandemic,” resident Jacquie Heffner said. “I’m hopeful we can … figure out how we can work together to make this the best possible outcome for all of us.”
With more than 6,000 unhoused people in San Jose, Liccardo said it is imperative the city build on the sites that are available. This year, the city opened its first tiny home community, which Liccardo said has received “no complaints from nearby residents.”
A second site, located on Felipe Ave. near the intersection of Highway 101 and Interstate 280, is also underway, according to city planners. Both sites were developed by affordable housing provider Habitat for Humanity, which is also tasked with building the modular units at Monterey and Bernal roads.
“I would far rather have those homeless individuals being housed because we know it is safer for them and safer for us and better for the whole community,” Liccardo said. “The notion that somehow or another, somebody else somewhere else will house the homeless is one that is not consistent with the reality that we all face.”