San Jose: Volunteers build tiny homes for homeless ahead of Thanksgiving
In January 2020 a tiny house village will open at 1410 Mabury Road in East San Jose. It will include 40 cabins like these, built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

At a Habitat for Humanity worksite in East San Jose Wednesday morning Mayor Sam Liccardo joined volunteers gathered in the driving rain to put the finishing touches on 40 tiny homes that will be placed on a nearby lot and used as transitional housing for homeless residents next year.

The typical tiny home is only 80-square-feet — a rectangle 8-feet wide and 10-feet long — with just enough room inside for a few shelves, a small desk and a single bed. A few of the units are slightly larger, about 120-square-feet, to accommodate tenants in wheelchairs. The cabins, once they’re constructed are being moved to a city-leased lot on Mabury Road to create the tiny home village. The site will also have a shared laundry room, bathroom and kitchen facilities.

In Dec. 2018 — after years of controversy — the City Council chose the Mabury Road site, which is owned by the Valley Transportation Authority, and another location near the intersection of Highways 101 and 680, owned by Caltrans, as the testing grounds for a one-of-a-kind experiment in providing transitional housing to Silicon Valley’s growing homeless population.

Both locations, each with 40 tiny homes, were due to start taking in residents this summer — but troubled negotiations between the city and state pushed back the opening dates for both. Assuming no further delays, the city expects the structures to be in place by January and the Mabury Road village will open to homeless residents who have a job or a housing voucher, but need a temporary place to stay while looking for permanent housing. The second village is also expected to open in early 2020.

A third potential site was eliminated last year in March as the result of a land swap with Santa Clara County.

“This is just one of many solutions that we are rolling out to combat this homelessness crisis,” said Liccardo, who has championed the tiny home initiative.

The mayor donned a neon vest and safety googles and rolled up his sleeves Wednesday to install shelving brackets to some of the 32 nearly completed cabins already at the Mabury Road village. Meanwhile other volunteers, including Liccardo’s wife Jessica Garcia-Kohl, worked on the interiors of the eight incomplete cabin frames at the Habitat for Humanity worksite.

“Obviously we need to try a lot of different solutions because the status quo isn’t working,” he added. “We’re going to continue to make efforts like this.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo operates a miter saw at a Habitat for Humanity worksite in East San José. Photo by Adam F. Hutton

It’s innovative, particularly because of the nonprofit partners the city enlisted to help — but Liccardo admits it is not a panacea.

“We know that this is just a small piece of a larger set of possible solutions, but it is a very important one,” Liccardo said, adding that the city estimates there are hundreds of homeless individuals who could be housed immediately if transitional housing were available. “This will address that particular need.”

The partnership allowed Habitat for Humanity an opportunity to look beyond its core mission of affordable home ownership and to get involved in temporary housing solutions for the first time.

“This is definitely a first,” said Patti Wang Cross, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley. “Our traditional model is focused on home ownership and establishing opportunities for families earning a limited income to be able to afford to own a home in the Bay Area. That’s the core of what we do, but collaborations like this are definitely a new idea. And we are excited to be on the leading edge of a concept like this.”

Wang Cross said she believes San Jose has shown “a lot of courage” by taking this innovative approach to addressing the homelessness crisis.

“We are starting with just these two sites as a pilot, but the hope is that we would be able to replicate a model like this in other places,” she added. “And I think there are a lot of eyes watching this project to see how it develops as part of a matrix of solutions.”

Liccardo emphasized the importance of solutions focused on the particular needs of different groups.

“We are taking this challenge on in pieces because we know there are very different needs in each of the subpopulations that we are trying to address,” Liccardo said. “For example, we know that there are some very serious methamphetamine addiction issues and for that we’re going to need a very different solution than what you can see here.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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