San Jose is searching for a developer to build permanent affordable housing at Evans Lane—six years after city leaders first approved homeless housing on the site.
Records obtained by San José Spotlight show the city rejected an offer by a prominent South Bay developer to build the homes in 2016. It could have happened faster and potentially cheaper.
It’s exactly what former Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio predicted would happen.
“I think time has proven that my initial proposal was correct,” Oliverio told San José Spotlight.
The six-acre site currently has 49 temporary homes—converted shipping containers—that house about 50 families. They came online in 2021—three years after city leaders approved the plan in 2019.
The interim housing site is a temporary quick-build solution, but the grand plan is to build permanent homes there in two phases, and eventually remove the shipping containers.
Back in 2016, developer Swenson Builders offered to build a high-density, mixed-use affordable housing site with 400 units that would’ve taken two to three years to construct using state and federal funding, and a request for a $16 million loan from San Jose. It was rejected by city leaders who worried it would take too long to develop.
Case Swenson, the company’s president and CEO, emailed some city and Santa Clara County officials last February saying he “wish(ed) we could be more proud of our city.” It was part of a long email thread titled “Disgrace in D-3” where city officials, housing stakeholders and residents complained about growing homeless camps in the city.
The messages, obtained through a public records request by San José Spotlight, begin with Garden City Construction owner Jim Salata emailing Mayor Sam Liccardo and other elected officials to denounce a homeless encampment at Guadalupe Gardens. He says in the email that citizens should raise hell and “city leaders should be absolutely crucified for this.”
Many others chime in to call the homeless camps disgraceful before Swenson shared that he had a solution for Evans Lane in 2016. The development he proposed would’ve had a Boys and Girls Club, open space and a park, he added.
“The ask was for a 16M loan from the city that we would pay back in 10 years with 3% interest. The rest would have been funded using federal and state money,” Swenson wrote. “This was shot down as it was going to take too long to build (we could have finished in less than 3 years).”
Swenson was not available for comment.
The council instead voted to build temporary housing with the shipping containers.
“The council was looking for a quick win. And they wanted to showcase that, ‘Hey, we can do something quickly.’ And my insight was, no, you can’t,” Oliverio said. “The interim stuff takes a lot of time, a lot of resources, spends a lot of money and it could have gone toward, you know, permanent housing.”
Oliverio suggested building high density, low-income housing with a private developer such as Swenson—50% low income housing and 50% at market rate—would be the quickest way to increase the affordable housing stock back then.
He was at odds with the city’s housing department who recommended the interim housing instead.
Serving a need
Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the city’s housing department, said he did not have details about the Evans Lane proposals prior to 2019 and maintains the goal never wavered from building out the interim housing.
The temporary housing project was delayed when lenders balked at financing modular construction through the repurposing of shipping containers. They argued it was too risky.
“The city recognizing the urgent need for more housing, opted to use a portion of the Evans Lane site to develop emergency interim housing,” Scott told San José Spotlight.
Scott said Evans Lane is one of five interim housing communities the city built in the past two years, with a sixth interim housing site under construction.
Though it took roughly six years for the city to come up with a plan, it took a couple of months to convert the use of shipping containers into temporary housing, Scott said. The total cost to the city was $5.2 million, he said, which doesn’t include staffing or the $2 million donated by the Sand Hill Foundation for the modular units.
At the Evans Lane site, families receive food and services provided by nonprofit PATH to help move them into permanent homes. Some families have already moved into long-term housing.
“It’s definitely serving a need for the families here,” said PATH’s Regional Director Laura Sandoval, who also writes a column for San José Spotlight. “Our ultimate goal is to get people connected to permanent affordable housing solutions for families that are here.”
The temporary homes are part of a three-phased plan, according to Councilmember Dev Davis. Phase 2 will build high-density permanent housing on the other half of this site, and phase 3 will develop a second permanent housing site to replace the containers.
“It’s really important for us to build as many interim housing sites as we can because we can do so quickly,” Davis, whose district includes Evans Lane, told San José Spotlight. “We can’t put all our eggs in any one basket and that was really the point of how we approach Evans Lane with having different phases.”
The District 6 councilmember said the site is also perfectly located to house children because of its proximity to local schools.
The city is currently in phase 2 and is accepting bids for a permanent housing developer until April.
“The Housing Department is excited to review the proposals and is optimistic there will soon be permanent housing on the Evans Lane site,” Scott said.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.