Snider: Relocatable homes can solve homelessness in Santa Clara County — and California
A relocatable home is pictured in this file photo. A new state bill would make it easier to create these homes for homeless residents.

    Relocatable homes have a key role in solving homelessness in Santa Clara County – and all of California

    For over 40 years, Santa Clara County has failed to produce enough new homes to shelter our diverse residents. The resulting housing crisis is sadly obvious to all, and is felt heartbreakingly every day by our unhoused neighbors living in public in tents, trailers, and encampments. It is grossly unfair that those most in need of compassionate care and shelter are the least likely to get it.

    As a county, we didn’t get serious about reducing homelessness until Measure A, the 2016 housing bond that has successfully delivered nearly a billion dollars to help build affordable housing throughout the county. Today, those bond dollars are nearly spent, but we must continue our progress and identify affordable — and reproducible — ways to shelter our unhoused neighbors.

    Navigation centers and shelters are often the “first rung” on the housing ladder for unhoused people — and we need more of them, too. Permanent supportive housing — at a typical cost of $850,000 per unit — is an important long-term solution but it often takes four to five years to build and occupy.

    But there is a “missing rung” on California’s housing ladder that allows people living in makeshift and dangerous encampments to relocate to safe and secure homes expeditiously.

    One great solution being proposed in Sacramento is Senate Bill 634, legislation that will facilitate a concept called “Opportunity Housing” that’s an effective and much needed tool for our toolbox — augmenting short-term solutions such as shelters and navigation centers and coming online much faster than long-term permanent affordable housing.

    What makes this type of housing different? Opportunity Housing is modular and relocatable to unused land. As the needs and residents in a community change, these low-cost Opportunity Housing buildings can change with them. Opportunity Housing works on small and large parcels; and also works on public and private property.

    Best of all, Opportunity Housing is not just a concept — it’s been built in numerous cities across the state, including San Francisco, Rohnert Park and Santa Barbara. Cities like San Jose and public agencies like Valley Water all have surplus land they need for the future, but are not used right now.

    Opportunity Housing is a perfect fit since it quickly solves the urgent problem of homelessness, but doesn’t require a long-term commitment to a particular land use or style of development. SB 634 will ensure Opportunity Housing becomes an option for all communities in California, a relatively low-cost and flexible way to house our residents quickly while we continue to work on permanent supportive housing throughout the state.

    When passed into law, this legislation will facilitate Opportunity Housing that takes only six months from drawing board to fully occupied. It provides private units with access to fully code-compliant kitchens, bathrooms, open space, and privacy.

    And it’s orders of magnitude less expensive. The nonprofit housing developer DignityMoves has perfected the model and creates safe and attractive communities for an average $45,000 cost per unit, compared to $850,000 construction cost per unit in a traditional apartment building. The flexibility of Opportunity Housing is a winner for philanthropists and private investors who have already stepped up to fund these significantly less expensive projects.

    Since they are relocatable, Opportunity Housing is also a winner for property owners working on long-term developments who can host housing units on their land for five or six years. Then, when the residents have moved into permanent homes, the land can be redeveloped however the owner wishes, and the modular units can easily be relocated to a new location, configured however they are needed as tiny homes, apartments, or family units.

    Opportunity Housing is a compassionate and comprehensive solution that can help get unsheltered Californians into interim shelters and mid-term housing communities while we continue to build and invest in our long-term permanent supportive housing solutions throughout the state. This is precisely the kind of public-private partnership needed to bring people indoors and into safe and dignified living conditions.

    SB 634 will help scale this approach and expedite the construction of these housing communities at this critical time and the Legislature should quickly move to approve this legislation.

    Kelly Snider is a professor of practice in SJSU’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Director of the Certificate in Real Estate Development program. 

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