May 29, 2024
Safety and habitability issues at two of the Bay Area's largest homeless housing sites raise oversight concerns.

Mold, cockroaches and security issues at two of the Bay Area’s largest homeless housing sites in San Jose have raised questions about the level of oversight of the desperately needed homes for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

As San Jose works to double its total homeless housing stock under growing pressure to get a handle on the crisis, who exactly is responsible for making sure it’s safe and habitable? And are there similar levels of oversight for the rest of the Bay Area and California?

San Jose officials say oversight efforts are shared among city and county agencies and nonprofits, which each own, operate and invest in local sites. Local officials contend that coordination, which extends to cities across the South Bay, makes Santa Clara County unique in California and puts it in a better position to manage and regulate homeless housing.

State regulators also monitor many homeless housing sites across California. Their role varies from following up on self-reported issues raised by local governments to routine site inspections and audits.

Santa Clara County’s collaborative approach may be ahead of the curve, but officials acknowledge problems at local homeless housing facilities persist. They point to issues including difficulties maintaining aging buildings and deepening shortages of onsite case managers tasked with connecting residents to drug counseling, mental health care and other services.

“The last few years have been backbreaking for the providers, for the local governments, for all of us trying to hold up the floor of the valley during this pandemic,” said Jenn Loving, chief executive of the South Bay nonprofit Destination: Home, which helps local cities manage their homelessness response.

Officials say the challenges are hardly confined to the South Bay — and stress that local governments throughout the Bay Area must work together closely to end homelessness. Across the region, there are about 38,000 people without a permanent home on any given night, according to estimates from earlier this year. That’s a 35% increase from 2019, despite unprecedented billions in homelessness spending in recent years.

“The needs of the people we serve are complex and there are challenges that come with trying to solve a deeply rooted social and economic issue,” the city of San Jose said in a statement. “These complexities require constant coordination and a system-wide response.”

As the local homeless population has spiked in recent years, cities from Oakland and Berkeley to Santa Clara and Redwood City have also pushed to add thousands of new units for unsheltered residents.

San Jose has backed at least 700 homeless housing units for long-term or temporary stays. Over the next year, it aims to add at least 400 more units in converted motels and new structures, as well as around 1,000 tiny homes and prefabricated cabins for short-term stays.

At the state level, officials have authority over sites that receive state funding. But the amount of oversight varies.

For facilities supported by state loan programs, regulators oversee operating budgets, schedules of rental income, audited financial statements, reserve account monitoring and routine site visits, officials said. But for the almost 13,000 units the state has funded through its $3.75 billion Homekey grant program, regulators rely mainly on self-reported information from cities, counties and nonprofits.

Meanwhile, at the local level, San Jose officials said their oversight over the sites depends largely on whether the city owns them.

At a converted motel the city owns north of downtown, officials said they make regular visits for maintenance checks and hold weekly meetings with the site’s nonprofit service provider. Even so, the site, for which the city won a $12 million state grant to buy in 2020, has been beset with mold, pests and other damage.

Officials said crews are working to quickly fix the habitability issues, which have been documented in city code enforcement reports. After admitting it was ill-equipped to manage the former Best Western SureStay property, where residents for now live rent-free, the city agreed to turn it over to the Santa Clara County Housing Authority by the end of the year.

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For sites the city doesn’t own but has invested in, such as the struggling Second Street Studios complex near the Spartan Keyes neighborhood, officials said they are not responsible for day-to-day operations. However, they still conduct occasional onsite inspections and meet with the building owners and operators in charge.

Officials have documented safety, habitability, and issues at the Second Street Studios site, where residents pay rent and can stay permanently. City officials said they are working closely with the building’s nonprofit owner, San Jose-based First Community Housing, to fix the problems. The city has lent the developer around $37.5 million to finance the 135-unit property, according to city documents.

The city doesn’t regulate sites it doesn’t own or invest in. Going forward, the city plans to own only short-term “transitional” housing, such as the 1,000 tiny homes, officials said.