February 26, 2024
A Thursday night vote threw a possible wrench in the plans for a development at the Valley Transportation Agency's Cerone work yard

An empty plot of land in a remote part of north San Jose and owned by the Valley Transportation Authority may become the next homeless housing site, bolstering the city’s interim shelter portfolio by 200 units provided by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

But the plan faces a potential snag. Officials on Thursday evening voted to start drafting up paperwork to finalize the deal while at the same time exploring three other potential spots around the city for the project. Some VTA leaders and workers are pushing back on the idea due to safety concerns.

A final vote on the proposal, located on Zanker Road, is set for next month by the agency’s board of directors. The San Jose City Council has already given the thumbs up to the Zanker Road location. The roughly six-acre spot is just north of Highway 237 and right next to VTA’s Cerone work yard. A multitude of tech buildings, including a half dozen Cisco offices to the south, surround the location.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, a voting member of the VTA board and a major proponent of Cerone, said he understands the safety concerns from the community but says those can be addressed with security that already exists at the city’s other interim housing sites.

“It’s been a slow and convoluted process getting to this point where we have a design,” he said in an interview. “And we know that (Cerone) can hold the 200 units from the Governor that come at no extra cost to taxpayers. It’s an ideal site.”

The quick passage of the site is crucial in fulfilling the mayor’s ambitious promise of getting 1,000 homeless people off the street by the end of the year. There are slightly under 4,500 unsheltered homeless residents in the city, according to the latest count, an 11% decline compared to last year.

The Governor’s housing units, which the state will built then pass off to the city to be eventually run by a nonprofit, will feature 120 square foot rooms and include community and case management buildings. When completed, it will be the city’s 10th interim housing site, a figure that includes safe parking lots for RVs.

During Thursday night’s meeting, VTA’s staff recommended finding locations other than Cerone.

“We have concerns with this specific (site),” said the transit agency’s Chief External Affairs Officer James Lawson. “This is a workforce that has been through a lot in the last three years in terms of the COVID epidemic, a cyber attack as well as a mass shooting that took place at another yard we have.” In 2021, a disgruntled VTA employee shot nine colleagues at one of the agency’s facilities, one of the worst mass shootings in California history.

In addition to safety, Lawson also explained potential traffic issues that could arise.

The three alternate suggestions offered by VTA are the agency’s Hostetter Park and Ride near the intersection of Highway 680 and North Capitol Avenue, Cottle Park and Ride in the southern part of the city and the Berryessa/North San Jose Transit Center. Each has enough room for about 70 units, which would mean the Governor’s offer would be split up into different areas.

“There are other sites and other opportunities,” said Raj Sehdev, a senior architect at VTA who spoke during Thursday’s meeting. “I would strongly recommend that be considered.”

But supporters of Cerone say it will be safe and the alternatives do not pencil out economically.

“They want to feel safe when they’re there,” said Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley, a VTA board member, about the transit agency’s employees in an interview. “I appreciate and understand those concerns…It’s providing interim emergency housing in an area that can take advantage of the economy of scale that is being offered by the Governor’s office. No other site can offer that many units.”

The South County mayor was the sole dissenting vote on Thursday night after disagreeing with the idea of looking for alternatives to Cerone.

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Blankley said it made sense for the deal to get made since San Jose also has a funding source, referring to San Jose’s Measure E, a tax that goes towards homelessness housing efforts. This year, permanent affordable housing advocates sharply disagreed with Mahan, who was able to divert some funding toward interim options. Opponents of the mayor’s strategy claim it doesn’t get to the core issue of housing affordability, while Mahan sees encampments as an immediate humanitarian crisis in need of a quick solution. Some also have concerns over the city’s ability to fund the interim housing in the long term.

In March, Gov. Newsom announced he was handing out 1,200 new tiny homes across the state. In addition to San Jose, 500 will go to Los Angeles, 150 for San Diego and 350 for Sacramento.

The Governor said at the time he intended to work with cities that would embrace the specific housing strategy, which generally intends to rapidly move people out of street encampments and serve as a transition point before entering into affordable housing. Notably, neither San Francisco or Oakland were offered units.

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