April 19, 2024
The city seeks to pop up interim housing units within a year. Currently, it's taking double that amount of time.

Standing just yards away from one of San Jose’s numerous homeless encampments on the edge of Willow Glen under a Highway 87 overpass, Mayor Matt Mahan on Monday announced plans to reduce the time it takes to get an interim shelter up and running by cutting through the city’s bureaucratic red tape.

The strategy will require the city to declare a shelter crisis emergency declaration, allowing certain land use provisions, building codes and procurement decisions to be bypassed — laws that elected officials say drag out the development of tiny home sites and safe parking locations to nearly two years. The mayor hopes to slash that time frame to less than a year.

Mahan said he’s convinced the country’s 12th largest city must act as if it is responding to a widespread natural disaster, drawing parallels to San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake when a quarter of a million people were left homeless. In response, 5,300 “earthquake cottages” were built.

“City officials at the time didn’t throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, it’s their fault for losing their home or the state has to figure it out, or we can’t do anything,’” said Mahan, who was joined during Monday’s press conference by Councilmembers Rosemary Kamei, Omar Torres and David Cohen. “They jumped in immediately and built earthquake cottages. They sprang into action because it was truly an emergency.”

The number of cottages built — some of which still stand today in San Francisco — is not far from the city’s latest estimate of how many unsheltered homeless live on San Jose’s streets: 4,400.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – DECEMBER 15: A pair of earthquake cottages used by 1906 survivors are on display at The Presidio in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

Adding to the urgency, officials say, are mounting frustrations from residents. Councilmember Cohen cited a Mercury News poll published Monday which found 75% of registered voters in the Bay Area believe homelessness is getting worse in the region.

“I think most people are running out of patience,” said Cohen. The city is also exploring whether the declaration can help streamline permanent affordable housing construction.

The city council is set to vote on the declaration at the end of October, mayor spokesperson Tasha Dean said. If approved, city staff will still have to come back to the council after the vote with specific ways to streamline construction timelines.

During Monday’s press conference, a number of homeless individuals tuned into the mayor’s announcement, including Giovanni Aguilera. A San Jose native and resident of the highway encampment since May, Aguilera lives in an RV with his dog BB. He said he would be happy to relocate to one of the city’s interim shelter sites, but remains skeptical about whether the city has others on board who can actually get the infrastructure built out.

“It’s not in one person’s hands,” said Aguilera about the shelter construction process. “It goes into multiple hands.”

Others, like formerly homeless resident Jaime Navarro, said interim shelter helped him move from living on the streets for nine years to getting his own apartment with a job at a gas station.

“I’ve got my own car now,” said Navarro during Monday’s press conference. “I’m holding down a job at Chevron. I pay my own rent. I’m really grateful.”

The proposed declaration comes as the mayor seeks to build out a host of interim housing options across the city with the belief that permanent affordable housing, though impactful, is both time and cost-intensive.

Started under Mahan’s predecessor Mayor Sam Liccardo, San Jose’s interim housing infrastructure includes tiny home-style shelters with supportive services, long-term parking for RV dwellers and converted hotel rooms.

City councilmembers broadly support the interim shelter strategy, though some disagreement remains over how much money the city should devote to its construction.

This year, the mayor sought to take a large chunk of real estate transfer tax revenue and devote it to interim shelter funding, a proposal that was met with staunch opposition from permanent supportive housing advocates. The mayor was able to shift millions to his strategy, though not as much money as he originally wanted.

Others worry that the shelters will burden the city financially. An estimate from the city’s budget director Jim Shannon in June found that the strategy will cost the city roughly $60 million per year by 2030 — and that figure only takes into account 1,500 units. Permanent affordable housing advocates also argue their strategy is more financially sustainable since rent collected from residents can help support the housing operations.

But Mahan said the cost is worth it — especially when taking into account the impact of unsheltered homelessness on first responders and hospital emergency rooms. One recent estimate puts the cost of an unsheltered homeless individual for the city at $65,000 per year.

“There is no free lunch,” said Mahan on Monday. “As economists like to say, we’re spending money one way or another.”