VTA clears way for 200 tiny home shelters in North San Jose after push by mayor

Mahan, who’s up for re-election in March, has made tackling homelessness a centerpiece of his first term


The Valley Transportation Authority has cleared the way for a plan championed by San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and his allies to erect 200 tiny home cabins for homeless people on an agency-owned lot in the northern part of the city.

Despite safety and traffic concerns raised by neighbors and VTA staff, the agency’s board of directors unanimously agreed Thursday night to allow the city to move forward with the shelters proposed for an empty field near VTA’s Cerone work yard off Highway 237.

“We have thousands of neighbors living outside in unsheltered conditions, which is inhumane and terrible for everyone in the community,” said Mahan, a member of the VTA board, before casting his vote.

Mahan, who’s up for re-election in March, has made tackling homelessness a centerpiece of his first term as mayor. In recent days, he’s sought to rally public support for the Cerone site after the board, in response to employee safety concerns, agreed to consider other locations.

On Wednesday, Mahan and a handful of members of the City Council, which had already approved the tiny home site last year, held a press conference near the Cerone yard, arguing that changing the location would have forced delays and added millions of dollars in costs.

Getting the tiny homes up and running soon is crucial to realizing Mahan’s ambitious goal of moving 1,000 homeless people off the street and into newly created shelter space by early next summer, the mayor said in an interview Friday. An estimated 4,500 people live outdoors across the city, according to the latest count. That’s an 11% drop from 2022, thanks in large part to the hundreds of tiny homes and other “interim” housing sites the city has added in recent years.

To address safety concerns over the new site, the city and VTA agreed to meet with neighbors and agency staff regularly to develop security strategies. But at Thursday’s board meeting, some VTA employees said they had felt demonized for raising concerns.

“We really don’t appreciate the board members who really don’t support workers and send disingenuous emails to their constituents saying that we don’t support things,” said Tammy Dhanota, a VTA union chapter president.

Mahan said he hopes the tiny homes will start accepting residents by early next year. The city will hire a nonprofit to manage the 120-square-foot private shelters and provide on-site mental health and case management services. The end goal is to help residents find lasting homes, a challenge with a severe lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area.

Last year, almost half of the roughly 900 people who stayed at San Jose’s interim housing moved into permanent homes, a much higher rate than most dorm-style shelters, though results varied widely across different interim sites, according to city reports. Some locations had a maximum stay of six months, while others allowed residents to stay a year or more.

The 200 tiny homes will be supplied by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which aims to provide at least 1,200 total homes to cities across the state. He’s also promised 500 units for Los Angeles, 150 for San Diego and 350 for Sacramento.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom enters the prototype of one of the small homes displayed at a news conference where Newsom announced plans to build 1,200 small homes across the state to reduce homelessness, during the first of a four-day tour of the state in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Newsom said he intended to help cities that are actively working to add more shelter space. Notably, neither San Francisco nor Oakland, which have put more emphasis on creating permanent supportive housing, were offered tiny homes.

As public frustration grows over street homelessness, Mahan has argued adding interim shelter sites as quickly as possible is necessary to rein in encampments — in part to ensure the city complies with court rulings requiring localities across the Western U.S. to offer shelter before sweeping camps.

“We can prohibit encampments, requiring homeless people to come in from our streets, creeks and parks and into safe shelter as long as that shelter is available,” Mahan wrote in an op-ed this week.

To speed up the construction of hundreds more shelter units, Mahan this month announced plans to declare a shelter crisis emergency aimed at streamlining the permitting and site procurement process for interim housing. At the same time, he’s pushing proposals to expand no-encampment zones and restrict RV parking throughout the city.

Some critics of the effort to build more interim housing worry the city doesn’t have the money to cover operational costs. One city estimate found plans to add 1,000 interim units — bringing the city’s total to around 1,500 — would cost roughly $60 million a year by 2030. Meanwhile, some housing and homeless advocates have argued city funds would be better spent on permanent supportive housing, which, unlike shelters, can collect rent and housing voucher revenue to offset costs.

But Mahan said the price tag is worth it, especially when considering the impact of homelessness on first responders and emergency rooms. He said each unsheltered homeless person costs the city about $65,000 a year.

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