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Affordable housing projects to fight homelessness advance in San Jose

SAN JOSE — From tiny homes for the homeless to apartments for artists and kids leaving foster care, San Jose officials have advanced an array of housing projects aimed at keeping people off the streets in a city where average rent has soared above $2,500 a month.

The City Council this week moved forward with three affordable housing projects and a fourth one — slated for East San Jose — is on the way. And in the next couple of weeks, elected leaders will consider allowing churches to house homeless people permanently, and will discuss where to place up to 200 “tiny homes,” micro housing units with a bed and locking door and shared bathrooms and showers.

“The reality is 70 percent of the county’s homeless population is here,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless response manager. “We have a lot of developable land and lots of support from our mayor and council.”

Tackling homelessness has emerged as a top priority in other large Bay Area cities, but local advocates say San Jose is leading the march.

Jennifer Loving, who runs the nonprofit Destination: Home, said San Diego and other major cities rely on San Jose’s model to develop their programs.

“Our community is a leader in the nation when it comes to data assessment prioritization and the Housing First model,” Loving said, adding that San Jose and its partners use data to set goals and measure success in real time.

A new affordable housing project called Quetzal Gardens could bring 71 affordable apartments to 1695 Alum Rock Avenue in East San Jose. The six-story complex includes 12,175 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

Twenty units will be reserved for chronically homeless people and the rest for low-income residents. A full-time service coordinator will provide on-site mental health treatment and case management, according to city documents.

“In my district, people are living two to three families to a home. We are in desperate need of high-quality, safe, affordable homes that will provide space for families to thrive,” said Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco, who represents east side. “The transformation from a parking lot to a mixed-use community is what residents have been asking for.”

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended approving Quetzal Gardens’ permits Wednesday. It goes to the City Council later this month.

The City Council earlier this week advanced three other new affordable housing projects. The first, planned for two empty lots on Gallup and Mesa drives, will be home to 41 new units for low-income seniors, families with foster care youth and kids transitioning out of foster care.

The second, on 226 Balbach Avenue, will provide affordable apartments for the homeless, seniors, low-income families and artists. It’s unclear how many units would go on the 0.36 acre site owned by the city, but the decision to target struggling artists is being praised by the arts community.

“I often hear artists and cultural workers express dismay that they can no longer afford to remain in San Jose due to the high cost of living,” said Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director of City Lights Theater Company, in a letter supporting the project. “I have an employee who commutes to work from Salinas because they could not find safe and affordable housing in San Jose.”

The third, on Bassett Street, will provide 135 units for veterans and special-needs individuals. That plan, called the North San Pedro Housing Project, includes consolidating three parcels into one and could someday be home to more than 1,200 housing units.

The council unanimously moved all three projects forward Tuesday by approving land transfers, negotiation agreements with developers and pre-development loans.

Assembly Bill 2176, carried by former Assemblywoman Nora Campos, opened the door for tiny homes in San Jose. The legislation, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last summer, allows San Jose to build unconventional housing structures when the city declares a housing crisis.

The bill sunsets in 2022, but city leaders are looking to build as many as 20 tiny homes in each of San Jose’s ten council districts. A list of city-owned sites being eyed for the projects was released in a committee report last month. The final locations will be determined in the fall.

The tiny homes are also called “sleeping cabins” or emergency bridge housing communities.

“It’s been more challenging in some districts than others to find usable space,” Bramson said. “We’re looking at the feasibility of implementing 20 sleeping cabins per site in all ten districts.”

San Jose is working with architectural firm Gensler to come up with the design of the homes. The first round of prototype tiny homes are expected to arrive by September.

Among other initiatives, if approved by the City Council on June 27, churches and other faith-based groups can house homeless people for an unlimited period of time — as long as it’s not more than half the facility’s regular use. Up to 50 people can be housed per night.

The city has converted two crumbling motels into housing for the homeless: The former Santa Clara Inn (now called Casa de Novo) opened last April and offers 56 units for homeless, and the Plaza Hotel, which offers 47 units, will open in August.

San Jose has budgeted $1 million to hire ten new case managers to work with up to 200 chronically homeless people. The city is also drafting a letter to Santa Clara County with suggestions for leveraging funds from Measure A bonds approved by voters last year for projects in the city.