When the idea of “tiny homes” burst onto the scene years back as a trendy, almost utopian answer to burgeoning homelessness, I was a skeptic. If you have land to put up a bunch of 8-by-10-foot cabins with no plumbing, why not build real housing on it?
So on one level, I wasn’t surprised at the neighborhood backlash when San Jose set out to find sites for tiny home villages — what it calls bridge housing — in each of its 10 city council districts earlier this year.
What did stun me was the vitriol: The loudest people at some meetings clearly saw the homeless as subhuman. But many reasonable residents were just worried that they’d end up living near something like the trash-strewn homeless camps they see at freeway interchanges, or that their kids might not be safe.
There were answers to most legitimate concerns. (And yes, I’m totally sold on tiny homes now; I’ll explain why later.) But fears about possible sites the city disclosed early on overwhelmed what should have been thoughtful discussions. Some council members wobbled on support when their constituents rose up, and the limited staffing in the Housing Department was even more overwhelmed.
The city blew it. But on Tuesday, Mayor Sam Liccardo and the city council will get that rare opportunity in life: a do-over.
They can approve a plan that starts with a pilot project at some noncontroversial site to showcase the program. A staff report on the Dec. 12 council agenda offers details, such as proposed criteria for sites.
“We’ve got to move forward with this,” Liccardo said Friday. As the driving force behind the plan, he acknowledges the earlier missteps and remains fully committed to the program.
I hope the rest of the council is, too. For this to work, they have to be all in — not just with a vote but with personal leadership.
This time, when the site or sites for a pilot are under consideration, the council member for the area should call in neighborhood leaders for a chat to establish support and open a channel for concerns. A housing staff member should be there.
Liccardo wants the first pilot to be 40 or more tiny homes to get the maximum value from staffing and shared facilities including the kitchen, bathrooms and common areas. There will probably never be more than 300-500 residents housed in these citywide, but residents will move through them into permanent housing as it opens up.
Destination: Home has housed 3,708 people over last two years, and 93 percent of them have stayed in their homes. The number of homeless keeps growing, but it’s not because we don’t know how to get people into supportive housing. It’s just that not enough of it exists.
The permanent affordable housing in Santa Clara County will come from Measure A, the nearly $1 billion housing bond voters passed next year. But waiting for that can’t be the answer for the more than 4,300 homeless in San Jose alone. It would be like telling a starving family not to worry because you’ve just planted a garden.
This is the main thing that persuaded me that tiny-home encampments are useful. They are humane, and they can fill a gap in housing needs at a relatively low cost. And since they’re temporary, the land can be developed for housing or anything else when the time is right.
San Jose should jettison the idea of “sanctioned encampments,” however — basically places to camp as people do now but without fear of eviction. It sounds cheaper and easier to manage, but it’s likely to be neither. If the camps are supposed to be safe and sanitary, they’ll need the same level of management and security as the tiny homes.
The value added by tiny homes is a warm, dry shelter with electricity for light, a cell phone charger and a heater, and a door you can lock. Yes, you have to go outside to a shared bathroom facility, but it’s not as if tents have en suite spas.
More homeless people are dying on our streets every year –132 in 2016 in Santa Clara County, 85 the year before. If you’re sick, a warm, dry place to sleep can be a matter of life or death.
For me, one of the hopeful signs for this next try at tiny homes is that the Housing Department has hired Chris Block, the former head of Charities Housing and then the American Leadership Forum, to help with public outreach.
Block knows housing, knows the people who need it and — perhaps most important –is great at finding common ground with neighborhoods. He’s also spent some time in Seattle, a success story that might bolster confidence in San Jose’s ability to make this work.
So we’re off. All the council needs to do is offer strong support on Tuesday. Second time’s the charm.