Amanda Mora, a resident of Evans Lane, an interim housing facility located on city-owned land, in San José, tours the property on Jan. 30, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Rick Oderio already felt like his flooring business had been under siege when San José officials in 2016 proposed building temporary housing in a lot next door to serve unhoused residents.
Oderio had worked for Conklin Bros. Floor Coverings his entire professional life and now owned the business, located just off Almaden Expressway in the city’s Canoas Garden neighborhood. Crime had gotten so bad in the area, Oderio remembered, that employees were afraid to walk to the Subway at the end of the block to buy a sandwich at lunchtime.
“We were already inundated, it was already a disaster,” said Oderio, who feared the temporary housing site would only exacerbate crime.
He and a group of neighbors showed up at meetings to protest the project and sent blistering messages to the city’s housing staff.
“Clearly, this has not been thought out,” Oderio wrote in an email to a city planner. “Our businesses are suffering. Our property values declining. And now THIS!”
After a marathon meeting, the City Council approved 102 units of temporary housing on Evans Lane. After years of delays in funding, the site finally opened in April of 2021. But the increase in crime Oderio feared? It never materialized.
“This new housing development, temporary housing thing, as far as I'm concerned, I haven't heard a peep out of these people,” Oderio said. “This has not been an issue for us, a problem whatsoever.”
It’s not just Evans Lane. An analysis of city data on San José’s five quick-build communities — officially known as emergency interim housing sites — reveals that calls to police about property and drug crimes around the sites actually decreased in the year after the sites opened. The sites collectively offer roughly 400 beds for unhoused people.
Other common fears — that people living in the new interim sites would fill streets with litter and attract other unhoused people to the area — also aren’t backed up by the data. In fact, graffiti and trash complaints near the sites have actually declined in the year after they opened. So, too, have calls about fires.
But that hasn’t stopped the pitchforks.
“As we describe the problem and describe the solutions, people tend to say, ‘Those make a lot of sense, that sounds like a great plan. Just make sure it's at least a couple of miles from my home,’” Matt Mahan, San José’s newly elected mayor, told KQED.
As San José faces a troubling rise in homelessness, some city leaders like Mahan are pushing to build more temporary housing as a cost-effective approach to quickly get unhoused residents off the streets. But supporting these projects often comes with a political price. For Mahan, and half the City Council, who are also seeking reelection in March 2024, trying to reduce street homelessness while keeping neighbors happy is a challenging task.
“It really comes down to their conviction,” said Bob Staedler, principal of Silicon Valley Synergy, a land-use consulting firm in San José. “If you want to get reelected, you have to walk a fine line of supporting what your constituents want versus what you know morally and as a leader you should push. But it's really a tightrope.”
Staedler said almost any proposed development is bound to get some complaints from residents concerned with potential impacts to traffic or the oft-cited “neighborhood character.” But opposition to new housing for people exiting homelessness, he added, is often rooted in fear.
“They feel like, well, you're bringing these people in my neighborhood, you're not going to be able to control them, and it's going to be scary for us and we're not going to feel safe in our homes,” he said. “It's fear, right? It's fear.”
The Evans Lane experience
When the Evans Lane project was proposed next to his flooring business, Oderio had already fortified his property with fences and barbed wire to ward off break-ins.
“It looked terrible,” he remembered. “It looked like a prison.”
But on a recent Friday, the block was calm, as shoppers at Conklin Bros. milled through the showroom’s tile and laminate displays. Meanwhile, next door at the Evans Lane housing site, resident Amanda Mora had found an oasis.
Mora arrived in the Bay Area from the Central Valley town of Porterville in Oct. 2021, when her daughter was rushed to Stanford Medical Center for surgery after a serious car accident.
Mora said she left the hospital with her daughter after months of care “with absolutely nothing.”
“I said, ‘I'm very afraid to even [have] the thought of being with my kid in the streets, my daughter in a wheelchair and nowhere to go and not knowing anybody,’” she said.
After six months of living in a motel shelter, Mora and her daughter were able to move into Evans Lane, which exclusively serves families exiting homelessness. Her teenage son was able to join them, too.
The three now live in a small studio apartment constructed from a shipping container. The unit has bunk beds, a private bathroom, heating and cooling, and a TV. Mora pointed with pride to the plants growing on her windowsill as her dog, a Chihuahua mix, patrolled the doorway.
“I have accomplished more here in the last six months that I've been here than I have in the last 10 years,” Mora said. “And that's because I have had the opportunity to be given all the tools to be able to succeed.”
In a separate building on the site that houses a communal kitchen, case managers work to connect residents to doctor’s appointments, pet care, legal counsel and jobs. An on-site housing specialist is helping Mora find a permanent home with a voucher from the Santa Clara County Housing Authority.
What the data shows
San José’s first interim housing development, a village of tiny sheds on Mabury Road near the Berryessa/North San José BART station, opened in Feb. 2020. The remaining four opened within the next year and a half, all of which provide people exiting homelessness with more privacy, community and services than a group shelter with the goal of transitioning residents to permanent housing.
The city tallied service requests to clean up graffiti and illegal dumping, certain fire and police department calls, and reported vehicle code violations within a 10-minute walking range around each interim housing location. The data, collected by the Department of Housing and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, includes incidents for the year before and the year after each site opened.
“When we talk with residents, of course, we hear the concerns, worried that more encampments will show up or RVs will surround the area, increased crime, blight, graffiti, dumping,” Jon Cicirelli, director of parks, recreation and neighborhood services, told the City Council in November. “All of these things are valid things to be worried about when we're talking about this population. But we started looking at the data.”
Calls to the police about “quality of life” issues such as drug possession, property crimes and assault — along with complaints about graffiti — decreased overall, at four of the five sites. And total calls about fires and illegal dumping near the five sites fell as well. The data doesn’t include felony crimes.
Only calls to the Fire Department for medical services, specifically involving individuals experiencing homelessness, notably increased. Cicirelli told the council that was to be expected, as people exiting homelessness have years of medical issues to address.
“The EMS needs go up, but that’s not surprising given the population that’s being served, and that they’re just coming off the street, in many cases from years and years of hardship,” he said.
Expanding the interim housing sites is expected to be a top priority in the budget proposal Mahan plans to release next week. To pay for it, he said he wants to direct more of San José’s dedicated Measure E homelessness funding toward building interim housing and away from building permanent housing.
The mayor said he also wants the new housing sites to be prioritized for unhoused residents who live closest to them, and vowed to spend time educating residents about prospective projects by presenting data and offering tours of existing locations.
“I think there has to be engagement. We're in the business of serving the public and representing the public,” he said. “At the same time, I don't think that these sites should be taken to a referendum because we would never solve homelessness if we approached it that way.”
But even Mahan, San José’s flag bearer for interim housing, appears to have benefited politically from opposing some of these sites in the past.
Noble Avenue uproar
Just last year, the city gave up on two potential sites amid resident uproar. One of the ill-fated proposals, in the city’s Berryessa neighborhood, quickly became the most controversial interim housing project in the program’s history, after the City Council approved the 100-bed site, in June 2022, as part of a larger vote that included additional interim housing sites.
Neighbors of the proposed Noble Avenue site balked at the idea of a quick-build community on land near Penitencia Creek Park, a popular hiking and biking spot, which they argued should have been off-limits for emergency housing.
“It's an open space park that families use every day for walks, hikes, bike rides. It's a natural reserve for wildlife. It's land that's also used for a water supply facility,” said Sandra Harrison Kay, who helped organize neighbors against the project after the Council approved it. “It's directly across the street from an elementary school, a day care, a library. It's down the street from a middle school.”
Opponents of the site went door to door in the neighborhood, handing out flyers and convening meetings. The protests swelled throughout the summer. Demonstrators blanketed City Hall meetings wearing white “Not on Noble” T-shirts and waving signs in front of the council chamber cameras — even when the project was not on the day’s agenda.
And protesters found an unlikely ally in their cause: Mahan, who was then a councilmember and mayoral candidate.
Despite touting quick-build housing as part of his campaign — as a cheaper, faster alternative to the permanent affordable apartments championed by his opponent, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez — Mahan was actually one of two councilmembers who voted against the new interim housing sites that summer. The vote included Noble Avenue and a project in Mahan’s own Almaden Valley district. He argued those developments were put forward without any outreach to nearby residents.
The leaders of the Noble Avenue opposition took notice. On Aug. 6, they gathered at the Penitencia Creek percolation ponds, where Mahan was the guest speaker. A month later, city staff recommended dropping the site in favor of a new location.
More housing coverage
“He absolutely did gain some allegiances and votes based on his appearance at that picnic and everything he shared,” Harrison Kay said. “Because we had this whole group of ‘Not on Noble,’ and we were really looking for leadership that shared our values and was willing to be open, public, etcetera. And he was.”
North San José is one of the city’s political battlegrounds, where margins between candidates aligned with labor and business interests are often razor-thin. After losing the entire neighborhood in the June primary, Mahan flipped Berryessa in November, and won nearly all the precincts around the proposed Noble Avenue site on his way to victory over Chavez.
Councilmember David Cohen, who represents the area, said he has no doubt Mahan’s vote helped him gain support in the neighborhood.
“People did rally behind him after that, and they thought that he was with them,” said Cohen, who supported Chavez in the race. “In fact, I heard many people saying he voted against it, Cindy Chavez voted for it — even though Cindy Chavez isn't on the council.”
Cohen admits that it can be a good short-term political move to oppose controversial projects. He also voted against the Noble Avenue proposal, which he called a bad site that cost the city precious time. Now, he said the mayor and council need to work together to find a broader range of locations for interim housing — like in West San José, where there currently is none.
“He ran on a platform of doing something to get people off the street and provide solutions like this,” Cohen said. “And so you can only have it both ways for a short period of time.”
Mahan said he made it clear to opponents of the Noble Avenue site that his vote was based squarely on the process and a lack of outreach to surrounding communities. And in November, he voted to support a new interim project near a VTA light rail station in South San José, despite howls from constituents who claimed the incoming residents would interfere with commuters and endanger nurses at the adjacent Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.
“I've been on the receiving end of hundreds of people in a room yelling at me. I’ve no doubt lost thousands of votes over supporting these sites,” Mahan said. “The reality is that people are frustrated and expect results, and the truth is if we don't make faster progress on ending homelessness, particularly unsheltered homelessness, none of us are going to get reelected.”
That theory will be put to the test soon enough, with voting in the city’s next election — in which Mahan will be running to keep his seat — beginning in less than a year.
These days, Oderio, of Conklin Bros., is focused on the flooring needs of his commercial real estate clients and hasn’t paid much attention to the interim housing site next door on Evans Lane.
“I really hadn't even given it much thought,” Oderio said. “They were just our neighbor, you know, and they're well-maintained over there, and it looks nice. That's all we care about.”
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