Not in my backyard: California considers bill to speed new housing for the homeless

Eah Housing

The Mercury News
by: Katy Murphy I Bay Area News Group
Posted on: June 15, 2018

As it fought to block a large development for the chronically homeless, one neighborhood association created an elaborate, 100-page presentation to make its case to city officials. A line halfway through captures the Catch-22 of California’s growing humanitarian crisis.

“This facility is wrong for our neighborhoods,” it reads, “but we support helping our homeless population.”

Californians may be saddened or horrified by the growing numbers of people sleeping on sidewalks and park benches, under freeways and in their cars. But when the abstract notion of getting people off the streets becomes a concrete proposal involving their own neighborhood, the conversation gets stickier.

“If you’re going to say we’re going to be building housing for the homeless, and 50 of them have serious mental illnesses,” said Sharon Rapport, of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, “it doesn’t typically have a warm and fuzzy response from the neighbors.”

About one quarter of the nation’s homeless and nearly half of those living on the streets are in California, according to the latest federal data. State lawmakers, who negotiated a budget deal with Gov. Jerry Brown devoting $500 million to the crisis, are now considering a proposal sought by the developers of affordable housing for the homeless, the disabled and others who need help living independently. Heralded by advocates but sharply criticized by those who see it as an attack on local control, the bill would exempt such projects from environmental reviews and other approvals, making it harder for opponents to slow or block them.

“What’s so important and powerful about this legislation is we’re putting a light on the problem,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of the South Bay advocacy organization Destination: Home. “We’re saying we need to stop creating artificial delays when there are people’s lives in the balance.”

One of those lives, not long ago, was Teri Bruner, a San Jose retiree who at 72 was kicked out of the house she had rented for 19 years when it went on the market. For months, she lived in a van, frightened and lonely. Desperation set in, until she learned that a nearby facility for low-income seniors had an opening.

“I felt ashamed,” she said. “I felt unworthy. I felt all of these things — helplessness and hopelessness and not knowing if I wanted to keep going.”

Bruner also said she was stunned by the magnitude of the problem: “How much homelessness there was out there. How many people were living in their cars. It’s not just the ones you see in the camps. It’s just everywhere.”

The pending statewide proposal, Assembly Bill 2162, passed out of the Assembly last month with little opposition or debate. It has its first test in the Senate on Tuesday, when the housing and transportation committee weighs the need for the bill against worries about taking away local decision-making — a concern for East Bay Assemblywoman Catharine Baker.

“It fundamentally is wrong to block a local community from having local input into housing and how it affects the community,” said Baker, R-Dublin, who voted against the bill. “That’s what this bill does — it blots out local input completely.”

Jonathan Fleming, a San Jose neighborhood association president whose group managed to delay, but not stop, a 162-unit development for the homeless under construction near Senter and Tully roads, has similar concerns. “It has good intentions, but it takes away our community’s voice, and it removes our democratic process,” he said.

Fleming ran for San Jose City Council this year and lost, a foray into city politics that he said was partly motivated by his outrage over the city’s handling of the Charities Housing development near his diverse neighborhood.  As president of the Senter Monterey Neighborhood Association, Fleming argued the proposed complex for the disabled and chronically homeless was so large that it would become a magnet for crime, posing dangers for its future tenants — even arguing that the homeless might be better off on the street.

One developer called that argument “very thin” and “pretty easily debunked.”

“These properties are run just like any other property,” said Welton Jordan, vice president of real estate development for EAH Housing. “You are not going to let people camp or loiter or have illicit activities going on.”

In his presentation for city leaders, Fleming cited a 2000 analysis conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that found an uptick in violent crime reports near a small sampling of large supportive housing developments in Denver in the 1990s. Researchers found no evidence that the residents were committing crimes or an overall effect on crime across all of the developments studied, including smaller ones; they also found no effect on local property values. Similarly, researchers at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy analyzed the effects of thousands of supportive housing units in the city and found they did not depress property values.

Developers say people are often surprised by the attractiveness and upscale quality of the new buildings. Take one development for low-income families by EAH Housing under construction in Emeryville, bordering Oakland: It will feature a “Zen Garden” retreat, solar panels, public art, a courtyard with children’s play equipment, and an outdoor sky deck.

But Bruner is just happy to have a roof over her head again, and a bathroom.

Two years ago, the retired security guard was evicted from a San Jose rental house when the daughter of her landlord decided to sell the property after her mother’s death. Priced out of the costly rental market, Bruner and her then-boyfriend stayed in motels until they ran out of money and then moved into a van her daughter bought so she wouldn’t have to sleep on the street.

“You don’t feel good at all,” said the petite, soft-spoken grandmother who had styled her hair with a fabric blossom pinned behind an ear. “You don’t feel proud of yourself. It’s hard to look people in the eye. People tend to look at you differently. They assume you’re part of the problem.”

For months, she said, she went to sleep knowing that someone might knock on her van window at any moment. She washed up at a bowling alley restroom, dreading when it would close for the night.

Last spring, she moved into an apartment building run by EAH Housing on a busy street in Santa Clara. It is safe and warm, she said, and she enjoys the company of her new neighbors.

“I can smile again,” she said. “Little things mean so much. It means everything.”


What is supportive housing? Low-income apartments with optional support services. Tenants sign leases, pay rent and stay as long as they need. Unlike shelters and other facilities, sobriety is not a requirement.

What would Assembly Bill 2162 do? It aims to fast-track certain affordable housing proposals in California, making them exempt from environmental reviews and other local approval hurdles. The bill applies to low-income developments with at least 15, or 35 percent, of units set aside for supportive housing.

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