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Are Tiny Homes The Right Solution To San Jose’s Housing Crisis?

Mary Rees
Finished "sleeping cabins" await transport to the Mabury Bridge Housing site.

Lots of new affordable housing is planned in San José but will take five to 10 years to build. So San José is launching a project called Bridge Housing Communities. It will temporarily house people in cabins and help them find a permanent place to live. 

California Assembly Bill 2176 became law three years ago, and San José declared a “shelter crisis.” This allowed the city to suspend some building codes and build “emergency sleeping cabins” — essentially, tiny houses — as interim, or “bridge” housing. 

A year later, the City Council discussed the criteria for sites for this new type of temporary housing, and that’s when they got some feedback from the public

“Tiny house communal sites do not belong adjacent to established neighborhoods,” says one San José resident.

The conversation before the City Council continued a few months later. While there were still some objections, there was also more support, such as these words from Sandra Solner. 

“I’m a homeowner, I pay taxes, and I’m asking you to vote ‘yes.’ We cannot go on with homeless people living on our streets like we’re a third-world country.”

Each site would shelter 40 people at a time, and the city expected to spend nearly three million dollars on construction and site development. What both sides could agree on was that it seemed like a lot of money to help a relatively small number of San José’s 6,000 unhoused. 

“I also don’t understand why the city wants to spend so much money just to help only one to two percent of the homeless people,” said Sarah another San José resident. 

The San José Housing Department got the message loud and clear. After several neighborhood workshops and town hall meetings, housing officials came back to the City Council last December with a new proposal that cut those costs substantially. The city also picked two lots for lease in industrial areas. The proposal passed.

A proposal is one thing; a workable plan is another.

Under A.B. 2176 San José was able to skirt some building codes. But there weren’t really any clear guidelines for how to do it. San José had to figure it out on the go. And time was ticking, because A.B. 2176 and the leases are set to expire in January 2022.

James Stagi is the Interim Division Manager of the San José Housing Department. He was part of a team that came up with a creative solution for the project’s unique constraints: they’ve placed water, sewage lines, and electrical wires under a layer of compressed granite.

“And so it won’t be buried really super-deep,” says Stagi. “It’ll be buried 4 or 5 inches below, protected, but when we need to move, we can easily pull it up and package it up, and if we need to move to another site we can do that.”

That’s right: The infrastructure and the cabins are reusable. That’s part of the plan.

If things go well, San José will find new locations for Bridge Housing after the current leases end.

While A.B. 2176 was light on some details, the new state law did stipulate that the sleeping cabins be hard-sided and have electric light and heating. The city worked with an architect, contractors, and a few formerly homeless people to finetune the design, and Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley got the contract to build them.

Since the non-profit recruits volunteers to do the construction, the city also saved some money.

Credit Ben Grubb
Shelves hang over the bedspace in the sleeping cabins.

During a visit to Habitat’s San José production yard in June, one volunteer is measuring and cutting wood for the floors, while another is hammering plywood on a rooftop. Several completed tiny houses await transport to the first Bridge Housing site. 

“The technical term for them is “emergency sleeping cabin,” and that’s exactly what they are. There’s space for a bed and a desk; they have a light and an outlet, a door they can lock and a roof over their head,” says Ben Grubb. “It actually feels pretty spacious inside, because the roof’s a little higher than normal.”

Grubb is the construction manager at the production yard. He trains his volunteers every morning and supervises them throughout the day. John McDonald just learned how to use a circular table saw. He’s volunteering for Habitat for a reason. 

“Whenever I go into downtown San José, to go to church or whatever, I see homeless people on the street,” says McDonald, “and I smoke cigarettes, so I offer them if they would like a cigarette, and I usually give them two to three dollars to get a meal, for something to eat, and I wanted to do something more than that, so I came out here.”

A half-mile away is the empty lot, off Mabury Road, where the first Bridge Housing Community is projected to open this month.

Stagi, of the Housing Department, is showing me around. Nearly three years after that Assembly bill passed, the city was able to break ground and prepare the site for the 40 “sleeping cabins.” 

“We have them grouped in sets of two, next to each other in kind of a ‘wagon wheel,’” Stagi says. 

There will also be two modified mobile homes that serve as community buildings, with an office, showers and bathrooms, a kitchen and a lounge area. 

Credit Mary Rees / KALW
A poster at the Mabury site shows the layout of the first Bridge Housing Community.

The people who will live here are enrolled in Santa Clara County’s Rapid Rehousing Program. That program gives them a rent subsidy they can use for up to two years of permanent housing. While they’re in Bridge Housing, they’ll pay no more than 30 percent of their income. According to Stagi, Bridge Housing is intended for newly homeless individuals who are working or who have a work history. He explains that the housing department asked themselves a few questions before deciding to focus on this group. 

“‘Where do we have services, where do we have shelters, and where are there some gaps?’,” Stagi says. “There are those that may have just recently become homeless, and it would be really easy for them, once they get stability, to get back into permanent housing.” 

It may seem that San José is going for the lowest-hanging fruit — people who have jobs and a rent subsidy. Stagi disagrees. 

“Housing homeless individuals is challenging regardless, and this particular project is a pilot,” he says, “and if we can expand and start to expand to house different populations, then that’s something that we’ll definitely look at.”

San José has contracted with the nonprofit HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County to run the Bridge Housing sites and to make sure the new residents are actively looking for permanent housing. Speaking in her office in Milpitas, CEO Andrea Urton says HomeFirst will offer workshops based on the needs of the residents, such as, “‘How to look for work,’ ‘What to wear,’ ‘What to say in an interview, ‘How to do a résumé.’”

HomeFirst is also in charge of vetting and selecting the residents for the first Bridge Housing Community. 

Heeding early objections to placing tiny homes in residential neighborhoods, HomeFirst and the city did a lot of outreach to folks living near the Bridge Housing sites. At first, the neighbors were wary. But Urton says they just needed to be reassured. 

“They’re not going to be sex offenders; they’re going to be screened; they’re not going to be people who've manufactured methamphetamines,” Urton says. “People were able to see, ‘Well, I can understand how people might need some support, okay’.” 

Bridge Housing Residents can stay in the tiny houses for three to six months. Each will have a case manager to help find permanent housing. 

Urton says that the agencies and case managers all have certain landlord connections.

“Everybody has this closely guarded secret of who they’re working with, so they don’t give away their little cache of apartments, because it’s so difficult to find housing,” she says. 

Urton is optimistic that Bridge Housing residents will move into permanent housing in three to four months. After all, Urton says, the data show that, historically, clients of the Rapid Rehousing Program typically find a place in just 90 days. 

Stagi from the housing department mentions one unexpected challenge is that the Rapid Rehousing clients are reluctant to move into such a short-term situation sight unseen.

The measure for the success of this program is whether or not Bridge Housing residents move into stable housing, says Ragan Henninger, Deputy Director of Housing for San José.

“But I think we’ll also measure success by monitoring the cost,” Henninger says, “and, was this a cost-effective program? How fast were we able to implement it? And how well did it really work for the overall community?” 

If this pilot program works, not only can the model be replicated, but the homes can be relocated and reused for years to come, and the types of clients who live in the houses may also expand. By then, maybe there will be a more permanent solution to the housing crisis. 

HomeFirst is currently accepting applications for Bridge Housing from its partner Rapid Rehousing Agencies.

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