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San Jose opens first tiny home community for homeless

Walking into San Jose’s first tiny home community for homeless residents is like stepping foot inside a miniature gated neighborhood.

After making your way past the 10-foot gate surrounding the property, 40 tiny homes — 80-square-feet rectangular structures with just enough room for a single bed, desk and shelf — are in neat rows with gravel paths, lined with potted plants, leading from one home to another.

The unconventional community built on a Valley Transportation Authority site on Mabury Road near Coyote Creek offers a mix of stability and compassion for those trying to stay afloat in spite of the region’s chronic shortage of affordable housing.

And after more than three years in the making and months of delays, state and local leaders from Mayor Sam Liccardo to Assemblyman Ash Kalra to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday gathered at the site — formally called a bridge housing community — to tout it as an innovative approach to helping solve the state’s growing homeless crisis. In San Jose alone, more than 6,000 residents sleep in cars, shelters or on the streets every night.

“We hope that this will provide the model for everyone being able to see that we can make this work in a community and that housing for our homeless neighbors can be a great asset for the surrounding community,” Liccardo said during the press conference.

With a building cost of around $6,500 each instead of hundreds of thousands for permanent housing, Liccardo and other advocates say the tiny homes offer an effective, low-cost option to get more people off the streets and on their way to becoming stably housed.

The community is open to people who are part of the county’s rapid rehousing voucher program and are in the process of securing permanent housing but need a place to stay in the interim to avoid homelessness.

Calling the state’s homelessness crisis “a disgrace”, Newsom said he was grateful for the leadership of Liccardo and others for “taking ownership and responsibility to do more and do better.”

“The state vision to solve this problem will be realized at the local level — project by project, large and small,” Newsom said during the press conference.

But even though the tiny homes have been open to residents for more than a month and Thursday’s event offered an official celebration for all the elected officials and community members who bought it to fruition, only eight of the 40 tiny homes are currently occupied.

City officials attribute that to the stringent criteria placed on eligible residents, including a thorough background check, and the task of having to track people down.

“People get lost in the system,” Jacky Morales-Ferrand, San Jose housing director, said in an interview following the event. “And, that’s actually one of the benefits of creating these interim sites, because as we create housing opportunities for people to move in, we know that we can connect them very quickly.”

In addition to the tiny homes, the community features shared bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities, a kitchen space and common areas with computers, internet access and job boards. The community is protected around the clock by a security guard who sits in a patrol station next to the front gate.

HomeFirst not only operates the community but provides a wide range of services to residents, healthcare assistance, personal finance advice and career readiness training.

To encourage residents to work with the organization to obtain permanent housing, they are each required to pay 10 percent of their income — or $20 if they’re not employed — for the first six months. Afterward, the rent will increase by 10 percent every six months, capping at 30 percent.

“We’re grateful that this site will provide 40 individuals with a respectful and dignified respite from the encampments while (resident) await permanent housing,” said Andrea Urton, CEO of the community’s operator HomeFirst.

In addition to the VTA site, another 40 tiny homes are planned for a Caltrans site near Felipe Avenue where Highways 680 and 101 intersect. The VTA location was originally expected to open in June and the Caltrans location in August, but challenges with site and lease negotiations delayed it.

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