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Finally, affordable housing for homeless in downtown San Jose


County, partners break affordable housing barriers

It practically takes a fistful of permits to open a lemonade stand in Santa Clara County today, let alone build affordable housing for the homeless.

Most people probably want to help. But they almost invariably resist affordable housing complexes in their own neighborhood.

Undaunted, the County of Santa Clara, the City of San Jose and multiple public, private and nonprofit partners recently showed it’s possible to break down the barriers and get it done.

In late July, a gathering of stakeholders fighting to eradicate homelessness met for a construction celebration half a block south of historic St. James Park in downtown San Jose. The park is perhaps the best-known and most entrenched homeless site in Santa Clara County, one of the wealthiest counties in America.

One day in the not-too-distant future, some of those park dwellers will be moving into Villas on the Park, 83 units of permanent supportive housing under construction half a block away.

‘Permanent supportive housing’: A new model

Although there’s still a need for shelters and transitional housing, “permanent supportive housing” is seen as a new model for dealing with homelessness. Villas on the Park will be the first such a project downtown. Not only will the residents permanently have warm, dry beds and toilets and showers, but also easy, access to needed County-funded services. They’ll have a chance to build lives of stability, dignity and safety.

Villas on the Park stood just one story high as the stakeholders gathered in June, but a similar housing complex is nearer completion just south of downtown, at Keyes and Second streets. When they’re finished, both developments will look qualitatively indistinguishable from market-rate housing.

The $36.7 million Villas on the Park is being funded in part by money from 2016’s historic $950 million Measure A housing bond. The County recently approved a second wave of Measure A funding — $66 million — for four additional affordable housing developments. When occupied, those will contain 461 housing units, including permanent supportive housing for 256 formerly homeless individuals and families.

These will be built in Milpitas, Santa Clara and two more sites in San Jose.

Housing help for first-time homebuyers

The County isn’t stopping with helping the homeless and special needs populations. In a county where the median home sells for about $1 million, getting into one’s first home is a huge challenge for many people. So the Board of Supervisors in June dipped into Measure A funds again. Supervisors put up $25 million to launch the Empower Homebuyers loan program. That money will be used to help 250 first-time homebuyers earning no more than 120 percent of the area’s median income. It will bolster the existing pool of loan assistance programs for first-time buyers in the Bay Area.

The County’s down payment loan program does not require monthly principal or interest payments. Borrowers will repay the principal loan amount plus a share of the appreciation. Payment is deferred until the maturity date is reached, sale of the home, or refinance of the first mortgage. The program, which will launch this fall, will be administered by Housing Trust of Silicon Valley.

It’s a start

Neither program will put much of a dent in the County’s gargantuan housing shortage, but it’s a start. For the first-time homebuyers, it’s a chance to share in the American dream. And for those homeless people who are handed the keys to places like Villas on the Park, it will improve their lives fundamentally.

“It’s going to take more than one building like this to seriously address homelessness,” says Joel John Roberts, CEO of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), the nonprofit co-developer of Villas on the Park. “Thankfully, we have Measure A. But we also need the services, and we need the neighborhoods willing to let us build in the neighborhoods.”

Officials hope places like Villas on the Park turn out to be a convincing demonstration to other neighborhoods that such places are truly the answer to homelessness.

‘It takes a Villa’

Virtually everyone who spoke at the construction celebration of Villas on the Park remarked on how everyone worked together to make the project a reality. “It takes a Villa,” as one wag quipped.

Ky Le, the County’s director of the Office of Supportive Housing, said the County once played a largely administrative role in housing. But in the past few years, he said, “the County really recognized that it had to play a leadership role in creating affordable housing for people with special needs and for the poorest people in our community.

“We implemented the countywide affordable housing bond, known as 2016 Measure A, $950 million for housing development.”

A model for others

PATH CEO Roberts said his organization has worked on affordable housing in 140 cities. He tells his clients that they should look to this area as a model for dealing with homelessness.

“It works really well between the City (of San Jose) and the County,” he says. “It brings together the private sector and the public sector to leverage funding. And it’s a model because the political leadership is willing to stand up and say, ‘Yes, in my backyard.’”

Measure A is just beginning to make its impact felt. It is expected to build or preserve about 5,000 affordable housing units in Santa Clara County, spread among 120-140 developments, by 2027. 

— Written by Chuck Carroll

October 6, 2018

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October 2018
Santa Clara County