What happens in seven years?
That was the question on everyone’s lips Tuesday night during a special meeting of the Santa Clara City Council. The meeting was a continuation of an item from last week where the Council was slated to vote on whether to build a homeless housing project on Benton Street and Lawrence Expressway.
State money would fund a large chunk of the project through Project Homekey, a state initiative to build housing for the poor. But details as to what will happen on the site after the expiration of the seven-year agreement are still nebulous.
The item needed to be pushed back because of several hours of public comments at the previous meeting. Tuesday, many public members returned to the Council Chambers to oppose the project. Many people brandished signs with slogans encapsulating the public outcry, which included the high cost, a distrust of the operator — LifeMoves — and safety concerns.
“I understand that parents here are very concerned about the safety of their own children, but what about the safety of children living in cars or tents?” Council Member Suds Jain said. “That is also my responsibility as a council member. I believe that children living in stable housing will be subject to fewer threats than those living on the streets. The stress of living on the street leads to mental illness, poor health and sometimes substance abuse.”
In response to public input, the project has changed substantially from its inception. Changes include a reduction from four to three stories and, with it, a population decrease from 124 units to 30 units and a stipulation that it would only house families.
Still, the public still found the project unpalatable.
Estimated construction cost is $34 million, with annual operating costs estimated at $3.74 million a year. Tax dollars from Project Homekey, Santa Clara County and philanthropic contributions from developer John Sobrato would pay for construction.
While Santa Clara would not be on the hook for any construction cost, the City would need to pay $7 million in operating costs over the life of the agreement. Should construction costs exceed estimates, the County would cover the overage to the tune of $9.2 million. However, that money would come from the County’s contribution to the yearly operating cost, leaving the City liable for the gap.
The City would pay the operating costs with state money called Permanent Local Housing Allocation as well as money it collects through its affordable housing ordinance.
“If the City is interested in pursuing a Project Homekey development, this is a good opportunity for the City in terms of the financing that is being brought in from other sources,” said Andrew Crabtree, the City’s director of community development.
The interim housing project fulfills two of the Homelessness Task Force priorities, Crabtree said. Residents stay in interim housing between four and six months on average, he added.
Crabtree originally recommended that the Council sponsor the project while trying to limit the City’s liability by shifting it to LifeMoves and the County, which owns the land.
Brian Greenberg, with LifeMoves, said families have greater rates of finding permanent housing — around 80% — than single people or even couples. He dismissed reports of mismanagement of the nonprofit’s Mountain View site, chalking the issues up to the pandemic and saying they have since been resolved.
The site is secure, with cameras and a single entry point. LifeMoves employees are onsite around the clock and well-trained, Greenberg said.
“Our jobs are not flipping burgers. Our staff need some skill and have to be able to think on their feet and be able to have that empathic, compassionate stance toward their job,” LifeMoves Vice President of Programs and Services said.
The project divided the Council, with a couple council members expressing how conflicted the issue made them.
The item made some strange bedfellows. In an almost unheard of display, Council Member Kathy Watanabe voted in opposition to political ally Mayor Lisa Gillmor. Instead, Gillmor joined Vice Mayor Kevin Park, someone with whom she often butts heads, and Council Member Raj Chahal in opposing the motion.
Park said he would like to transform the City’s concern about homelessness into an understanding of how to solve the problem.
“You’re looking at one group of people. Like we would like to help those people that you’re bringing in, but if it comes at the expense of the people already here, I don’t know that I can say yes to that,” Park said. “And, if I don’t know that the environment that we are creating for the people we are bringing in is going to be this fearless, safe environment that we like children to live in, I don’t know that I can support that either.”
Watanabe said the project could be the first step in stopping the cycle of homelessness.
“In the long run, keeping people on the street is more expensive than them having a place to live,” she said.
Council Member Karen Hardy said it “must be nice” for people who have the luxury of not knowing uncertainty. When her father — her family’s sole breadwinner — died when she was 13, Hardy, her mother and Hardy’s six-month-old sister knew that uncertainty all too well.
“If you saw a child in danger, I would think most of you would stop and help and would not count the cost first,” Hardy said. “I know what it is to be scared, and to not know how things are going to work out.”
Despite the uncertainty of the property’s fate after seven years, in a 4-3 vote, the Council approved funding the project but opted to not sponsor it.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, May 7 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.
Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov.