by Matt Hickman
Sprawling and largely suburban in character, San Jose — highly affluent de facto capital of California’s Silicon Valley — is home to one of the nation’s most well-educated, socially progressive, ethnically diverse and highest paid populaces. It’s also blessed with beautiful weather, a fabulous park system and a low crime rate for a city of its size. Everything is hunky-dory, all sunshine and Dionne Warwick songs, in the well-heeled epicenter of America’s busiest tech hub.
Except that it’s not.
Like its (technically smaller) neighbor to the north, San Francisco, the third most populous city in California struggles with exorbitant housing costs, severe income inequality and a homelessness crisis that shows no signs of abating.
Yes, there are homeless people in the Silicon Valley. And way more than you might imagine.
As reported by the Mercury News citing 2014 statistics released by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, San Jose and greater Santa Clara County have the fourth largest homeless population in the United States. With an estimated 4,063 homeless residents, San Jose has the nation’s third largest population of chronically homeless residents and the nation’s fifth largest population of homeless veterans.
In total, 69 percent of San Jose’s homeless population are living on the streets, in cars, in abandoned buildings and in encampments. One such encampment, “The Jungle,” was one of the largest — if not the largest — homeless camps in the nation until it was cleared out in 2014. The site has since been reclaimed by nature and other, smaller settlements have popped up around the city’s secluded wooded areas along creeks and riverbeds. In lieu of overcrowded shelters or encampments, many of the Silicon Valley’s homeless sleep aboard the 22 Bus, the only 24-hour bus line in Santa Clara County.
Never a city to shy away from innovation and outside-the-box thinking, San Jose is now turning to the tiny house movement to give shelter — even if just temporarily — to those who most desperately need it.
Crisis mode meets creative thinking
A new piece of legislation authored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos and signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 27 would allow San Jose to circumvent statewide building, health and safety codes that would otherwise impede the creation of garden shed-sized standalone dwellings. In lieu of abiding by state regulations, city officials will adopt their own unique set of building regulations that enable the construction and distribution of homeless-geared tiny houses.
The law, which will be valid for five years at which point its impact will be assessed, can only be enacted if San Jose declares a “shelter crisis” — and it already has.
When the law goes into effect in January of next year, San Jose will be the first city in California to officially embrace tiny houses as a means of combating homelessness.
Speaking to the Mercury News, Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless response manager, notes that the tiny houses, so en vogue with middle-class downsizers and flexibility-seeking Millenials, would serve as a sort of “temporary stopping point” while the city constructs 500 affordable apartment units over the next several years.
“This law really is the first of its kind,” Bramson tells the Mercury News. “It will allow us to create bridge housing opportunities — a stable place people can live and stay while they’re waiting to be placed in a permanent home.”
Tiny houses with a big impact
San Jose will soon launch a competition seeking designs for the diminutive housing units. The emphasis, according to the Mercury News, will be on “innovative features, cost effectiveness and replicability.”
The legislation, Assembly Bill 2176, dictates that single-person “emergency shelter cabins” must measure at least 70 square feet while standalone shelters for couple must be no less than 120 square feet. Each unit must be insulated, wired for electricity, include at least one lighting fixture and be topped with a weatherproofed roof. And this is a biggie: Each tiny house must also include a privacy lock.
Tiny houses, often bespoke and kitted out with high-tech bells and whistles, are generally in the 200 to 300-square-feet range in a non-transitional housing context. So, yes, 70 square feet is on the extremely petite side for a tiny house.
As for location, it would appear that San Jose is following in the footsteps of cities such as Austin, Texas, and Olympia, Washington, by establishing transitional micro-housing villages. Although sites have not been selected — and this may prove to be tricky part — the new law states that the tiny houses must be placed on city-owned or leased land no less than a half-acre. Each cluster of tiny houses, referred to in the bill as “emergency bridge housing communities,” would include on-site supportive services and bathroom facilities.
“It was huge for the governor to sign this because it’s outside-the-box and no one else has done it,” Assemblywoman Campos announced in a statement. “Other big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles will be looking at what we do here. We had to do something because what we were doing wasn’t working.
It’s interesting that Campos mentions Los Angeles, a city where officials have yet to embrace the concept of tiny houses for the homeless but where private citizens have.
Such is the case of Elvis Summers, a power drill-wielding mohawked Angeleno that, in the absence of action from city officials, stepped up and decided to do something for his neighbors living on the streets of South L.A.
In 2015, Summers and a team of volunteers began constructing dozens of tiny houses, each costing about $1,200 to build. For financing, Summers launched a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised big bucks and garnered international media attention.
However, not long after the recipients of Summers’ hand-built micro-shelters began to get accustomed to sleeping with honest to goodness roofs over the heads, L.A. sanitation workers, under orders from City Hall, began an aggressive crackdown on the structures. While some were saved by Summers and temporarily moved to private property, others were impounded by the city.
It’s simple: The brightly hued tiny homes built and distributed by Summers failed to meet the very same stringent building and safety codes that San Jose will soon be smartly bypassing.