Homeless encampments are a common sight along Stevens Creek in Mountain View. In the southern end of the city near Waverly Park, one such encampment sits across the creek from homes worth more than $2 million, representing the major gulf between the haves and the have-nots in Silicon Valley.
But in a move that appears likely to win support from board members, the Santa Clara Valley Water District could be bridging that divide by opening the doors of those multi-million-dollar properties to the homeless. Many of these single-family houses Mountain View along the creek are owned by the water district and leased out to tenants, and board members argue that offering these homes to the homeless as they become vacant is a small but meaningful way to help address the countywide homelessness problem.
The plan is meeting strong resistance from some Waverly Park residents, who say their neighborhood lacks services needed by the homeless and generally is an inappropriate for housing homeless people. Others say not enough details have been provided, and that the district didn't notify nearby residents of the unusual plan.
A regional water agency may seem like an unlikely ally in the fight to end homelessness and bring more affordable housing to Santa Clara County, but the Santa Clara Valley Water District is focused on several new efforts aimed at doing both. At their Nov. 22 meeting, water district board members agreed to declare five district-owned sites throughout the county as "excess land," which cities and the county will be able to buy for permanent housing.
Another proposal, which board members praised as a great opportunity to show compassion for the county's homeless population, is to provide district-owned residential rental properties as housing for the homeless.
Through various land acquisitions over the last four decades, the water district owns and leases out 53 residential properties in the county -- 19 of which are in the northern end of Mountain View's Waverly Park neighborhood, along the edge of Stevens Creek. These properties were purchased by the water district from 1974 through 1989 as an alternative to constructing a project to address creek erosion, according to a district staff report.
The district bought the first two homes in August 1974 when the board agreed to acquire 25 creekside properties at risk from "severe erosion and bank failure" that made them a hazard, according to board meeting minutes. The district determined that buying and maintaining the properties would be an environmentally sound and cheap alternative to a major construction project to install a concrete-lined channel and high retaining walls.
None of the creekside property owners was compelled to sell during the two decades of acquisitions, according to district spokesman Marty Grimes, and the properties were purchased for fair market value "based on comparable sales of the nearby "unendangered properties."
The water district bought 21 properties in Mountain View for a total cost of $2.6 million, and the estimated value of the 19 homes has since grown to an estimated $24.7 million, according to a staff memo last year. The water district collects $700,000 in rent each year, bringing in nearly $6.4 million in revenue over the last 11 years.
If the plan to shelter homeless people is approved, the district will contact the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing whenever one of the houses becomes vacant; the agency would determine whether the dwelling would be appropriate for housing the homeless.
The decision would affect Mountain View in particular, because the water district has no plans to sell or demolish the 19 houses. Other district-owned residential properties are on project sites along the Guadalupe River, and are scheduled to be razed in the next few years.
"We're spending huge amounts of money on cleanup in our creeks, and we've got a chance to get people employed and get them some housing," board member Dick Santos said at the Nov. 22 meeting. "Along with Measure A ... a lot of good things are coming."
The water district, like many cities in the county, signed a resolution this year calling homelessness a "crisis," and board members vowed to find ways to help house the roughly 6,550 homeless residents by way of a new Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee. The water district has a vested interest in reducing the number of the homeless, in part because the county's creeks and waterways are home to hundreds of homeless individuals and families who build encampments and leave trash and debris in their wake. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the district removed 1,209 tons of trash from 368 encampments, costing an estimated $1.3 million.
Under the district's charter, called the District Act, the agency can't construct affordable housing on its land, but there are creative options that could circumvent that limitation. Over the last six months the Homeless Encampment Committee has considered everything from peppering creekside property with 200-square-foot "tiny" homes to establishing sanctioned, permanent encampment sites with designated trash pickup and stringent requirements for all homeless residents to perform hours of creek cleanup each week. The proposal to offer district-owned residential properties as housing for the homeless is one of several recommendations to come out of the Homeless Encampment Committee.
But the plan to house homeless people in the east end of Waverly Park didn't sit well with nearby residents, many of whom sent letters to the water district opposing the idea and arguing that the location was nowhere near public transit, grocery stores and other services.
Waverly Park resident Kathy Thibodeaux told board members in a letter that she believes the neighborhood will never be a good location for homeless housing under any circumstances and should be exempt from the water district's proposal. Thibodeaux, a member of the leadership team for the affordable housing advocacy organization SV@Home, said that while she is a staunch supporter of the Measure A affordable housing bond, putting homeless housing in Waverly Park would be a mistake.
"Without support and diligent property management, this could lead to problems that would create unfortunate social tensions in this well-established and stable neighborhood," Thibodeaux wrote. "I do not see any scenario in the foreseeable future under which the 19 district-owned homes in this location could ever be deemed suitable for housing the homeless."
City Councilman Ken Rosenberg sent a letter to the water district in September commending the district for seeking solutions to the affordable housing crisis, but also questioning how well-suited the properties are for traditional homeless housing given the distance from services and transportation. He suggested that the district could work with the city to provide the homes to low-income families, which would be a more effective use of the residential properties along the creek.
Waverly Park resident Carmen Bryant also asked board members to ditch the plan, saying that the neighborhood is a tight-knit community full of families who have put down millions of dollars for their properties, and risk seeing their home values decline because of a "perceived exposure to the danger, the drugs, and the 'Skid Row' feeling" that would result. The real estate websites Zillow and Trulia estimate that homes in the neighborhood are worth about $2.2 million each.
Other residents called out the district for failing to inform the neighborhood residents about the proposal prior to the meeting, and leaving them in the dark about the finer details of the plan. Laura Brown, the chair of the Waverly Park Neighborhood Association, said she was never notified by the district. A neighbor told her about the homeless housing proposal just days before the Nov. 22 meeting.
"It was very hard to get the word out to people that any of this was going on," Brown told the Voice. "The (district) needed more transparency and more information, and to reach out to the community and give us their plan and more specifics on it."
At the board meeting, Brown said she understands the need for more homeless housing and services, and that she spent many years as a manager of Social Security offices in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, and had plenty of face-to-face interactions with "some of the most destitute homeless" in the area. But she said there are still far too many unknowns in the plan. She said it's not clear what criteria will be used to assign people to the 19 homes, whether families or a collection of unrelated people are going to reside in each home, and what ongoing services the county will provide once they move in.
A majority of board members supported the plan, but ultimately decided to table a decision until the nearby residents are better informed about the plan to earmark the 19 homes for homeless housing. Board member Gary Kremen said the district ought to consult with Mountain View City Manager Dan Rich and other city staff before making a decision, and wondered if there would be any legal conflicts with the plan now that the city's rent control ordinance, Measure V, has passed.
Santos said he wasn't buying the argument that offering the houses for homeless dwellings would change the complexion of the neighborhood and uproot the existing community, calling it a "scare tactic" focused on anything other than helping the people who are "down and out." District staff estimate that in any given year, only one or two tenants move -- leaving little chance for a sudden surge in homeless residents moving in, he said.
Board member Tony Estremera said the district is offering what it can as a public organization to solve the county's homeless crisis, and argued that leveraging the residential properties that the district owns is a small but important part of that plan. Although some of the neighbors alluded to drugs and things like "Skid Row," Estremera said, it's important to understand that people living on the county's waterways are from all walks of life.
"These people do not have a place to stay, most of them are families, and unlike what most people think, they are all employed," Estremera said. "These people get up from the creek, out of their tents, and they go to work every day and take their kids to school. That's a majority of the people who live in our creeks."