Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Bridge Housing Communities" approved in San Jose—to be deployed in every district during "shelter crisis"

It seems we are beginning to reach a critical juncture in the movement to permit tiny houses and other minimal shelter designs as a legal dwelling options. As the concept continues to gain momentum, particularly as our nation's housing affordability crisis sharpens, the critical conversations are beginning to be had had the state level.

In Oregon, our state legislature recently held an informational meeting on "tiny houses," and Rep. Phil Barnhart has introduced a state bill has been introduced a House Bill for the 2017 session that would make adjustments to the state building code to better accommodate tiny houses.

Meanwhile, a state law was just signed in California, allowing the City of San Jose "to temporarily suspend state building, safety and health codes for the purpose of building 'unconventional' housing structures" during a "shelter crisis," which the City declared in December 2015. 

Here's some direct language from Assembly Bill No. 2176:

The city, in lieu of compliance with state and local building, housing, health, habitability, or safety standards and laws, may adopt by ordinance reasonable local standards for the design, site development, and operation of emergency bridge housing communities and the structures and facilities therein, to the extent that it is determined at the time of adoption that strict compliance with state and local standards or laws in existence at the time of that adoption would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the shelter crisis.

It's also suggested that each city councilor will identify a potential site of at least a half an acre that  could house up to 25 people inside 20 units, in each their districts. The law identifies these as an "Emergency Bridge Housing Community"—which it defines as:

...housing in temporary structures, including, but not limited to, emergency sleeping cabins... that are reserved for homeless persons and families, together with community support facilities, including, but not limited to, showers and bathrooms adequate to serve the anticipated number of residents all of which may be located on property leased or owned by a political subdivision. An emergency bridge housing community shall include supportive and self-sufficiency development services, have the ultimate goal of moving homeless persons to permanent housing as quickly as reasonably possible, and limit rents and service fees to an ability-to-pay formula reasonably consistent with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s requirements for subsidized housing for low-income persons.

Opportunity Village Eugene exemplifies a "Bridge Housing Community" 
now permitted in San Jose, CA

The legislation defines “emergency sleeping cabin” as "a relocatable hard-sided structure" that requires a minimum of 70 square feet for an individual and no less than 120 square feet for a couple. "It shall contain no plumbing or gas service. An emergency sleeping cabin shall meet a minimum of a 20 pounds per square foot live load roof structure, shall be provided light, heat, and ventilation, and shall comply with minimum emergency bridge housing design standards." Those standards require each structure to include electrical power, an interior lighting fixture, heat, at least one electrical outlet, two forms of egress, a lockable door, and a smoke detector.

It's clearly emphasized that this is a "temporary" measure until San Jose can build an adequate supply of affordable housing. The law requires the City to "match each resident of an emergency bridge housing community to an affordable housing unit identified in the city’s housing plan that shall be available for the resident to live in on or before January 1, 2022." That plan calls for more than 500 new affordable housing units over the next 5 years.

“The magnitude of the problem demands that we not only develop more permanent housing, but also that we pursue innovative approaches to housing our most vulnerable populations humanely and safely,” said San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo.

This all represents a shift towards a more practical response to the issue of homelessness. Prior to this, the traditional sentiment has been: the solution is more affordable housing, with the notion that anything less would be inhumane. However, that affordable housing never seems to come on the scale that it's promised, so people are left with nothing in the meantime. 

San Jose's acceptance of "unconventional housing structures" recognizes that building adequate affordable housing is an expensive and lengthy process, and we can no longer pretend that nothing should be done in the meantime. This is a critical paradigm shift that is long overdue but finally finding some traction.