A CONTROVERSIAL PLAN to house homeless people on vacant VTA land in North San Jose could fall flat as officials consider other options.

The VTA Board of Directors, composed of 12 officials from across Santa Clara County, voted 10-1-1 last week to bring back a draft agreement for San Jose to build 200 homes with state help at the Cerone VTA yard in the north part of the city. The board will also consider analyzing three other locations as alternative building sites. Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley opposed and county Supervisor Otto Lee was absent.

The VTA board will either support building all the homes at Cerone or distribute them among various sites. It will be decided next month.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez supports looking at other options because union-represented transit workers voiced safety concerns about homeless people living close to where they work.

Chavez suggested putting Cerone on hold and looking at other VTA sites for housing. She was outnumbered by a majority of board members who supported the housing plan.

“The urgency here is very high and I think there are complications with Cerone that are real and meaningful and have implications,” Chavez said. “That said, if there are other sites that are available, all of the sites should be evaluated.”

‘There is no perfect site’

San Jose is set to receive 200 tiny homes from the state at no cost to temporarily house homeless residents — as long as they find a place for them by the end of the year.

Tensions were high during the three-hour discussion as board members questioned delaying the Cerone site agreement — which would lease the five acres of land to San Jose for five years — in favor of looking at the other sites, which include VTA’s Cottle, Hostetter and Berryessa North stations.

“Why we haven’t made faster progress in ending homelessness, which is the No. 1 concern, (is) we all too often find reasons to say no,” Mahan said. “There is no perfect site (and) if we keep looking for the perfect site we are going to have the status quo.”

Mahan said Cerone is large enough to support all 200 tiny homes. Chavez, along with VTA staff, want to distribute the homes to several sites because of concerns from Cerone yard workers — but that would cost the city more.

“We have to take all of the workers’ concerns into account to ensure safety, but at the end of the day what matters most to me is right now if we can house 200 people, that we are not preventing them from being housed.”

Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Omar Din

In addition to safety concerns, VTA officials and union leaders are wary of building at Cerone because that could delay the transit agency’s future plans of electrifying its bus fleet, as needed space would be taken up by housing.

Leasing VTA land for housing — temporary or permanent — isn’t novel. The Santa Teresa VTA light rail station has a safe parking site and there are 1,600 interim housing sites in the pipeline.

Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Omar Din, who works for San Jose Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei, led the efforts to compromise — emphasizing that the Cerone site cannot be off the table while other sites are considered.

“We have to take all of the workers’ concerns into account to ensure safety, but at the end of the day what matters most to me is right now if we can house 200 people, that we are not preventing them from being housed,” Din said.

Unusual disagreement

The public was divided on the idea. Labor and housing allies are usually aligned, but union reps and housing nonprofits went head to head.

VTA workers are still recovering from a mass shooting in 2021 that left 10 employees dead, but some say the lack of support for the housing plan is political. Chavez, for example, has historically supported homeless housing and urged residents to welcome them into their neighborhoods.

Utilizing VTA land to build up San Jose’s interim housing stock is priority for Mahan who is seeking reelection in 2024 and puts him at odds with Chavez, his mayoral opponent in 2022 who may challenge him again.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.