Visalia City Council, planning commission, mull homeless options

The Visalia City Council met Monday, March 15, to receive an official presentation from Salt+Light and Self-Help Enterprises on their joint project to create a neighborhood village in Goshen for the chronically homeless. The presentation was met with high praise across the board.

But the same cannot be said about Wednesday’s joint city council meeting with the planning commission, in which staff presented drafts of possible locations and standards for an emergency shelter and navigation center for the homeless.

While important discussions were brought to the table, there was plenty of conjecture and some of the suggested standards may be considered unethical, discriminatory and even illegal under recent legislation.

A Match Made in Heaven

On Monday, the Visalia City Council received a presentation on an innovative supportive housing project under development called “Neighborhood Village.”

The project is a partnership between nonprofits Salt+Light and Self-Help Enterprises. It will entail a 52-unit park-home model intended for construction on Riggin Avenue, just east of Road 72 in Goshen. The plan is based on Alan Graham’s Community First! Village in Austin, Texas,

Founder and CEO of Salt+Light, Adrianne Hillman, has been speaking about the project publicly since late 2019. When the Valley Voice last spoke with Hillman, she mentioned a potential partnership with Self-Help, but that it was yet to be made official.

Well, that partnership is now official, as both nonprofits presented their plans to the city council on Monday in a union that Hillman said she was very “thrilled” about—and for good reason.

While Salt+Light has the innovative drive of creating a supportive housing community that may be “the first of its kind in the state,” it is still a young nonprofit with limited staff.

However, Self-Help has been around for more than 50 years and has many affordable housing projects under its belt, one of which is 66 units of multifamily housing already operating as Sequoia Commons I near the proposed site of the Neighborhood Village.

Furthermore, Program Director of Real Estate Development at Self-Help Enterprises Betsy McGovern Garcia announced they have additional projects underway in that area, including Sequoia Commons II, and nearly 100 units more of Self-Help housing.

The nonprofit also purchased a parcel of land adjacent to these projects for development of a grocery store, gas station and other businesses.

The remaining 6 acres of land that Self-Help owns will be dedicated to the Neighborhood Village. The hope is the addition of this new village in tandem with the housing and commercial developments in Goshen will help cover a wider range of needs in the community.

“Because it’s [in close] vicinity to other projects under Self-Help,” Garcia said, “the addition of the neighborhood village will create an area that serves a spectrum of housing needs for a variety of income levels.”

Self-Help primarily provides affordable housing and rental units for low-income families, so there has been a gap in their ability to provide significant support to the chronically homeless.

This new partnership with Salt+Light may help fill that gap and get more homeless off the streets on a permanent basis, with a big emphasis on the word “permanent.”

Hillman explained the nonprofit intends on having “missional residents,” or staff that will live alongside their residents in the village. She said this is a crucial part of the “glue” that will help cultivate and maintain familial relationships.

“It helps keep our neighbors more accountable and helps them heal faster,” Hillman said. “They make residents feel seen, heard and loved. And they will help forge family.”

Funding for the project will involve a mix of public and private sources. Garcia explained they plan on using funds from the state’s Multifamily Housing Program and some infrastructure grants.

The project will also rely heavily on private donations from individuals, organizations, businesses and community faith-based groups.

The cost of construction, according to Garcia, will only be 50% of traditional “stick-built” homes. This will be achieved by acquiring manufactured units through Champion Homes in Lindsay.

This will help shave off about 5-7 months on development, as installment of the manufactured units will only take a quarter of the time needed for construction of traditional homes.

Garcia emphasized that while the units will technically be mobile homes, permanent foundations and permanent utilities connections will be used, so it will “look like a traditional stick-built community when finished.”

Construction of the Neighborhood Village is expected to begin in November of next year.

Council Reception

Response from the Visalia City Council was overwhelmingly positive. Both Mayor Steven Nelson and Councilman Brian Poochigian expressed interest in duplication of the village.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle and it’s going to take a lot of pieces to support our community, …” Nelson said. “Hopefully this is a model we can duplicate many times to continually build towards completing this puzzle.”

While future expansion is difficult to gauge at this point of development, Hillman stated there was a possibility of growth in nearby areas.

Although the project was received with positivity, there were a couple questions from the council that needed to be addressed. Councilman Greg Collins in particular was curious if residents would be expected to pay rent.

According to Garcia, the residents will indeed pay affordable rent, but they will be assisted in procuring work.

“[Rent] will be structured at 30% of the resident’s income,” she explained. “People that come in may not have income, but part of this support effort is qualifying them for micro enterprises on-site or through other job opportunities.”

Councilman Poochigian’s concerns were more about safety measures, and he asked if security would be present at all times. Hillman explained an access gate and security cameras will be present at the village, but she does not believe that on-site security will be necessary.

She supported this by citing her experience at the Austin village and mentioned that Visalia Chief of Police Jason Salazar accompanied her on the trip to visit the village in Texas, where they discussed managing the site in a similar way.

This may include leaving security to on-site management staff and missional residents who have established relationships with the other residents, along with a partnership with the Visalia Police Department.

City Drafts Plan for Homeless Shelters

On Wednesday, March 17, the Visalia City Council and the Visalia Planning Commission held a special joint meeting to review zoning and performance standards drafted for an emergency shelter and low-barrier navigation center in Visalia.

The purpose of the meeting was for the council and planning commission to provide staff with recommendations for modification of the draft presented, such as suggesting zones for construction and management standards of facilities.

Development of the shelters is a response to 2019 Assembly Bill 101 which includes mandates for cities to increase transitional housing for homeless or face fines of up to $10,000 dollars. This is in addition to the Supreme Court ruling last year that prohibited preventing homeless from camping if there was an absence of alternatives, such as a low-barrier shelter.

City of Visalia City Planner Brandon Smith began the presentation by discussing the zones where emergency shelters and low-barrier navigational centers can be constructed.

As defined by the city, an emergency shelter is a “facility that provides shelter to homeless families and/or homeless individuals on a limited short-term basis.” A low-barrier navigation center on the other hand is a “service-enriched shelter focused on moving people into permanent housing that provides temporary living facilities while case managers connect individuals experiencing homelessness” to a variety of services.

In other words, a low-barrier navigation center has more bells and whistles, and a big emphasis on providing support through services such as employment, medical support and housing assistance.

Smith went on to explain there is only one zone in Visalia where an emergency shelter can be built. And that is a “light industrial zone” just west of Goshen and Shirk. According to staff the zone was selected for its “inventory of locations and buildings that have available utilities.”

As for the low-barrier navigation center, staff identified two zones, the first of which is called downtown mixed-use located, of course, in the greater downtown area. The second zone was identified as commercial mixed use, a zone present in at least three different areas in southern Visalia. All of these zones are based on a “by-right” basis, meaning the locations under this category meet the requirements to develop in the area without a special permit.

But other zones were offered as potential areas for construction of an emergency shelter and navigational center based on conditional circumstances, like proximity to essential services and major roadways. These zones include “multi-family residential, service commercial, and quasi-public zones such as parks and open spaces.

City staff went on to describe the performance standards drafted for both emergency shelters and low-barrier navigation centers, or the list of operational guidelines for the facilities.

Some of the more notable standards detailed include rules prohibiting construction of a shelter if it is located within 300 feet of another shelter, a maximum length of stay for residents of no longer than six months, a maximum of 100 beds per facility and around-the-clock security.

Contention and Critique 

Both the planning commission and the council had plenty to say about the draft. One of the first concerns was brought up by Commissioner Sarah Peariso, who offered the idea of implementing a “minimum length of stay” for the participants.

“There could be quite a lot of back and forth if there is no required commitment to participate in the services they will be receiving at the site,” she explained.

Staff said they would definitely look into it as they continue their analysis.

Collins suggested the implementation of a fence and an outdoor area for children.

“A good fence makes for good neighbors,” he said. “And some open space with benches and trees. There needs to be a place where [kids] can escape and enjoy the outdoors”.

Poochigian agreed with the idea of including an outdoor area, but believed the standard requiring shelters to be 300 feet away was too lenient.

“I would prefer for them to be even more far away, maybe 1,000 to 2,000 feet away,” he said.

Poochigian added he would like to see fewer beds per facility as well. His reasoning for these modifications was he did not want to see a “Skid Row” situation where “the whole neighborhood goes bad.”

“I would like to see smaller facilities with a more diverse spread through the community,” he concluded.

Nelson agreed with Poochigian regarding spacing, pointing to regulations about food trucks as a comparison.

“If you set your shelter up directly on a block, you can have one on just about every block,” he explained. “That shouldn’t happen. In fact, I think we have a bigger distance on our food trucks than we do on shelters. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

He also expressed some concern about a standard stating one parking space should be provided for every 10 beds at the facility. The problem with that standard, according to Nelson, is that not all locations have enough acreage to create that many parking spaces.

After members of the meeting ended their discussion, Suzy Ward, priest for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the woman behind the annual warming center in Visalia, advised members to tread carefully with the implantation of a fence. Ward later explained that she wondered about the intent behind the fence.

“Are we worried about keeping people in?” she questioned.

Although Ward did not share it during public comment, she said had a variety of concerns with the standards, one of them being the maximum length of stay at the shelters.

When asked how long it takes for a chronically homeless individual to find housing, Ward alluded to the lack of housing in Tulare County.

“It’s easily longer than six months,” she said. “We need to talk to people in the field to talk about guidelines, especially in a community where there is no housing, period.”

Machael Smith, Executive Director at Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance, agrees with this sentiment.

“Of course, there will be some folks who are able to move through the system quickly,” she wrote in an email to the Valley Voice. “But the majority of folks who have zero income, poor credit history, and/or prior evictions will have an extremely difficult time securing a unit.”

Smith went on to explain that one third of the homeless that have a housing voucher have been looking for housing for more than six months.

When the Voice brought this statistic to Mayor Nelson’s attention, he was quick to dismiss it, but said that it will be, “looked at”.

Not-So-Legal Recommendations

Although some of the concerns brought to the staff’s attention may have come from a good intention, there are some potential ethical and legal issues with the ideas suggested by the City Council and Planning Commission.

To understand the legal implications of the ideas suggested, we have to turn to Senate Bill 48 introduced in December 2018.

According to the bill, a low-barrier navigation center may only be developed if it has “objective, written development standards and policies that apply to other residential development within the same zone.”

In other words, if the city requires a fence at the low-barrier navigational center then it must require a fence at all the other residential projects in the same zone. That equality applies to most standards drafted.

But if that is not cut and dry enough, SB 48 is much more specific about the rules surrounding parking and distance between shelters.

According to the bill, “a local jurisdiction shall not impose parking requirements on a low-barrier navigation center” and emergency shelters can be distanced from each other, but only if they “are not required to be more than 300 feet apart.”

So as much as the council members are concerned about spacing, limiting parking spots and increasing the distance between shelters beyond 300 feet, the requirements would not be in accordance with California law.

For those wondering why these restrictions were put in SB 48 in the first place, Smith from Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance has an answer: “Basically, SB 48 is making sure that communities don’t discriminate based on project types.”

She went on to explain that the bill is really important in order to create objective standards. The keyword here is “objective,” because the approach has to be as unbiased as possible.

But as important as this bill may be, it was not mentioned during the discussion of the emergency shelter and low-barrier navigational center, an oversight that left unchecked may lead to unintended discrimination against the homeless.

It’s unclear if Visalia is considering enacting laws such as those outlined in SB 48 when drafting standards, however staff did mention that the standards are based on research and analysis of other cities, centers and surveys.

It’s also unclear if experts in the field have been consulted to help create these standards. People like Ward and Smith know the importance of including experts in the field, such as Self-Help Enterprises and C-SET in these discussions.

However, neither organization seemed to be present during the meeting, although it is possible they were watching remotely.

If they were present, or at least consulted before the meeting, then perhaps there would be more clarity surrounding which standards are ethical, legal and proven to work well in these facilities.

For example, Ward’s operation at the warming center and a navigational center in San Luis Obispo have found having security on site isn’t really necessary, something that is supported by Hillman’s comments about her time at the Austin village.

Not only is it more affordable to opt out of hiring full-time security, but using staff or former homeless may facilitate more trust. And, according to Ward, those who have maintained relationships with individuals at the shelters are at an advantage when mitigating a potentially risky situation.

“Someone in on the street knows the territory and knows how to approach it,” Ward explained.

Eric Draven aka “Viper” is one of these former homeless that helped maintain peace at Ward’s warming center and had many connections with people on the street.

“When they walked through those doors,” Draven said, “all that drama stayed outside those doors.”

Asked how he was able to maintain order at the warming center, Draven explained he just treated people the way he would want to be treated.

He also said leadership needed to start turning to homeless for input as well. He praised ex-mayor Bob Link and Councilman Collins for asking people on the streets for advice on how to remedy homelessness.

But Draven also recognizes that there is still a big disconnect between those who are homeless and those who are not. He knows what leads to ideas about security, fences and separating shelters.

Ward called it “implicit bias” and “preconceived ideas”.

Draven had a more explicit word for it. He called it fear.

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