Local philanthropist Betty Chinn plans to erect a small transitional housing village out of modular trailers donated by PG&E that have been lying dormant for months on the city-owned Crowley property on the south end of town.
PG&E donated the 11 trailers — which it had been using as administrative offices at the Humboldt Bay Power Plant — to Chinn back in September of 2017 and she planned to convert them into small apartments that people could use to build up rental histories for two years before finding permanent housing. But the plan had been waylaid in May of 2018 by threats of litigation from the owners of Pierson Building Center, which expressed concerns about impacts of the project and warned that the city wasn't following proper process.
"We applaud the city for trying to help those truly in need that are looking to make a better life for themselves," the letter said. "With that said, the businesses on South Broadway are at the breaking point due to the large populations of homeless, transient individuals, many of whom have mental issues and or drug abuse problems in our area. Increasingly, they frequent and prey upon the open door policy of retail businesses, attempting to steal merchandise on a regular basis and frequently becoming belligerent and or threatening in their behavior when confronted."
The city abruptly pulled an item from the city council's agenda that would have amended the property's zoning to make way for the project and then began researching other potential sites, seemingly to little success. Chinn said she started to think it wasn't going to work out and seriously considered an offer to sell the trailers for money she could use to fund her foundation's other endeavors, which include a day center, a family shelter and a children's after-care program.
Then, in April, the hardware store's owner Bill Pierson sent the city a letter indicating he'd had a change of heart, thanks in a large part to a conversation he'd had with Police Chief Steve Watson, during which the chief detailed Chinn's good work with Betty's Blue Angel Village, a makeshift shelter village crafted out of converted shipping containers that houses about 40 people.
"Chief Watson assured me that Betty Chinn runs a tight ship and that any facility that she is in charge of will be operated in the best way possible," Pierson wrote, adding that Watson was sympathetic that the store already faces a "deterioration in the local business environment." "He said that the presence of Betty's facility could actually improve the situation we are currently faced with by focusing additional services into our area."
As a result, Pierson said that not only was he "changing (his) position of opposing the project," but he was also pledging to personally donate $10,000 to Chinn "to help ensure the success of the project."
Because the proposed project is slated to sit in the coastal zone, it will need a local coastal plan amendment and a coastal development permit, both of which fall under the purview of the California Coastal Commission, meaning a lengthy process awaits. Public Works Director Brian Gerving said staff is currently working to finish environmental documentation for the project, including an archeological survey, and will then look to develop a site plan by mid-August. Following that, the city will host a meeting to gather neighborhood input, followed by local coastal amendment and coastal development permit processes with the coastal commission. All told, Gerving said the city hopes construction can begin next spring.
By some indications, it can't open soon enough. As if to underscore the need for creative housing solutions like Chinn's PG&E village, the Humboldt County Grand Jury issued a report July 2 titled "Like Home? There's No Place ..." that assessed housing issues in Humboldt County. Unsurprsingly, the report found that Humboldt County has a disproportionately high homeless population that far exceeds available shelter space, that there are a lack of transitional housing options and an entrenched lack of affordable housing. Further, the report states, new construction of affordable housing units is moving at a snail's pace, as we've previously reported ("Draft Housing Element Calls for Drastic Solutions to Humboldt's Housing 'Crisis,'" May 23).
"The production rate of affordable housing units is insufficient to meet the needs of the county's residents and homeless," reads one of the report's findings.
The report makes a wide variety of recommendations, including that the city and county direct staff to look at providing financial incentives for people who build accessory dwelling units to help meet housing demand (something that has been done successfully in other areas of California) and that the county move forward with some of the bold recommendations contained in the draft housing element update. This included the creation of a tiny house village and a sanctioned area for people to sleep in their cars.
Plans for Chinn's transitional housing project have each of the 11 trailers being converted into a duplex and they could combine to house 24 individuals and six families. While that number pales in comparison to the almost 1,500 people estimated to be living without shelter in Humboldt County, the grand jury report and the county's housing element update have made clear there is no silver-bullet project that will alleviate the area's housing crisis. Rather, experts agree, it will take a multi-faceted approach.
Meanwhile, Chinn continues to see results with her Blue Angel Village, which launched in partnership with the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights as the city of Eureka was clearing the PalCo Marsh of the city's largest and most entrenched homeless encampments. While the project, initially located at Third and Commercial streets in Eureka, met fierce backlash from neighboring business owners, it quickly earned their overall buy-in. In addition to operating without major incident, the project served more than 500 clients in its first two years, helping 442 of them find jobs and moving 229 into permanent housing.
The project has since moved to a city-owned lot on Koster Street, where it similarly met some initial neighborhood skepticism but seems to have run smoothly.
Chinn said she's excited that plans for the village on the Crowley property seem to be moving forward. She said she already has the funding she needs to get started, thanks to contributions from the county, the city and St. Joseph Hospital. Because the goal is to help people build up rental histories before moving into permanent housing, Chinn said the project will only charge minimal rent — essentially enough to cover PG&E bills and insurance — allowing people to save money for future deposits. New residents will be set up with case management and whatever services they need, she said, with the goal of reducing those as their stays progress before they ultimately move out on their own.
"I think it'll be good for the people," she said.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgresson.