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City Council approves homeless housing plan, may face funding challenges

Photo+by+LifeMoves
Photo by LifeMoves

Despite concerns about its location and rising cost, the LifeMoves housing project on San Antonio Road was approved by the Palo Alto City Council at its Nov. 1 meeting. The vote was 6-1 with councilman Greg Tanaka casting the lone no vote.

LifeMoves, a homeless shelter network in San Mateo County and Santa Clara County that offers programs and services to help people find permanent housing, is now waiting for final approval of its construction application.

“Our hope is to get it in within the New Year,” LifeMoves Programs Operation Manager Anneliese Gretsch said. “The idea would be trying to move people in, possibly in the summer or fall (of 2022). We work with people experiencing homelessness as well as people who may be about to experience homelessness, and then we work with people post-homelessness as well.”

Gretsch said case managers in LifeMoves help those experiencing housing insecurity find safe and consistent housing by finding them apartments, checking their background and approving them for housing.

“We look to make sure the person is not going to be a safety risk to the rest of the community,” Gretsch said. “We really want people who have been experiencing homelessness for a long time, the chronically homeless, and people who are struggling.

In a previous project, LifeMoves Mountain View provided 100 interim housing units for people experiencing homelessness. Gretsch said they plan to act similarly in Palo Alto.

“We have our LifeMoves Mountain View site that was started in November of last year, and we had people move in March of this year, which has been really great,” Gretsch said. “It’ll function very similarly.”

One difference between LifeMoves Mountain View and Palo Alto is the location. The site where LifeMoves plans to build the Palo Alto housing project holds Los Altos’s solid waste and recyclables processor GreenWaste. LifeMoves and Palo Alto must move the GreenWaste site before approaching any construction for the housing. Gretsch said the construction team plans to analyze the site and ensure its safety before any clients move in.

“It’s great that we have this land that we can use, and the county and the city wants to use it for this reason, but we need to make sure that our clients and our staff aren’t in hazardous work environments,” Gretsch said.

City Council Member Greer Stone said alongside construction work, GreenWaste could pose future problems for the city.

“I know there are members of staff and some of my colleagues who also want to make sure that the location is preserved for a possible future water treatment plant,” Stone said. “That is a further complication. But we have been able to at least identify the site for this to be able to happen so our complications are not precluding us from moving forward.”

Gretsch said LifeMoves Palo Alto will include 88 housing units compared to Mountain View’s 100 units. While the Mountain View project cost $25 million, LifeMoves Palo Alto is predicted to cost $26 million, compared to the initial estimate of $17.6 million. Gretsch said this change happened because LifeMoves miscalculated during its planning process. 

“The team miscalculated the number of units at different sizes as well as additional expenses including adding solar (panels) and moving GreenWaste,” Gretsch said.

City Council member Tanaka voted for the original plan but cast a dissenting vote at the most recent meeting, citing the cost difference between LifeMoves Mountain View and LifeMoves Palo Alto as a main reason for voting no. Tanaka said the extra details for the Palo Alto site are excessive. 

“Why do we have to have the deluxe version here?” Tanaka said. “There’s a solar panel system which is good, but Palo Alto buys solar-powered energy so our electricity is already carbon-free. Branding wise, it looks good, but we have a lot of clouds. Having solar panels in a desert is more practical.”

Tanaka also said he is worried that the higher costs will cause the city to take money from other areas of funding.

“The extra $9 million for the capital plus the ongoing expenses is a lot of risk and a lot of expenditures,” Tanaka said. “It means we’re saying no to something else, but we don’t know what we’re saying no to.”

Gretsch, though, said LifeMoves plans to complete the funding gaps with outside sources and encourages community members to get involved.

“What LifeMoves can’t find people to pay for, we will stress for (through donations),” Gretsch said. “For example, at Mountain View, LinkedIn supported us with an employment specialist. So we have an employment specialist position that’s fully funded by LinkedIn. So that’s helping the cost.”

Stone said he will also work with the city council to help offset the difference in cost between the original proposal and the current one.

“The LifeMoves project is being funded through the state and county grants, as well as from various private donations and partnerships,” Stone said. “And we’ve received an anonymous $5 million donation from a very generous resident.”

Stone said the location of the site could bring disconnect between people living in LifeMoves housing and communities across Highway 101.

“It’s located on the other side of Highway 101 and doesn’t have good public transportation around it,” Stone said. “So that’s going to be a complication: finding a way to incorporate our new neighbors into the community.”

Despite his doubts, Stone said, especially after viewing the Mountain View site, he is confident that LifeMoves Palo Alto will provide a bright future for the homeless.

“When I arrived to visit LifeMoves units in Mountain View, there was this woman sitting out by the bus stop with a bunch of her belongings,” Stone said. “She was celebrating the fact that she was moving to permanent housing, and found a job through project LifeMoves and the services that were provided there. And that was the best testimony that I could possibly receive on just how effective this program is.”

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