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In Silicon Valley, tiny homes are part of plan to end homelessness by 2025

Santa Clara County is looking for sites for more prefabricated units in a bid to reach its goal.
Image: Cindy Chavez
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez stands near some of the temporary homes at Casitas de Esperanza (Little Houses of Hope) in San Jose, Calif.Cyrus Farivar / NBC News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — On a recent fall day, stepping out of her house, Alexandria Urrea pushed a stroller holding her baby girl.

“Before here, we were living in our car,” Urrea said. “So that wasn’t going to work out at all. So if they didn’t call us, then we wouldn’t have anywhere [to go].” 

She was referring to Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, where an estimated 10,000 people are homeless, including Urrea and her daughter. They are among 62 people, including 40 children, living in prefabricated tiny homes on county-owned land.

A total of 25 homes are positioned on a site that once served as San Jose City Hall but had stood vacant for over 15 years. Amigos de Guadalupe, a local charitable organization that administers the program, invites families to stay up to 120 days or until they find permanent housing.

Casitas de Esperanza is part of a larger effort Santa Clara County announced in 2020 to “end homelessness” within five years. The county wants to expand Casitas and other homeless services and start a program similar to the state’s motel-conversion model.

Image: Pallet temporary home
Each temporary home at Casitas de Esperanza in San Jose, Calif., is about 100 square feet and can sleep four people.Cyrus Farivar / NBC News

County Supervisor Otto Lee said officials are willing to consider privately owned properties, such as those held by nonprofit groups and religious institutions, for Casitas de Esperanza's expansion.

“If they’re willing to put up the land, the rest of the items the county should be able to supplement and pay for,” he said.

Homelessness and its twin social ill, lack of affordable housing, are particularly acute in urban and suburban areas of the state, where about 161,000 people are unsheltered. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $12 billion bill to address homelessness, with much of the money likely to be spent buying older hotels and motels and converting them into residential units.

Many major tech firms, including Apple and Google, own large amounts of commercial property in Silicon Valley and across the region. In September, just a few miles away from Casitas, Apple cleared a longstanding homeless encampment on undeveloped property it owns near the San Jose International Airport. The company is paying millions to temporarily house the displaced people in motels.

Image: Pallet temporary homes
The temporary homes at Casitas de Esperanza are set up on the grounds of the former city hall in San Jose, Calif., and have portable restrooms and laundry facilities on site.Cyrus Farivar / NBC News

Supervisor Cindy Chavez said during a news conference in November that many homeless people in the region grew up in the area and work full time but cannot afford a modest house or apartment.

“Even with the minimum wage, if you’re working a full-time job, and you’re making $15 an hour, but the house you’re living in is $2,400,” she said. “There is no way to bridge that gap. So one of the things that we’ve seen with homelessness in our community is that we have a lot of people who are working who are homeless.”

Santa Clara County is one of the most expensive areas in California, with the median home price doubling in less than a decade to $1.5 million, according to real estate website Zillow.

Four individuals or families from Casitas de Esperanza have transitioned to affordable housing since the site opened in February, according to Amigos de Guadalupe, and two more residents are in the process.

As for Urrea, she said her next goal is to work with her case manager to find a permanent place to live.

“We’re hoping to get housed,” she said.