Homes at Grace Presbyterian Church would aid those on edge of homelessness
By Sam Richards
A church near Rossmoor is proposing to put six “micro homes” on an unused portion of its parking lot, a concept that has elicited reactions ranging from solid support to vociferous objection.
None of it surprises the Rev. Mark Burnham, whose Grace Presbyterian Church was part of a presentation to the Walnut Creek City Council on July 20 that he characterized as an “exploratory” move for the church on Tice Valley Boulevard to provide housing for people on the edge of homelessness.
“Yeah, it’s about what I would have expected,” said Burnham of the early community reaction. He stressed that the idea for this small micro-home “village” had not, as of press time, been subjected to a thorough discussion even among church members, many of whom call Rossmoor home, much less residents of the surrounding area.
Burnham said he was heartened by the City Council’s overall positive reaction to the micro-home idea, one that Mayor Kevin Wilk called “a tool in the city’s toolbox” to provide more affordable housing.
City officials on July 20 called the Grace Presbyterian proposal, a first for Walnut Creek, a “pilot program” that would likely require a special use permit from the city to move forward if it does indeed proceed.
The proposal as of July 22 was for six 220-square-foot homes, and a seventh building that would serve as an office and laundry room. Each of the six housing units would have a toilet, a shower and a kitchen sink.
The homes would likely be built on site by crews that, in many cases, are employed by area homebuilding companies, which also may donate some materials. The micro-homes would be required to comply with all state and local building and fire codes.
If the project moves ahead, there also will be public hearings to gather comments on the plan. No such hearings had been scheduled as of press time.
But the public is already weighing in. One Nextdoor social media post about this micro-home proposal had more than 90 comments as of noon July 22; of the comments offering an opinion, about half supported the church’s plan, and the rest criticized it as a potential source of neighborhood crime and a hit on area property values. Many critics said the idea to help house the homeless was worthy but that the location is wrong.
“Great idea. We need to help our fellow human beings with a warm, dry place to sleep at night,” one commenter posted. “Even if my home value goes down. It’s the price I’m willing to pay. Bring it on!” Another simply said, “Sounds like a church with good Christian values to me.”
Other posts were in line with this comment: “There’s a reason why people move from San Francisco and Oakland to this area (Rossmoor/Tice Valley) so they can get away from the crimes, drugs and trash on the streets. I hope this will be different.”
Burnham and others insist the residents of these units would be vetted by Pleasant Hill-based Hope Solutions (formerly Contra Costa Interfaith Housing), which also would provide case management and other support services for the tenants. Residents would have to have guaranteed income, through employment, public assistance or through rental-assistance programs like the federal Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Monthly rents would not exceed rents that are affordable to households earning up to 50% of area median income.
The concept for micro-homes was brought forward by the housing subcommittee of the Walnut Creek Homeless Taskforce, which is partnering with Grace Presbyterian and with HomeAid of Northern California, Firm Foundation Community Housing in Hayward and Pleasant Hill-based Hope Solutions (formerly Contra Costa Interfaith Housing) to find ways to provide homes for the homeless.
The Rev. Jake Medcalf, founder of the nonprofit Firm Foundation Community Housing and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hayward, told the City Council his church’s campus is home to six micro-homes similar to those Grace Presbyterian is considering. They’ve been operating for about a year, he said, and have generated no police calls for service.
“I think we, as a (faith) community, have a moral obligation to provide housing,” said Medcalf, noting that St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord is considering hosting a similar project. “If we don’t provide housing, we’re condemning people to die slowly on the streets.”
The City Council on July 20 heard from a handful of residents from the Trellis condominiums across the street from Grace Presbyterian, who said the church parking lot isn’t the right place for micro-homes.
“The problem won’t be solved by putting a roof over their heads,” said one commenter who said he is a Trellis homeowner. He also said he feared the sort of homelessness problems that have plagued parts of San Francisco, with discarded needles and feces littering the ground nearby.
Dan McGrath of Rossmoor, addressing the City Council over Zoom, said he supports the Grace proposal. Fear of six housing units, he said, “is a little bit far-fetched.”
“Many people who live in Rossmoor are very supportive of this initiative,” McGrath said. A couple of project opponents in the City Council chamber reacted to McGrath’s comments by shouting, “He lives in a gated community!”
That doesn’t mean some Rossmoor residents aren’t afraid the Grace project could bring in people who could walk into Rossmoor and cause problems.
“People feel kind of sideswiped by this,” said Jean Pero, who lives near the church. She said her sister lives in Rossmoor and is alarmed by the Grace proposal.
City Council members on July 20 weren’t scared of the Grace proposal but said that because this is the first project of its kind in the city, that the move forward will likely be extra cautious.
Council members seemed positive about the concept, though; Councilwoman Cindy Darling noted there had been early opposition to a winter homeless shelter at the Walnut Creek armory, adjacent to a residential neighborhood, but that potential problems were effectively addressed.
And Councilwoman Loella Haskew said the micro-homes’ residents, and many others who are homeless, “are the same as you and me except that something terrible happened in their lives.”
And Wilk told residents of the Trellis development that he remembers when that project was approved in December 2015. Surrounding neighbors were afraid of Trellis’ density, Wilk said, and feared the development would “lower their housing values and bring in undesirable populations” to their neighborhood.
“And those are the people that are your neighbors,” Wilk added.
Burnham knows this micro-home project won’t solve homelessness, but he believes every little bit can help.
“It’s six people, at least, whose lives can be changed,” he said.