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The Walnut Creek City Council wants to proceed with at least one six-home development of micro-houses through a special permitting process instead of creating a new zoning designation, to give the concept a test drive.

The council last week took no formal action on a proposal to build a half dozen homes for low-income residents in the parking lot of Tice Valley’s Grace Presbyterian Church just outside Rossmoor, as no official application has been filed with the city.

Tuesday’s presentation to the council was a joint effort between the city’s homelessness task force and the groups it is working with, including HomeAid Northern California, Firm Foundation Community Hosuing, and Hope Solutions (formerly Contra Costa Interfaith Housing).

“The (housing) crisis, you’re aware of it. It’s exponential,” said Jake Medcalf, the founder of Firm Foundation Community and the lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Hayward, which hosts a similar development. “Every person we get housed, two more are becoming homeless. That’s the reality that we’re facing.”

A look at the HomeAid Northern California-led tiny homes community constructed in 2020 at the First Presbyterian Church in Hayward. (Video courtesy of Cheryl O’Connor/YouTube)

A city staff report for the meeting said declining state and federal resources has helped fuel the Bay Area’s housing shortage, which is one of the worst in the United States.

As a result, more cities are turning toward micro-housing, including Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, and Livermore.

Sections typically come from a factory and are assembled on concrete slabs at a site. Some have small kitchens and restrooms, while others have only living areas and rely on communal resources. Buildings are held to state building and fire standards, and residents are screened by partner organizations specializing in helping low-income and homeless people.

Each unit would shelter one or two people. Monthly rents would not exceed rents that are affordable to households earning up to 50 percent of area median income. Construction costs typically come from a mixture of private and public sources.

Neighbors have concerns

Though there’s no formal plan yet, Tice Valley residents showed up to express concern over potential crime, drug use, and property values. Mayor Kevin Wilk had to halt the meeting at least twice over comments from the small audience.

“I think the concerns are real but I do think that with some time, and the vetting process does work itself out,” said Medcalf, who described similar concerns from the Hayward community when his group built a micro-house project there, near the church’s daycare program. “Even after 12 months, we had zero calls for (police) service and zero issue with parents.”

Mark Burnham, pastor at Grace Presbyterian in Walnut Creek, said the church wants to reach out to neighbors.

Workers unload preconstructed micro-houses at First Presbyterian Church in Hayward, where a community of six units was installed in the church’s parking lot. A similar idea is being proposed in Walnut Creek. (Image courtesy of Cheryl O’Connon/HomeAid Northern California via YouTube)

“We’re very excited about the possibilities of this project,” Burnham told the council. “We still have some processes to go through — getting approval and getting word out to (neighbors) about details.”

All five council members endorsed the idea of the city using a special permitting process, rather than creating a new zoning classification. Cindy Darling said nearby residents had similar concerns when the city approved a winter shelter in the armory downtown, which the city addressed by scheduling regular meetings to hear from neighbors.

“It ended up being something that really worked … nobody goes to that meeting anymore because nobody thinks it’s a problem,” Darling said.

The staff report said, if everything proceeds as planned, the project could officially apply for a development application this fall.