If you build it, they will come.

This idea alone has created quite a rift in the city of Ventura regarding the potential placement of emergency homeless shelters and those who will occupy them.

Going before City Council on Nov. 15 is the Planning Commission’s recommendation to identify 13 zones, a mix of multifamily, commercial and industrial zones, throughout the city that would permit emergency shelters “by right.”

This means a shelter could be developed without a conditional use permit or other discretionary action.

“If permitted by right, there wouldn’t be a lengthy discretionary hearing process” to open an emergency shelter, said Jeff Lambert, community development director. “A shelter could open pretty quickly.”

An emergency shelter is defined as housing with minimal services that limits occupancy to six months or less by a homeless person and does not turn away any individual or household because of inability to pay.

Passed in 2007, Senate Bill 2 amends the Government Code to require at least one zone in a city to be identified as permitting emergency shelters by right. But like many coastal cities in California, Ventura has an increasing homeless population unmatched by the availability of shelter. Under SB 2’s changes, public agencies must plan to meet the unaccommodated need for emergency shelter beds. There are currently four emergency shelters, at least five transitional housing facilities and three permanent housing facilities for the homeless. Still, the city estimates there is a need for approximately 278 more beds.

“Homeless services have been concentrated on the Westside and downtown,” said Peter Brown, Community Services Manager. “This [by-right zoning] is a way of potentially spreading the impact of services throughout the community and not just one area.”

But there are those who fear that establishing multiple by-right zones is a recipe for disaster. Under the current system, shelters are allowed to operate with conditional use permits, and the city has the right to revoke a permit if operational rules are neglected. When operating by right, and without a conditional use permit, opponents feel the city would do away with its ability to close a homeless shelter with a neglectful operator.

“By right means there is no way to enforce violations,” said Dave Armstrong, chairman of the board for Downtown Ventura Organization. “The planning commission has spent lots of time developing operational rules, but there is no way to enforce this. You don’t have any way to enforce your own rules other than a lengthy court process.”

The continuing fear of having homeless shelters in a commercial- or multifamily-zoned area is that they would naturally attract the homeless and the possibility of questionable behavior.

“With by right, there would be no planning process to decide where a shelter could go within a zone,” said Armstrong. “The city cannot say that is not a good place. If it’s by right, you don’t have any say where it goes or what it’s next to. It could be next to a liquor store or a preschool.”

Brown objects. He said he understands the concern, but it’s not realistic to assume that shelters would be sprouting up on every street corner. Adding more zones simply allows a more diverse array of options, instead of limiting shelter possibilities to one zone.

Lambert concurred that if shelters are permitted by right, “there wouldn’t be lengthy discretionary hearing processes” to erect a much-needed shelter.

City staff found that funding the operation of emergency shelters is extremely challenging, expensive and not necessarily a moneymaker. This generally limits the facilities to those with qualified backgrounds in public or nonprofit operating experience.

Still, opponents don’t understand why an emergency shelter should have by-right operating privileges.

“If a hotel needs a CUP (conditional use permit), and a short-term rental of a house needs a CUP, and a restaurant needs a CUP, then a shelter should need a CUP,” said Kioren Moss, a member of Pierpont Community Council.

“If the City adopts a ‘feel free’ position, failing to govern homeless shelters,” Moss added, “it will be pushing the town further into decline. Businesses adjacent to them will fail, and residents adjacent to them will move.”

Those like Moss agree that emergency shelters should be limited to only industrial zones, and should not mix with commercial or multifamily zones.

The Planning Commission is making its recommendation based on the city’s General Plan Housing Element goals, the city-endorsed Ten-Year Strategy to End Homelessness, public comment and public workshops. The commission will also be presenting the council with alternatives that range from the SB 2 minimal requirements to decreasing the amount of by-right zoning districts.   

shane@vcreporter.com