Visalia Council approves $1.5M for homeless motel

Funds will be used to add kitchenettes to 50 units at Sequoia Village motel on Mooney Boulevard

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council approved $1.5 million Monday to convert 50 motel rooms at the Sequoia Village into permanent supportive housing.

The council had little choice but to approve the funding, as it was scheduled to expire in June, but took exception with the lack of options during a public hearing on the HOME funding at its April 5 meeting., the contractor operating the facility, sent the city a letter requesting $1.5 million in local matching funds to qualify the project for an additional $1.7 million in state COVID relief funding through the California Department and Housing and Community Development (HCD). The city funds represent 30% of the estimated $5 million conversion to add kitchenettes to each unit and to make five of the units ADA compliant at the Mooney Boulevard motel, according to Visalia housing specialist Margie Perez.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian asked why so much money was needed since the County of Tulare had already received $5.2 million in funding from the state’s Project Homekey, which offered counties money to purchase and operate failing motels and hotels to house the homeless. Perez said that money was used to purchase Sequoia Village but the city’s money will be used in the conversion of the rooms to self-contained housing units, bringing the total cost of the project to more than $10 million.

“That’s over $200,000 per unit,” Poochigian said. “We could buy people houses for that much money.”

Vice Mayor Phil Cox reminded the council the HOME funds are not local money and can only be spent on buying, building, rehabbing or reconstructing permanent structures.

“I don’t have any heartburn over this,” Cox said. “It’s not going to cost us anything.”

Mayor Steve Nelsen disagreed, “The heartburn is knowing we will spend the money while never asking about the process. It’s like offering someone to go to a dance and then asking them to pay for it after you get there.”

Perez said the HOME funds allocated to Sequoia Village have been carried over for several years due to project delays caused by the pandemic. She said the funds will expire this year and revert back to the state unless the city identifies and approves a project by June.

Councilmember Brett Taylor said he would support the project but would like staff to be more proactive in identifying multiple uses for money earlier, to give the council a choice as to how the money will be spent. He said he would like to see a forecast of funding two to three years in advance to allow for discussion and to ensure the city is not forced into a corner on projects.

“It seems like we have funds and at the last second told they are expiring,” Taylor said.

Councilmember Greg Collins, whose idea to convert a piece of vacant land into a campground for the homeless was shot down by the council last month, said he thought the price tag was too expensive but that it was too late to walk away from the project.

“It won’t solve the problem and it is a lot more expensive than a campground,” Collins said. “Fifty units is 50 units … but I would have liked to have done more housing that is less expensive.”

A representative from RH Community Builders, the contractor handling the conversion of the units, said the council was not provided more notice because the Home Key funding was announced “too fast and did not allow time for more collaboration.”

After the 4-0 vote on April 19, Taylor touted the decision as proof the city listens to its residents, including those advocating for the homeless, to help those in need in the community.

“This council has taken very seriously the issue of homelessness,” Taylor said. “We hear the community’s cries for help with these individuals.”

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