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Will NIMBYs Stop Former Smuggler’s Inn From Becoming Affordable Housing?



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Fresno County, RH Community Builders, and UPholdings want to acquire and rehabilitate the Hotel Fresno (formerly the Smuggler’s Inn) on Blackstone and Dakota avenues to provide assistance to homeless people.

That’s the short-term goal. The long-term goal is to provide affordable housing for decades into the future.

The county hosted a Zoom call Tuesday night to lay out its vision for the property and hear concerns and questions from residents. The county is under a tight state deadline of Sept. 29 to apply for Project Homekey funding.

Some have raised concerns there’s not been enough time for residents and business owners to weigh in on the project’s effect on the area and property values. Several people expressed concerns about who would be allowed to stay there, and how secure the property would be.

Meanwhile, Fresno City Councilmember Nelson Esparza who represents the area is hosting a Zoom call at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to allow more voices to be heard.

Fresno County Board of Supervisors Support

“The Board of Supervisors has only voted to submit the grant application.”Fresno County Board of Supervisor Steve Brandau

Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau hosted Tuesday’s Zoom to go over details of the proposal. He even says that although he mostly disagrees with Gov. Newsom, he sees this program as a way to help the Central Valley. The proposed project is in his district.

“The Board of Supervisors has only voted to submit the grant application,” said Brandau. “We sent in a letter of support and voted to approve the submission of the grant.”

Brandau supports the project because he says in the long run, it isn’t about homelessness.

“It’s about folks who need affordable housing,” said Brandau. He says the governor’s mandate is that these types of projects help homeless people for the first two years in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, the property can be used for long-term affordable housing.

Brandau said that his former colleagues on the Fresno City Council are trying to make the issue solely about homelessness.

Raising a flyer sent to residents, he said, “It’s really a scare tactic. It says, ‘The county of Fresno is bringing homeless to your neighborhood.’ In my viewpoint, it’s really an affordable housing development.”

Brandau also pointed to the increase in homeless people over the past year and said that the days of primarily housing homeless residents in downtown Fresno are over.

Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau holds up a flyer he calls a ‘scare tactic’ during a Zoom call discussing possible acquisition of Hotel Fresno. (Fresno County Zoom)

Resident vs. Business Owner

Some residents liked the idea of providing a way to get people off the streets and into permanent housing.

Jerry Bill says he’s been a resident of the area since 1978.

I think this will be an excellent use for it. Particularly a good location, because right across the street at Manchester (Center) you have the Fresno Adult School. I’ve worked with homeless people a lot and a lot of them need to go to a school like that.”

However, business owners had concerns about the property becoming a magnet for blight, prostitution, and more homeless people.

AJ Rassamni started the Central Blackstone Area Merchant’s Association, bringing together businesses on Blackstone Avenue between Ashlan and Shields avenues.

“We do not want this project to go there,” said Rassamni. “We’re not willing to go through the same issues again over the next two years.”

Fresno City Council Member Nelson Esparza

Photo of Nelson Esparza

“Although Project Homekey was designed by the State to move very quickly, it’s still critically important that public input be taken into consideration by the County.”Fresno City Councilmember Nelson Esparza

“Although Project Homekey was designed by the State to move very quickly, it’s still critically important that public input be taken into consideration by the County,” said Councilmember Esparza in a news release. “Ultimately the City doesn’t have any formal role in this project, but I’m still going to make sure that County officials hear these residents that I represent.”

Wednesday’s forum will open with remarks from Esparza and then turn to public comment.

Great Need for Affordable Housing

There are more than 40,000 households officially awaiting subsidized housing in Fresno County. And, Preston Prince, CEO and executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority, has said that there are tens of thousands of more families who would qualify for affordable housing help but haven’t applied.

About 60% of renters in Fresno County are classified as “rent-burdened” under federal guidelines. That’s because they pay at least 30% of their gross income on rent and utilities. In some pockets of Fresno, up to 75% of households are rent-burdened, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hotel Fresno Proposal

Developers of the project want to turn it into what they’re calling Crossroads Village.

Initially, it would provide about 170 permanent housing units to house homeless residents. Amenities would include laundry, community green space, BBQs, a community pool, and a business and computer center.

“Project HomeKey allows us to purchase this property and immediately provide housing. But our vision doesn’t stop there,” said Jessica Berzac, president and co-owner of UPHoldings. “We hope to continue finding complete rehab dollars and … (it) could be a $30 to $40 million dollar investment into that corridor.”

The hope is to someday repurpose the hotel lobby and make it a multi-purpose community building.

Managers also say the property will be gated, with 24-hour security, and tenants will be expected to abide by community rules to live there.

The timeline that project managers are shooting for is:

  • October 2020, acquisition and immediate rehab to the property
  • Late 2020, immediate occupancy providing housing for families and individuals needing nightly motel stays, and linkages to needed services
  • 2021-2024, units leased to community members at affordable costs
  • 2024+, the property will be guaranteed to be affordable housing for 55 years

Artist rendering of what Crossroads Village could look like. (Fresno County/Zoom)

Parkway Drive Proposal

The Fresno Housing Authority is also working on a proposal under Project Homekey to purchase four properties on Parkway Drive.

Those properties include:

  • Welcome Inn
  • Parkside Inn
  • Motel 99
  • Days Inn

Mayor Lee Brand is supportive of the authority’s Parkway Drive proposal.