Bakersfield threatens legal action against home for homeless women, children planned for residential neighborhood

Apr. 22—A proposed home for homeless women and children has become the center of a legal dispute involving the project's organizers, the city of Bakersfield and the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

A conditional use permit that would have authorized the project was rejected by the Bakersfield City Council in January. The Casa Esperanza Board of Directors decided to look for a new location for the project, which seeks to temporarily house up to six women and their children while they seek stable living arrangements.

However, in a rare move, the Department of Housing and Community Development informed the city and Casa Esperanza the city had misclassified the project, and that a permit was not required for the desired location at the corner of Haley Street and Panorama Drive.

That prompted the Casa Esperanza board to purchase the property and begin preparations for opening its doors by early 2022. But the city has told Casa Esperanza it disagrees with the state department's interpretation of state law and it plans to "consider all available legal remedies, including litigation, to prevent this unilateral disregard for the city's land use decision."

One of the legal questions at the center of the dispute involves whether Casa Esperanza is a "roominghouse," which would need a conditional use permit (or CUP) to operate in the single-family residential neighborhood, or "transitional housing," which would not need a permit.

Either way, the city does not believe Casa Esperanza can occupy its chosen site.

"My understanding is that HCD is basically saying look if you have transitional or supportive housing you can go wherever you want by right, and we're saying no you can't go into an R1 unless you have a CUP," said City Attorney Ginny Gennaro. "If you take that interpretation, it basically guts R1 housing. You can go wherever you want. It doesn't matter how many people live in a single-family home."

On Wednesday, a spokesman the Department of Housing and Community Development reiterated the department's stance that Casa Esperanza should be allowed under state law.

"Casa Esperanza's request involved a single-family dwelling located within the R-1 zone," Tressa Mattingly wrote in an email to The Californian. "According to the City's Municipal Code (Chapter 17.10.020), a single-family dwelling is a permitted use in the R-1 zone and does not require a conditional use permit. Casa Esperanza should have been considered a permitted use (use by-right) and not subject to the conditional use permits (CUP) process."

R1, or single-family housing, is one of the most common forms of zoning for residential neighborhoods. With one housing unit per lot, and one family per home, R1 zones cater to families looking for the classic suburban life.

Residents of the Panorama Bluffs neighborhood have objected to Casa Esperanza since it was first learned the nonprofit planned to move in. Some have said the home could change the character of the area and others have expressed displeasure at multiple families living under one roof in the R1 zone.

But on Wednesday, Casa Esperanza Board Member Lisa Elzy Watson expressed hope that everything could be worked out without the project moving locations.

"We're meeting with the city next week and honestly, I just think it's going to be fine," she said. "I just think we'll work through this for the women and children who Casa Esperanza will be a home for."

The Casa Esperanza board has entered into escrow with the owners of the property and plans to proceed forward despite the new legal challenge. Watson said others in the community had supported the project, including through donations. The group hopes to raise money through Give Big Kern.

So far, donors have given $10,750 through the fundraiser.

"This is a passion project. This started out of love and faith that we're doing the right thing for people. So we continue with that," Watson said. "I think people are just afraid of what they can't see, but this board is committed to doing a good job, creating an environment where we're great neighbors and improving the property."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.