A transitional home for struggling women and children stood at the center of a debate between the Bakersfield City Council and the “bureaucrats” in Sacramento some members said were taking local control away from the city.
In a largely symbolic vote, the council chose to acknowledge the good neighbor policy of the Casa Esperanza Transitional Home for Women and Children proposed for the corner of Haley Street and Panorama Drive at a meeting Wednesday evening. But the vote was merely a formality as the decision of whether the home could operate had already been made at the state level.
Earlier this year, the council had rejected a conditional use permit application that city officials believed the Casa Esperanza nonprofit needed for the home to operate. However, the California Department of Housing and Community Development subsequently told the city a conditional use permit was not required because Casa Esperanza was technically classified as “transitional housing.”
Under state law, transitional housing is allowed “by right” in neighborhoods designated for single-family homes. After hearing from the state, the Casa Esperanza nonprofit purchased the home and began renovations.
But nearby residents have continuously objected to Casa Esperanza’s actions, raising concerns about the number of women and children who are planned to be housed in the seven-bedroom home and of the ability of the new nonprofit to run the home without issues.
On Wednesday, Councilman Ken Weir said nothing had changed from the council’s previous decision, and he suggested the state had threatened to withhold funding from Bakersfield if the council chose to fight the state's interpretation of the law.
“They are coming to destroy our zoning and if we don’t do it, they’ll just take the money,” he said, classifying the state’s actions as extortion.
He made a motion to reject the city’s acknowledgment of Casa Esperanza’s good neighbor policy, which would not have stopped the project, but could have sent a message to state authorities on the city’s position. He was joined in the vote by Chris Parlier and Patty Gray, who supported his motion on the grounds of asserting local control.
However, Councilmen Eric Arias, Bob Smith and Bruce Freeman voted against.
“I am not in the mood to fight the state whether it’s over money or whether it’s them shutting down our development business,” Smith said. “There are lots of laws, federal and state, that I don’t agree with, but I don’t think it’s wise for the city to try and go to court with the federal government and the state government because we don’t agree.”
Councilman Andrae Gonzales had recused himself from the vote, saying he wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
That left a tie, which city law states can be broken by the mayor. Normally Bakersfield’s mayor cannot cast an official vote on matters before the council, and Mayor Karen Goh took the opportunity to vote down the rejection of the acknowledgement.
“Much as I believe in local control, I don’t believe this is the appropriate place to make that statement,” Goh said. “If we want to bring this before the state in another way, I think this would be appropriate. But when I look at the opportunity for those… who have faced great struggles, we do have a great opportunity.”
A second vote was then held to accept the good neighbor policy. Goh did not need to break a tie on this vote, as Weir abruptly left the meeting following the failure of his motion.
Casa Esperanza seeks to provide a place for homeless women and children to live while the mothers put their lives back in order. It will require women to attend counseling, and offer job training opportunities.
The good neighbor policy institutes a curfew and prohibits drugs and alcohol from being consumed on the property.
Still, neighbors have said Casa Esperanza’s leadership has failed to attend to their concerns.
“As far as the neighbors' concerns, nothing has been addressed,” said one man who spoke during public comments and identified himself as a nearby resident. “I’m really confused by the good neighbor drafting because we are the neighbors. We haven’t been involved in this process at all.”