John Sobrato

John Sobrato

As San Mateo County officials pursue funding support for its new navigation center, a private donation of $5 million was made toward the project by a local philanthropist who has vowed to continue backing similar efforts. 

“I just think we have a moral obligation to make sure people who are unhoused in our community have a roof over their head,” John Sobrato, a developer turned philanthropist, said. “We all have an obligation to take care of our neighbors.” 

The donation will go toward the roughly $50 million required to get the navigation center, a non-congregate homeless housing facility a decade in the making, off the ground.

With structures ranging from single stories to three stories tall, the center will bring 240 new beds into the county using prefabricated modular units. Wood structures will also be located on site to house a kitchen, dining hall, training center and a community space.

Sobrato said he was drawn to supporting the project after being a longtime supporter of LifeMoves, the nonprofit tapped to run the county’s navigation center given its long list of qualifications running other similar sites. 

Through the partnership, the nonprofit will provide wraparound services to residents including counseling, job readiness and support with relocating to a more permanent home. 

Sobrato’s support for LifeMoves and the development of such centers goes beyond the Redwood City location. He said he has committed to providing $5 million to at least 10 homeless shelters in the region with the condition that municipalities agree to lease the land for no more than $1 a year. 

“I believe in a true public private partnership and I’m not going to help fund a project if the municipality is not going to provide the land,” Sobrato said. “We can’t do it alone. Philanthropy can’t solve the problem.”

For the Redwood City-based center, the county acquired the land through a contentious land swap with the city. After a year of negotiations, the City Council unanimously supported trading a 2.5-acre parcel at 1469 Maple St. for the county’s lot at 1580 Maple St., a 2-acre parcel just behind the Redwood City Police Department.

The effort is part of the county’s goal of reaching functional zero homelessness, meaning becoming homeless is rare, brief and never chronic, a goal Sobrato applauded.

David Canepa, president of the Board of Supervisors, praised Sobrato’s donation, calling him and his family foundation a “godsend” during the pandemic. The board is anticipated to accept the donation during its meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7. 

“This navigation center will provide dignified housing with private rooms, counseling and job training for hundreds of individuals facing homelessness. The Sobrato Foundation has been a godsend during the pandemic and this $5 million gift proves that,” Canepa said. 

County Manager Mike Callagy also lauded Sobrato and his wife Sue, for making the donation but noted Sobrato’s contribution to the project goes beyond financial. As a successful developer, Sobrato’s vision for the navigation center helped evolve the project, Callagy said. 

“He’s one of the most incredible philanthropic people we have in this county and probably in California,” Callagy said. “It’s not only the money. It’s the time he takes with his advice. I really think he helped change the vision of the navigation center for us.” 

While county officials have eyed developing private units large enough for couples, Callagy said Sobrato pushed staff to include bathrooms in most of the units, creating what Sobrato described as a more private and dignified living situation for future residents. 

Doing so could also set the county up to transition the units into affordable housing if its intended role as a shelter becomes less needed. Callagy said the county is also looking to Sobrato for advice on developing permanent affordable housing on the second of the 2 acres not yet committed to a project. 

Work to raise the lot, which is vulnerable to sea level rise, is expected to begin soon with development anticipated to take a year. Officials aim to have the site completed by December 2022, a fast timeline for a project of its size, Callagy said. 

Once complete, Callagy and Sobrato both suggested the model would be a “test case for the entire state of California.” 

Meanwhile, Callagy said the county is working on acquiring additional funds to support the construction and operation of the center. Staff is awaiting a response from the state as to whether the county will be awarded another grant through Project Homekey, a program started during the pandemic geared toward funding efforts to build additional temporary housing. 

“This is going to be all hands in. It will really take the public private state partnerships to end homelessness in this county,” Callagy said. “It’s going to take the nonprofits and businesses and all the cities working together and that’s what we’re really focused on.” 

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