San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 2020
By Kevin Fagan
San Francisco officials are trying to get a jump on housing the multitudes of homeless people sheltering from the coronavirus in hotels by placing 200 of them into apartments, using philanthropic dollars in a program to be announced Thursday.
One fear has been that when the city’s hotel support ends sometime in the coming months, the nearly 2,000 homeless people in those rooms will have nowhere to go. Organizers of this latest effort say it is one step toward ensuring they won’t return to the streets.
The nonprofit Tipping Point Community put together the $11 million program in what is being called a “flexible housing subsidy” pool. That basically means rent and support services will initially be paid by a nonprofit fund, stocked with money from Tipping Point and other donors, and people will be placed in vacant apartments throughout the city instead of in one big complex or newly built units.
After 18 months, the city will take over the cost through its homelessness programs. The 200 placements are expected to be completed before the end of the year. Tenants will pay 30% of whatever income they have for rent, and the program will pay the rest.
Los Angeles has used the technique since 2014 to house more than 8,000 homeless people, and San Francisco has used it to house a few people over the past several years. This new program will expand the technique and involves several city agencies, including the homelessness and public health departments, as well as other nonprofits including Dignity Health and Brilliant Corners.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Great, let’s get people into hotels to protect them,’ but then what happens?” said Daniel Lurie, Tipping Point chairman. “I’ll tell you what happens — unless we do something after those hotel rooms are no longer available, they go back onto the streets.
“This is just one example of a solution that works,” he said. “If we don’t have a real sense of urgency around this homelessness crisis, we’re going to have a really tough time rebounding as a city.”
Mayor London Breed called the program “an innovative and cost-effective way to get our unhoused residents out of temporary shelters, off the streets and into permanent homes.” Her homelessness czar said she wants to start nailing down rentals with programs like this while the economic crisis is driving rents lower, and she hopes more nonprofit or private efforts like this will follow.
“This is a moment where people are saying this is not a government problem alone. This is a shared responsibility,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “So I’m excited that this is a cross-section collaboration of government, several nonprofits and philanthropy.”
One-bedroom rents in San Francisco are down 11.8% compared to a year ago, the biggest drop on record and the steepest among major U.S. cities, according to the rentals website Zumper. Prices are likely to fall further as the economy continues to struggle.
City homelessness officials are also exploring other methods of creating housing before the federally subsidized hotel program ends, including buying or leasing some of those hotels to use as housing, and building new complexes using modular units that are inexpensive and fast to put together.
Stewart-Kahn said it’s a big plus that the 200 participants in the so-called “flex pool” program will be placed in “scattered-site housing,” meaning individual apartments spread around the city.
“There are many reasons scattered-site housing is a good thing to add to our mix — some people need to get out of a neighborhood if it’s triggering for them, or they want to live near family, or they are seniors who want the privacy,” she said.
The 200 units are contributing to a goal set last July by the All In Campaign, led by Tipping Point, to find 1,100 vacant or underused units that can be used for permanent supportive housing by summer 2021. Organizers say this now brings the total of housing units they’ve secured through flex pool and other programs to more than 400.
“The advantage of the flex pool is that we can house people tomorrow — not waiting for permission from any governmental agency, buying a building, doing construction,” said Chris Block, director of Tipping Point’s chronic homelessness program. “Rents are dropping and landlords are concerned about filling units. The time is now.”