San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 2021
By Trisha Thadani and Mallory Moench
Felecia Smith doesn’t want to grow old in the room she calls home in the Tenderloin. She dreams of one day having her own apartment in a safe neighborhood — a long shot in San Francisco’s impossibly pricey housing market.
Smith, 59, pays nearly half her income to live in one of the city’s permanent supportive housing units, which help the formerly homeless. While she’s thankful for the roof over her head, she said the neighborhood she’s loved for four decades is becoming untenable, with drug dealers harassing her on the sidewalk.
“It’s getting pretty dangerous,” said Smith, who has bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders and is on permanent disability. “If they don’t clean up down here, I need to get out.”
As people like Smith grapple with their limited options, Mayor London Breed is working on the city’s biggest expansion of permanent supportive housing in 20 years — one that includes more choice and could place more people outside of neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. Part of that plan includes a relatively new approach: Giving out 1,100 rental vouchers that allow homeless people to, in theory, live in apartment buildings around the city or elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Those who use the program, called flexible housing subsidies, also have a case manager to help connect them to needed services, such as drug treatment, therapy or someone to help them settle a dispute with their landlord. That could be a welcome opportunity for people like Smith.
The special vouchers are part of the mayor’s Homelessness Recovery Plan, announced in July amid intense pressure to address the city’s highly visible homeless crisis. Frustration among businesses and residents reached a crescendo in the Tenderloin last summer, when UC Hastings College of the Law sued the city over an explosion of tents in the neighborhood.
In addition to the vouchers, the plan includes constructing 1,500 new units of supportive housing by 2025. But building anything in San Francisco is a challenge, and it can take years — and about $700,000 — to create a single unit. That’s why the mayor’s team is also focusing on placing people in existing apartments, and bringing the services to them.
“It’s a way to more quickly get house keys into people’s hands,” said Emily Cohen, director of strategy for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
The tactic is widely used around the country, but relatively new to San Francisco. Officials hope the approach will also get people away from neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and SoMa, where some supportive housing buildings are run-down and bug-infested, with drug use common.
At the same time, however, some experts and advocates worry that the voucher program leaves vulnerable people at the whims of private landlords and also won’t provide enough services to those who struggle with mental health and drug use.
So far, the city has secured $6.5 million from a 2018 business tax for about 340 out of a total goal of 1,100 vouchers. The nonprofit Tipping Point Community created an $11 million fund last summer to launch the program. The rest will need to be funded through the upcoming budget process — and every year thereafter — which will cost about $41 million annually.
Under the voucher program, people must pay 30% of their income in rent and the city makes up the rest, up to $1,800. Each person’s case manager will check on them at least once a month, or as needed. That’s different from the current model where people live in buildings dedicated to people who have physical or mental disabilities and also have access to on-site staff.
Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at UCSF, said the services offered with the vouchers are generally lighter than those offered in existing buildings. While she said it’s “unquestionable that some people do better with a case manager in the building,” she added that the program has been successful around the country when paired with adequate services.
“You can’t just put someone in a building and forget about them,” she said. “If you’re going to do (the flexible housing program), you need to be really prepared to support the person.”
About 100 people have moved into units so far, in neighborhoods including Glen Park, North Beach, Hayes Valley, the Presidio and the Bayview. As Breed looks to expand the existing program and also secure ongoing funding for it, the stakes are high.
Not only are there hundreds sleeping in tents and on the sidewalks, but nearly 2,000 people who moved into hotel rooms at the beginning of the pandemic need to find permanent shelter. Breed’s homeless department has promised that anyone who moved into the hotels before November would not go back out to the streets when the program ends, likely in the fall.
Stephany Ashley, the Northern California director of housing services at Brilliant Corners, which helps run the city’s voucher program, said the city needs to quickly ramp up the program so it can take advantage of the relatively weak housing market.
Rents nosedived due to the pandemic but have now plateaued. The current median rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco is over $2,600 — the most expensive in the country.
“What is happening in the market is temporary, and that’s why we feel an urgency to get people into housing now,” she said. “We might not see the vacancy rates that we see now, possibly ever again.”
Carol Galante, professor of affordable housing and urban policy at UC Berkeley, said that while subsidies are “worth doing to get people off the streets and out of shelters and into housing,” they do nothing to increase the overall supply of homes.
In addition to the 1,100 flexible vouchers, the city has also contracted with three hotels in the Tenderloin, where it will provide another 340 subsidized units.
But even as the city expands its stock of permanent supportive housing, nearly 10% of the city’s current units are vacant. Officials largely blame a confusing system used to match people to housing, and they say they are working to fix it.
Juthaporn Chaloeicheep, who was homeless and drug addicted for two decades before moving into permanent supportive housing in 2014, said she hopes any housing, whether new builds or leased apartments, is clean and safe.
She also said many people she knows need intensive services — which people under the subsidy program will likely still receive, but not on site and around the clock.
“You can’t just put people from homelessness to housing. They have mental health issues, they have drug addiction issues,” she said. “You’re never going to get rid of the homeless problem in San Francisco if you think building housing is it.”