San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2021
By Alexei Koseff
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend $12 billion on services for homeless people, including his signature program to create more supportive housing, as advocates push him to dedicate nearly twice as much to one of California’s most persistent problems.
Newsom proposed Tuesday to dramatically beef up the state’s resources on an issue that has long confounded public leaders statewide and across the country, with more than a quarter of the money in his plan aimed at ending family homelessness over the next five years.
His revised budget plan, due Friday, would dedicate $7 billion over two years to creating new housing for homeless Californians through the hotel and motel conversion program Homekey, and $1.75 billion to help finance affordable housing projects for homeless and extremely low-income Californians. A portion of the new housing units and an additional $1.6 billion in rent support would be targeted to families.
“This is an order of magnitude investment into transforming the homelessness crisis in the state of California,” Newsom said at a San Diego news conference. He stressed “a sense of urgency” to make headway on the problem.
The centerpiece of the plan is Homekey, which completed a successful pilot test last year funded by nearly $800 million in federal coronavirus aid. Dozens of California cities and counties received grants to purchase hotels, motels and other vacant buildings for conversion into nearly 6,000 homeless housing units with supportive services, at a fraction of the cost of new construction.
That includes 1,627 units in the Bay Area, ranging from San Francisco’s former Hotel Diva and the Granada Hotel, a single-room-occupancy building, to a former dormitory and more than a dozen single-family homes in Oakland.
“It’s a demonstrable example of what we’re capable of doing when we have that sense of urgency backed up by strategies and plans to get things done,” said Newsom. He also seeks to renew the streamlined review process that made the speedy timeline possible for the Homekey projects.
But the more than 8,200 people housed or expected to be housed through existing Homekey units represent just a sliver of California’s surging homeless population, which grew to nearly 162,000 in the 2020 count. The governor’s office estimates that $8.75 billion would pay for at least 46,000 housing units to bring people off the streets and create housing stability beyond the temporary fix of a shelter bed.
Several lawmakers said Tuesday they would continue to pursue a plan, backed by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly, to spend $20 billion over five years on acquiring more buildings to convert into housing for homeless people, along with transitional services and rental aid. Big-city mayors have also called for more sustained funding to address the problem of homelessness, which California voters often cite as the top issue facing the state.
“$12 billion over two years is a big step in the right direction but we need a long-term investment to end homelessness,” Assembly Member Miguel Santiago, a Democrat who represents Los Angeles’ Skid Row, said in a statement.
Some Bay Area homeless advocates said they were skeptical the governor’s announcement would translate to more local resources and political will to tackle the problem. Chris Kan, a biotech worker in Palo Alto, said he has been lobbying the city for months to be able to host four safe parking sites for people living in vehicles at his Unitarian Universalist Church.
“It’s all lip service and no action,” Kan said. “Churches like ours have been pressuring the city for years to do something about homelessness.”
With state finance officials projecting a $38 billion discretionary surplus in the upcoming fiscal year — and California sitting on an additional $26.6 billion from the latest federal coronavirus relief package — intense wrangling is expected between Newsom and lawmakers over the coming weeks about the size of the homelessness package, as well as other priority spending categories. The Legislature must pass a balanced budget by June 15 or forgo its pay.
Newsom proposed Monday to spend $8.1 billion of the windfall to expand on the $600 stimulus checks the state already targeted to millions of Californians this spring, a second round of direct cash payments that the governor said would ultimately reach two-thirds of Californians. He also unveiled a plan to spend $5.1 billion on water infrastructure and drought preparedness.