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Friday, March 1, 2024

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HousingHomelessnessCrack down on homeless people—or prevent people from becoming homeless?

Crack down on homeless people—or prevent people from becoming homeless?

Two very different approaches to housing policy were under discussion this week.


Sup. Rafael Mandelman today pushed his new legislation that would require the city to offer at least temporary shelter to everyone living on the streets, a step that some say would lead to more homeless sweeps and do nothing to create permanently affordable housing.

In a hearing before the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, Mandelman used strong and in some cases harsh language about the plan and its critics.

Sup. Rafael Mandelman wants to get rid of encampments and says the Coalition on Housing is part of the problem.

“Encampments are not okay,” he said. “We should be pursuing the end of encampments in San Francisco. This should be a high priority. The Coalition on Homelessness is not our friend on this effort; it is our opponent.”

The measure is endorsed and promoted by Rescuesf, a conservative group.

The Coalition has argued for years that the solution to homelessness is housing—not temporary shelter, which may never lead to housing.

In fact, since there’s no funding source in Mandelman’s bill, the cost, which would certainly be in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, could take resources away from building permanent social housing.

The measure would require the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to do an assessment of how many unhoused residents would accept a shelter bed. Then the department would have 36 months to come up with a plan to create enough space for those people, and the supes would have to find and approve the funding.

Sup. Myrna Melgar asked for some key amendments: She said the HSH assessment should include not just temporary shelter but the need for permanent supportive housing—and that no money currently earmarked for new affordable housing should be diverted to shelters. “I do not see the Coalition as my opponent on this,” she said.

Mandelman opposed both amendments and asked the committee to approve the measure substantially as he introduced it. But the panel voted 2-1 to approve Melgar’s amendments, with Chair Gordon Mar and member Connie Chan in favor and member Catherine Stefani in opposition.

Since the amendments were substantive, the measure has to be continued two weeks until the next committee meeting.

In public comment, several people noted that shelters have never worked; they just fill up, and more people become homeless, and the cycle doesn’t end.

Remember: the city’s own figures show that 70 percent of people who are homeless in San Francisco used to have a home in San Francisco.

The previous evening, a very different picture of the housing and homelessness crisis emerged, with a type of policy solutions that might help limit or end new homelessness in San Francisco.

The Council of Community Housing Organizations, as part of Affordable Housing Week, put on a program that discussed a profoundly important issue: How to remove existing affordable housing from the speculative market to keep it affordable forever.

I like to say that my first rule of housing policy in San Francisco is Do No Harm; that is, first stop making things worse. And so much of what the city does and has done in the past two decades has made the situation much worse.

What the speakers at the CCHO panel discussed was preservation—that is, doing no harm. They weren’t talking about architectural or historic preservation; they were acknowledging that in an affordable housing crisis, the cheapest and most important housing is the housing that already exists.

People become homeless, or are forced to leave the city, when rent-controlled units are converted to condos or TICs, or when landlords find ways to evict people for often fake “owner move-ins” or by citing minor infractions, or making life so miserable that tenants have to leave.

As long as the state Legislature is in the pocket of the landlord lobby, and won’t let cities have effective rent or eviction controls, the only way to stop that is to take housing out of the private sector.

Chris Cummings, director of housing development at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, said that about 15 percent of the city’s current housing stock is protected from private speculation. Community advocates, he said, would like to see that double, to 30 percent, by 2030.

That doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t also seek to increase the total stock of affordable housing by funding new construction. But taking over existing properties and moving them into nonprofit, co-op, or land-trust models, is a key part of the overall picture.

“Preservation has not been promoted as much as building new housing,” Karoleen Feng, director of community real estate at the Mission Economic Development Agency, said.

The Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, which requires anyone putting residential real estate on the market to inform the Mayor’s Office of Housing, which then lets nonprofits know that there are properties available, is a fine idea. But about 750 properties a year go on the COPA list—and for every one that nonprofits can save, 39 are lost to the private market.

The city needs to double or triple the effort to turn private property into social housing, panelists said.

It’s critical for so many reasons. Zach Weisneburger, a policy analyst at Young Community Developers, noted that sufficient funding for housing preservation “would slow the outmigration of the Black population.” Feng added, “the reality of preservation is preservation of the cultural fabric of the city.”

And that’s not impossible. The nine nonprofits that currently are in the business can scale up pretty quickly, if the money were there.

Saki Bailey, executive director of the SF Community Land Trust, said that the Prop. I money the mayor refuses to spend could provide $170 million a year in funding for affordable housing preservation. “If we actually used Prop. I we could build out the program,” Bailey said.

And at a certain point, the money for housing preservation starts to pay for itself and become sustainable. The people who live in these units, whether they’re nonprofit affordable housing or land trusts or co-ops, pay rent every month. The public money is needed to get things started—that is, to buy the property.

I asked the panelists what it would take to scale up to the level that the city needs, and it sounds like a big number—somewhere between $250 million and $500 million a year.

But that’s not really a big number, considering that Prop. C and Prop. I money is already in the area of $200 million or more a year, and an empty homes tax could add maybe $25 million more, and a potential gross-receipts tax on landlords could bring in even more.

That doesn’t count what the city could get from a big affordable housing bond.

And it doesn’t count any of the $60 billion in state budget surplus money that our local Assembly and Senate representatives could demand be sent to cities for affordable housing.

So this is possible. Preventing homelessness and preserving affordable housing is just a matter of political will.

And maybe, if the supes want to crack down on “encampments” and force homeless people to accept nasty and unpleasant shelters, then keeping more people from winding up on the streets ought to be part of the picture.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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