Will Breed's $1 Billion Homeless Plan Actually Work?
San Francisco Mayor London Breed is earmarking $1 billion to combat homelessness. The goal is 6,000 housing placements by June 2022, an ambitious but achievable target —- if the city does it right.
Will the city do it right? I think it can.
Skepticism abounds over major American cities ever ending homelessness. The federal government has failed to address the crisis for so long that many have given up hope. The pandemic has left people even more resigned.
But, for the first time, we have a President and California Governor committed to providing the resources to end homelessness. And Prop C gives San Francisco far more local money to house the unhoused than ever before.
San Francisco’s goal of 6000 placements by June 2022 won't end homelessness, but it will change the public and political landscape around it.
So with the federal, state and city all on board, what should San Francisco do?
Act With Urgency
San Francisco must act with urgency. This may seem obvious. But as I say in the new preface to Generation Priced Out, no American city treats the homelessness and housing affordability crisis as an emergency. Instead, it’s treated like a crisis to be managed.
That has not worked.
A sense of urgency has accompanied all of San Francisco’s major increases in housing the unhoused. Consider:
- Following the October 17, 1989 earthquake, the city contracted with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, to replace the hotline hotel program with our Modified Payment Program (MPP). The hotline’s sudden demise due to the quake led the city to go all in on our MPP, which they were previously implementing incrementally. With the city forced to act, over 1000 formerly homeless participants in the hotline soon got permanent housing.
- After a lawsuit held up Care Not Cash’s start for over two years, Mayor Gavin Newsom was eager to quickly ramp up the program when it began in 2005. Nonprofits were asked to lease up SRO hotels at a record rate, and nearly 2000 formerly homeless welfare recipients secured permanent homes.
- The spring 2020 pandemic shut down shelters and led the city in to use FEMA funding to quickly place roughly 2000 of the unhoused in SIP hotels. A May 4, 2020 lawsuit brought by Tenderloin stakeholders alone got the city to rapidly house around 400 people previously living in tents in the Tenderloin. Why was Mayor Breed’s SIP hotel program such a success? As I wrote in January, “Because the mayor brought in Human Services Agency staff, the Department of Real Estate, and her own staff to help HSH. That’s how expanding housing for the unhoused in San Francisco must get done.”
San Francisco has made its biggest gains in housing the unhoused when under pressure to act. When the city lacks urgency—as was the case for several months in 2020/21 when thousands of SRO hotel rooms available for lease or purchase sat vacant—-progress stalls.
Reaching the 6000 Goal
Reaching 6000 placements requires multiple strategies. The city will purchase at least 1000 SRO units and, adding Project Homekey, the total could reach 2000. Newly released housing vouchers could add another 1000. More efficiently filling existing vacancies in the cities permanent supportive housing supply adds another 500.
Add the regular turnover of current master leased units which should bring another 1000 or more placements (estimate based on THC’s 2019 total of 337, extrapolated across the city’s portfolio). When newly constructed units actually open is hard to predict but 500 placements by June 2022 seems doable.
That brings us to around 5000. The balance can be met with homeless programs for targeted populations (e.g. youth) and expanded Section 8 programs for homeless families. There are enough additional rent subsidy programs to reach the 6000 goal.
San Francisco has more than 6000 unhoused people, though the precise number is a matter of dispute. So nobody should expect the city to end homelessness in the next year. But if the city acts with an all hands on deck approach, homelessness will be meaningfully reduced.
Ultimately, San Francisco cannot end homelessness without opening affluent neighborhoods to the unhoused. This battle is not required to meet the June 2022 goal but the city cannot end homelessness by only allowing projects in a very limited number of neighborhoods.
Mayor Breed’s Role
Mayor Breed faces re-election in November 2023. She recognizes, as did prior mayors, that voters will measure her on her performance on combating homelessness. Most San Franciscans have focused on their own health, jobs and the impact of the pandemic to pay close attention to the city’s homeless policies; this will change as the city reopens.
Breed allowed a dysfunctional Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) to continue for too long, but starting May 1st the mayor put a new, more effective team is in place. The improvement is already noticeable.
Critics point out that the mayor’s $1 billion budget plan relies heavily on funding from a ballot measure—Prop C—that she opposed. Point made. But most voters will judge the mayor on how quickly and effectively she uses Prop C funds.
San Francisco’s goal of 6000 placements by June 2022 will not end homelessness in the city, but it will change the public and political landscape around the crisis. Further progress is likely as Prop C as well as President Biden’s and California’s funding increases all continue beyond June 2022.
San Francisco finally has the resources to end its homeless crisis. It’s time for the city to come together and get this done.