Keeping What Works: Making Short-Term Supportive and Affordable Housing Solutions Permanent
Written and up-to-date as of March 2021
Pandemics have sometimes been dubbed the “great equalizers,” but the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened existing inequities in the United States and beyond makes that title little more than a debunked myth. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, when compared to the general public, people who are experiencing homelessness and contract coronavirus are two times as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to be killed by the virus. These dire numbers have led states and localities to seek alternative housing solutions that keep unhoused individuals out of unsafe, crowded shelter conditions. Importantly, housing advocates are looking to make some of these solutions permanent in order to better a housing system that was broken long before the pandemic struck.
One such housing solution involves the relocation of individuals experiencing homelessness into non-congregate shelter options, including hotels and motels, often making use of FEMA Public Assistance (PA) funds. Traditionally, these funds cover 75% of emergency relocation costs, leaving states and localities to cover the remaining 25%. While states and localities making use of this model had successfully been able to relocate a number of unhoused individuals into non-congregate sheltering options, this cost share model puts under stress state/local budgets that have already been severely depleted by COVID-19 response. Further, some states/localities with relatively smaller budgets that are also in great need of aid to provide homeless solutions have often been unable to make use of this program due to lack of funds.
An executive order signed by President Biden in early February attempted to address this problem by directing FEMA to fully cover eligible costs connected to coronavirus-related non-congregate sheltering for individuals experiencing homelessness through the PA program. It has also been confirmed that this covering of costs will apply retroactively to already-completed spending related to non-congregate sheltering from January 2020 through the present. Under this new order, state and local governments will receive 100% reimbursement for such projects.
The growth of non-congregate sheltering efforts during the last several months have shown how urgency is capable of breeding innovation; the urgent housing needs caused by the pandemic have proved extremely responsive to quick, innovative solutions. However, we know that the pandemic is not just creating hardship — rather, it is simply revealing patterns of hardship that before now have been either concealed or ignored. What is to come after the pandemic for these uncovered patterns that are for now being temporarily patched over with short term solutions? Once the pandemic is over, what can we expect from pandemic-era protections and programs that have been deemed overwhelmingly successful and served as saving graces for many? We know that after the pandemic, the inequities unveiled while it ran its course will still remain embedded in our systems, and likely left worse than before. The very danger of becoming so wrapped up in quick, emergency solutions is ignorance toward the fact that these are long-term patterns that desperately require long-term solutions. Ideally, the results of innovation bred by urgency will not be done away with the second the sense of urgency fades. Especially in the housing sphere, there is great need to figure out how to pivot out of the short term and toward the long term, taking this opportunity to build bridges toward permanent solutions within COVID relief efforts. Namely, there is desperate need for an exit strategy for people who have moved from congregate shelters into hotels/motels, so that these people (many of whom will, after the pandemic, be facing worsened economic conditions sparked by pandemic-caused unemployment and other factors) are not pushed out again into an overcrowded shelter system, onto the streets, or into substandard housing.
Such a linkage is possible under the acquisition funding model, in which states and cities purchase hotels and motels and convert them into permanent supportive housing. More states and localities are looking to extend this model, which has been used as a short term pandemic-era solution, into the future in order to serve as a longer-term housing option for their local unhoused community members. Analysis of both large- and small-scale efforts of this type to date allows supportive and affordable housing developers and advocates to understand how to successfully execute these projects in the future.
One example is California’s Project Homekey, which is administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development in partnership with local entities. The goal of Project Homekey is to acquire and convert hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, residential care facilities, and other types of buildings and housing options into interim or permanent long-term housing. The Project was funded in large part by the State of California’s direct allocation of Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds, and in smaller part by money derived from the State’s General Fund. Though the 2020 program is now closed, expenditure reports for grant recipients are expected all the way through July of 2022.
Other localities are engaging in similar smaller-scale, but still critical, solutions — one purchase at a time. The City of Austin, TX has purchased Candlewood Suites, a motel, for a cost of $9.5 million, as well as Texas Bungalows Hotel and Suites for a prospective cost of $6.7 million. Austin’s supportive housing acquisition efforts tip housing advocates off to the need for close watch of city efforts to fund such projects, as it is sometimes coupled, as it was in Austin, with legislative bans on staying in large, traditional encampment areas within the city. Such bans effectively criminalize poverty and homelessness while unhelpfully attempting to push those experiencing homelessness out of sight and out of mind (even when alternative supportive housing solutions are not yet sufficient). Cities must not use supportive housing acquisition efforts as a cover-up or an excuse to simultaneously engage in legislative action which ultimately harms those experiencing homelessness.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the City is leveraging $2 million of CARES Act funding from the State to help purchase Santa Fe Suites in partnership with the nonprofit Community Solutions. This acquisition effort is structured more along a mixed-income public housing model than a shelter model. Once converted, the property is intended for a mixed-income renter population, ranging from working renters with temporary declines in income to the chronically unhoused in need of intensive case management, health care, and counseling. Such a model may be successful in addressing the issue of covering operating and services costs in supportive housing developments (where residents rarely pay enough rent to cover these costs). In late December of 2020, this project was challenged with a lawsuit filed by several nearby commercial property owners who claimed the project does not conform to the shopping center’s covenants and city codes. The language used by the plaintiffs indicates that acquisition and conversion projects are in danger of facing backlash from community members and business owners who fear that low-income or supportive housing efforts will interfere with the image or “character” of an area. Thus, the Santa Fe Suites project demonstrates the importance of not only publicizing successful acquisition projects and embarking on public education campaigns making clear how anti-homelessness efforts uplift whole communities, but also engaging in thorough community outreach prior to the start of new projects in order to address misconceptions about negative impacts (such as increased crime and property value decline) and avoid future resistance to supportive housing projects.
In a piece for The Hill, Ted Houghton advocates not only for conversions of hotels and motels like those described above, but also for the conversion of commercial and office buildings into supportive and affordable housing. Continuations of pre-pandemic patterns, including mass transition to remote work, growth of online shopping, and decline in business travel, among others, have fostered the exodus from such buildings. Conversions of these underutilized spaces offer incredible opportunity for affordable housing development on an extremely large scale. According to an analysis completed by UrbanFootprint, the conversion of a single commercial corridor — specifically, El Camino Real in California — has the potential to accommodate upwards of 300,000 units considering the proper zoning changes. Houghton argues that normalization and popularization of an acquisition and conversion practice for newly-emptied buildings would present not only an opportunity to chip away at the nation’s housing crisis but also to constructively address the mass closures (that either have already occurred or are bound to occur in the near future) of malls, office complexes, and more. Thus, these projects would not only successfully house multitudes, but could also prevent blight, as many of these buildings — if not converted into unaffordable, luxury housing — would otherwise sit abandoned and bring down the surrounding area. Houghton stresses that beginning these projects is a time-sensitive matter: property prices are down, owners are desperate to sell, interest rates are low, and jobs in construction are much needed. Such projects would fall in line with a larger push to ease zoning change processes, as land that is zoned for commercial use often prohibits residential development and greatly disincentivizes, slows, or altogether prohibits commercial-to-residential conversions.
It is worth acknowledging that these efforts are fairly new, and certain complexities surrounding the legal technicalities of these efforts leave many questions left unanswered so far. This is especially true during the pandemic, as we must face questions regarding, for example, the technicalities of the eviction moratorium: are people living in hotels/motels covered by the moratorium? If not, would they be covered in the event that the unit’s official status changes from non-congregate sheltering to permanent supportive housing? Would protections, in this case, be contingent on the resident’s possession of a formal lease or rental agreement? Further, how do the answers to these questions translate into our post-pandemic landscape and apply to other traditional aid programs, such as rental assistance, or prospective non-pandemic related eviction prevention programs that may be established in the future? Supportive housing acquisition is, clearly, a live legal issue, with many grey areas left due to lack of precedent. As these grey areas are made more clear, our understanding of the potential housing justice victories within these programs (as well as potential challenges) will be made evident, allowing for housing advocates to more confidently move forward along a clear course of action.
While the pandemic has placed great pressure on our nation’s already insufficient homeless services, it has simultaneously presented us, through an opportune combination of timing and resources, with the chance to make serious bounds in the establishment of large-scale, permanent supportive housing — and, even, large-scale affordable housing development. This is an opportunity that must be taken advantage of if we hope to make any substantial progress in providing much-needed assistance to our unhoused neighbors.
Autullo, R. (2021, February 4). Austin City Council approves purchase of hotel to house homeless despite backlash. Austin American-Statesman. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://www.statesman.com/story/news/2021/02/04/austin-council-set-vote-buying-hotel-homeless-housing/4387304001/
Chacón, D.J. (2020, November 10). City nears deal on hotel to house homeless, needy. Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/coronavirus/city-nears-deal-on-hotel-to-house-homeless-needy/article_ff9e0460-236a-11eb-bb4e-2fa513a2bf25.html
Confirmed: FEMA change to 100% reimbursement for non-congregate shelter applies retroactively. (2021, February 8). National Low Income Housing Coalition. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://nlihc.org/resource/confirmed-fema-change-100-reimbursement-non-congregate-shelter-applies-retroactively?utm_source=NLIHC+All+Subscribers&utm_campaign=2aa144fcb7-memo_020821&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e090383b5e-2aa144fcb7-293343010&ct=t(memo_020821)
Haywood, P. (2020, December 29). Santa Fe property owners sue over plan to use hotel for housing. Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/santa-fe-property-owners-sue-over-plan-to-use-hotel-for-housing/article_301366ea-4926-11eb-9712-430056a2399d.html
Homekey. (2021). California Department of Housing and Community Development. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://www.hcd.ca.gov/grants-funding/active-funding/homekey.shtml
Houghton, T. (2021, February 4). Want to recover from the pandemic and end homelessness? Build housing now. The Hill. Retrieved February 17, 2021 from https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/537416-want-to-recover-from-the-pandemic-and-end-homelessness-build?rl=1&utm_source=NLIHC+All+Subscribers&utm_campaign=efe2a2b6