Bay Area cities join lofty Biden plan to tackle homelessness

The Biden administration launched a new push Monday to house 100,000 Americans by the end of 2022 as the mayors of the Bay Area’s three biggest cities — all struggling with homelessness on a massive scale — jumped on board.

The House America initiative, which also aims to create at least 20,000 new affordable homes nationwide, asks city, county and state leaders to publicly commit to housing more people and building low-income units using new federal funds. In exchange, federal officials will offer support and guidance to help them meet their goals.

It’s a major signal from President Joe Biden’s administration that ending homelessness is a top priority despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and worries that expiring federal and state eviction protections soon will push more people onto the streets.

In a show of early support, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the mayors of Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco — who already had been working on solutions to the region’s growing homelessness crisis long before House America — were quick to join 21 other city, county and state leaders as the program’s first cohort.

“Oakland is in this 1,000%,” Mayor Libby Schaaf said, accepting the Biden administration’s challenge during a virtual event launching the program. Oakland has pledged to house 1,500 people and build 132 new units of housing by the end of next year, Schaaf said. More than 4,000 people are homeless in Oakland, according to the city’s most recent count.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who last year funneled $1 billion into homeless services and announced a plan to create 6,000 new housing and shelter placements for the city’s homeless residents by July 2022, also committed to housing 1,500 people.

“This issue of homelessness affects all of us and we all need to do our part to help people off our streets and into housing,” Breed wrote in an emailed statement.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office is still working out its numbers but said the city’s tentative goal is 1,134 people housed and 861 units built by December 2022.

Experts say it’s an ideal time to make big promises.

The American Rescue Plan — Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package — included 70,000 emergency housing vouchers to subsidize rent for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, $5 billion in grants to create new affordable housing, and $350 billion that went directly to state and local governments to support homeless services. Other funds that can touch homelessness are tucked throughout the spending package, such as $800 million to address schooling for unhoused children.

Oakland received 515 emergency housing vouchers and $11.3 million in affordable housing grants through the stimulus package.

Newsom, who pledged to create at least 44,000 new homes for homeless Californians, said Biden’s commitment is a welcome change from the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“This is a radical departure from the last few years,” Newsom said. “We had a sparring partner, not a working partner, at HUD.”

In the Bay Area, where homelessness has become one of residents’ top concerns and encampments have spread across sidewalks, parks and open spaces, local leaders have been making ambitious promises to tackle the crisis for years. But high rents and the cost of construction in the Bay Area, combined with the sheer volume of people who need help, pose incredible challenges.

Oakland housed 880 people in 2019, and Schaaf set a goal of housing twice as many in 2020. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether that goal had been met. But last year, Oakland built 242 new affordable units and preserved another 383 that were at risk of becoming market-rate housing. As of July, Oakland’s COVID-19 relief program had helped more than 600 households in need of rental assistance.

But like many cities, Oakland has struggled to address the problem of people living on its streets. An April audit found the city spent $12.6 million to manage homeless encampments with little to show for it.

In Santa Clara County, where 4,800 homeless people have found housing in the past 18 months, local leaders were excited to see the Biden administration focus on building permanent housing that’s accessible to the nation’s lowest-income households instead of temporary solutions, such as shelters and tiny homes.

“What we seem to have right now is a White House, a governor and local leaders that are all saying the same thing — homelessness needs to be our top priority,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home. “So we have this opportunity now to really do whatever it takes.”

House America is modeled on former President Barack Obama’s effort to end homelessness among veterans, which has not been eradicated but has dropped 20% since 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said.

“Homelessness has no place in this administration’s vision for this county,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge. “And I cannot wait to see the difference House America will make in people’s lives.”

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