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As COVID Recedes in US, Housing Activists Demand More Than a Return to Shelters

Activists are pushing to create more permanent supportive housing in place of congregate facilities.

Social activists, including a coalition of homeless-serving organizations, homeless residents and supporters rally at the start of a 24-hour vigil to block a planned shutdown of a homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, California, on March 24, 2021.

Several years ago, Vinette Clay’s world turned upside down. First, her father died. Then she learned that she and her adult siblings would not inherit the one-family home they shared because, unbeknownst to them, their dad had taken out a reverse mortgage.

“We needed to pay more than $300,000 to the mortgage company before the house could become ours,” Clay told Truthout. “And we couldn’t.”

Tensions ran high, she says, and the family scattered. For Clay, this meant moving from couch-to-couch while she looked for an affordable apartment.

It felt impossible, she says. Months passed. Eventually, a friend told her about Breaking Ground, a nonprofit agency that owns 24 residential buildings throughout New York City. She applied for a subsidized apartment, was accepted and now lives in The Schermerhorn, a 217-unit supportive housing complex in downtown Brooklyn. Her rent? $663 a month. “I have a studio,” she says. “I wish I had an oven, but since I have a microwave and a stove top, I have what I need.”

This was especially important, she continues, during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In addition to being in a comfortable space, I was able to do my data entry job thanks to the building’s Wi-Fi connection, so I didn’t get laid off,” she says. And although she has never utilized the social and recreational services that the building offers — among them virtual and in-person case management, counseling and group activities — she is endlessly grateful to be safely and affordably housed.

Her neighbor, 53-year-old Rodney King, feels similarly. King has been in The Schermerhorn since 2015. “I started sleeping in the street in 2007,” he says. “I was in a park when Breaking Ground came through and the worker asked me if I needed shelter. They gave me a place for 30 days and then moved me into this building. I pay $256 a month and have my own room in an apartment I share with three other men. If I’d been on the street during COVID, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Creating Permanent Supportive Housing

Breaking Ground has been providing permanent supportive housing to unhoused New Yorkers since 1990. In addition to The Schermerhorn and 22 other buildings, the organization runs the largest supportive housing community in the U.S.: 652 units in Manhattan’s Times Square. All told, they manage 4,000 units of low-cost housing; 750 more are currently in the development pipeline.

Not surprisingly, Breaking Ground is a model for groups throughout the country and staff frequently consult with organizations that are considering starting their own supportive housing programs. Demand is enormous, due, in part, to large-scale coronavirus outbreaks that rocked overcrowded congregate shelters in the spring of 2020 and sent localities throughout the country scrambling to find vacant rooms so that shelter residents could be relocated.

This was meant to be a short-term, stop-gap measure — with unhoused people returning to congregate shelters as soon as the pandemic was over. But housing activists and progressive lawmakers are now pushing for the creation of new single-room occupancy units, or the renovation of existing properties, so that people can move into permanent, affordable homes rather than return to temporary shelters or the streets.

“Right now, we’re looking at a few distressed hotels in New York City and are in negotiations with a hotel owner in the midtown theater district to buy hundreds of units,” Breaking Ground CEO Brenda Rosen told Truthout. A combination of city and state grants, private philanthropy and low-interest loans will finance the project. The result will be 500 units of permanent and 140 units of transitional housing. All will be covered by the state’s rent stabilization law, which controls allowable rent hikes and protects renters from arbitrary evictions.

“Breaking Ground has a long history of repurposing beautiful old hotels,” Rosen says. “We can do a complete rehab in about 12 months as opposed to 24 months on new construction.” In addition, she continues, renovating an existing structure costs far less than starting from scratch.

But financing and renovating are just two components of creating successful supportive housing, and Breaking Ground’s staff of 600 also works to keep the properties in good repair. What’s more, the social service staff provides case management, on-site counseling and organizes recreational activities for residents who want them; staff also contracts with an outside medical group for on-site and tele-med health care.

But if it sounds straightforward and easy, Rosen makes clear that there are constant challenges. “Some of the people who live in our buildings have been on the streets for a long time,” Rosen explains. “Some have severe mental health issues or substance use disorders, but we are a Housing First organization,” and offer people a place to stay without conditions regarding sobriety or drug use. This, Rosen says, often results in residents voluntarily reducing their reliance on alcohol or drugs, but some never stop using.

“The secret to supportive housing,” Rosen continues, “is the ability to be agile. We ask people about their personal goals and then see what we can do to help them get there.”

Benefits of Supportive Housing

The benefits of the Housing First model are well documented.

In fact, a recent study conducted by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, released in December 2020, affirms that when chronically homeless people are given permanent supportive housing, they have fewer emergency room visits, fewer hospital stays, and utilize primary care and counseling services more readily.

This result — and the money it saves — prompted New York lawmakers to pass the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA) in early June; it allocates $100 million to purchase vacant properties and convert them into permanently affordable single-room occupancy units. Half of the units will be reserved for people who have experienced homelessness and half will be reserved for those whose incomes are below 80 percent of area median income.

“One hundred million is a start, but it is by no means enough,” New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), the bill’s sponsor, said in a press conference after passage of the legislation.

Nonetheless, Cea Weaver, coordinator of Housing Justice for All New York, a statewide coalition of housing and tenant groups, sees this as a good entry point, a down payment on what’s necessary, and says that she considers passage of HONDA a victory. At the same time, she cautions that it will not be a quick fix for the shortage of affordable housing. “We’ll first have to identify buildings for conversion, then these buildings will have to be sold to a nonprofit housing provider, and then they’ll have to be renovated,” Weaver says. “This won’t happen overnight. A big need right now is stopping the New York City mayor from returning people to congregate shelters.” A lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless has been filed to prevent the transfer, slated for July 1.

Other threats to housing security are also looming, including the pending expiration of the CDC eviction moratorium on July 30, which is why Weaver advocates dealing with both the immediate crisis and strategizing about ways to permanently end housing insecurity.

Creating new SRO housing is one piece of the solution.

“People have lived in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels as long as the City has been around,” Weaver says. “They are an affordable form of housing for low-income adults, so if HONDA eventually creates 400 more SRO units, it will be a positive outcome.”

This will also represent a return to a once ubiquitous form of housing. In fact, SROs were originally created as low-cost housing for male lumberjacks, miners and railroad workers and cropped up in places as diverse as Chicago, Des Moines, Joliet, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle. From day one, however, they were derided as dens of vice and shunned as the housing of last resort, but they served an important function until the lure of “urban renewal” and later, gentrification, led to their demise. The upshot was the loss of between 900,000 and one million SRO units between 1955 and 2013. Some became boutique hotels; others became co-ops or condominiums. In some areas, the buildings were razed in “slum clearance” efforts.

Now, decades after they were destroyed, California is leading the way toward the rebirth of SRO housing. It’s also promoting sound social policy, announcing in late June that it will forgive rent arrears for many tenants who have fallen behind.

According to San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Matt Haney, early in the pandemic, San Francisco identified hotels that could be used to shelter in place, as well as isolate and quarantine those who had been living in congregate shelters. “Hotels were never meant to be used permanently,” he told Truthout. “Most will transition back to tourist hotels by the end of 2021 or early 2022. The initial program, called Project Roomkey, led to the development of Project Homekey, the resettlement of the unhoused [people] into supportive permanent housing.”

The goal, Haney says, is acquisition of at least 1,000 additional units of SRO housing in San Francisco, to be run by nonprofit supportive housing providers. Statewide, $12 billion — including $600 million in CARES Act money — will be allocated so that other California cities and towns can begin to do likewise over the next two years.

The Battle for Equity

Housing activists in Los Angeles — both the city and the 88 municipalities that comprise LA County — support hotel conversions, but they worry that another more pressing issue may scuttle their development.

Their fears rest with a 110-page decision issued in response to a 2020 lawsuit filed by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a business group. In it, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter ruled that Los Angeles must offer housing to every homeless person living on “Skid Row,” estimated at more than 60,000, by October 18, 2021. The decision further stipulates that ordinances against sitting, sleeping or living on city sidewalks, in parks or under freeway overpasses cannot be enforced unless an adequate amount of indoor shelter is available.

Bill Przylucki, director of People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER), says that while this sounds good in principle, he fears that the City will open enormous congregate facilities to comply with the order. “The issue,” Przylucki says, “centers around what constitutes shelter. Warehousing people is not a solution, even without COVID.”

The Los Angeles Times, he continues, has reported that the city plans to create enough housing for 60 percent of unhoused Angelinos and will then again enforce anti-camping and anti-vagrancy orders. “The consent decree should not be a trade-off between policing and housing,” he says.

Przylucki’s worries don’t end there. While he acknowledges that Project Roomkey worked well in other parts of the state — giving people privacy, security and autonomy — he notes that numerous LA hotels were so restrictive, imposing curfews and daily room checks, that some residents returned to the streets; others formed Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing.

“Homelessness is the defining public policy issue for Los Angeles,” Przylucki says. “Are we going to invest in warehousing and policing, or are we going to direct dollars to long-term building conversion and develop housing for people with extremely low incomes to once and for all end homelessness? We can turn the tide if we choose the latter.”

Housing and tenant activists agree that this is what’s needed. From Austin to Denver, from Ft. Lauderdale to Newark, and from Phoenix to Tulsa, the need for affordable housing is obvious.

“We know what works,” Breaking Ground’s Brenda Rosen concludes. “We have to develop housing for low-income people with wraparound social services for those who need and want them.”

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