[San Francisco Mayor] “Breed proposes over $118 million to buy land and build 100% affordable housing, and another $10.5 million to fund a five-year, rent subsidy program for 350 low-income households and seniors struggling to pay rent.” SF’s budget to soar to $12.3 billion with focus on homelessness and housing Trisha Thadani and Michael Cabanatuan/San Francisco Chronicle May 31, 2019
According to the latest counts, California has around 130,000 people experiencing homelessness, or 24% of the nation’s total homeless population. This includes nearly 59,000 people in Los Angeles County and roughly 28,200 people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Extrapolating from previous research, I’m guessing about a third of these individuals are chronically homeless, defined as being without housing for at least a year. That would give us about 40,000 chronically homeless Californians.
Most of California’s chronically homeless live in dense urban areas, like LA or San Francisco. Between mental illness, substance abuse, cognitive disorganization, and physical disability, these are a hard bunch to help. I suspect the vast majority would qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit (assuming application assistance). In California, SSI is good for $931 a month (the state tops off the federal benefit), plus qualifying for SSI gets you food stamps and healthcare (“MediCal”). Not bad, but not nearly enough for rent in the big cities.
We need to bring back an updated version of residential hotels to house the chronically homeless. Residential hotels aren’t for families with children, but they’ll do just fine for fragile adults. California used to have tons of them: San Francisco alone had 65,000 residential hotel units in 1910, compared to around 19,000 units today. Unfortunately, most were torn down in the name of urban renewal.
The old residential hotels had Single Room Occupancy Units (SROs), big enough for bed and dresser, with bath down the hall. We still need SROs but the new residential hotels shouldn’t be limited to such teeny rooms. Somewhat larger units could include a bathroom and kitchenette. To bring down costs, all units could be pre-fabricated, then transported by ship, rail and truck for final installation. Rents could be subsidized by Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as state and local governments. This is doable.
The ground floor of the new residential hotels would include the front desk, dining area (food stamps ok), support staff offices, laundry room, and common areas for socializing and recreation. My ideal residential hotel would be four to ten stories and include an inner courtyard. The floors would look something like this:
Now for the pricing plan. HUD already has rent-subsidy programs that cover up to a third of rent*. The big California cities also provide rent subsidies. For instance, in the opening quote, Major Breed’s rent subsidy plan worked out to $6,000 per year per housing unit. That’s pretty reasonable. But subsidizing residential hotel units would be even cheaper. Check it out:
My goal here was to work out the costs of housing 32,000 people in residential hotels - a rough estimate of the number of chronically homeless individuals living in California’s urban areas. The rents were based on what I found in local “co-living” affordable housing projects, but cheaper since those other projects include many expensive amenities, like shared kitchens on every floor. The residents’ net rent would be paid out of their SSI check or other resources, automatically transferred every month. The residential hotel unit dimensions were determined by what could be transported via 8x20 containers. Based on my research and calculations, I’m pretty satisfied that these residential hotels would be affordable, feasible, and go a long way to housing the chronically homeless in California. The obstacles that remain aren’t financial or logistic but political. This is California, after all.
* I have since learned that HUD currently doesn’t subsidize units that lack private bathrooms. Thus, HUD would not subsidize the 8x10 units unless they changed their policy. However, city and state governments could increase their subsidy for these teeny SROs to a combined $500 a month per unit, which is still a bargain.