Can a program created to help some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic successfully morph into permanently helping the unsheltered and homeless?
That’s what the state of California is exploring as it transitions its Project RoomKey—designed to temporarily house “medically vulnerable” people living in shelters or on the street—to Project HomeKey, which will purchase motels, hotels and apartment buildings for transformation into permanent housing.
Launched in April, Project RoomKey focuses on moving shelter residents from “congregant housing,” as well as moving unhoused people living on the streets, who were either at high risk of contracting Covid-19, or had already tested positive.
Although, according to state statistics, RoomKey has temporarily housed 14,200 “extremely vulnerable individuals” in three months, that represents only a small percentage of California’s estimated 151,000 homeless and unsheltered population.
Santa Clara County alone has about 8,000 who fall within that designation based on 2019 surveys. Alameda County has roughly the same number of unsheltered residents, while Contra Costa County has approximately 2,300.
Funded initially by $600 million of the $1.3 billion in newly available and eligible funding, part of the state budget Gov. Gavin Newsom signed June 29, HomeKey “will allow for the largest expansion of housing for people experiencing homelessness in recent history, while addressing the continuing health and social service needs of this vulnerable population,” according to a state press release.
Of the $600 million in available HomeKey grant funds, $550 million is derived from the state’s direct allocation of the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds and $50 million comes from the state’s general fund.
Under the program, counties, cities and certain other entities will partner with the state to acquire hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, nonresidential properties and residential care facilities, which will be rehabbed into permanent residences. Project partnerships between local entities, including nonprofits, are encouraged.
“We don’t want to send people back to shelters and encampments,” Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said in a recent interview.
By late June, Santa Clara County had leased nearly 700 hotel and motel rooms for homeless residents prone to Covid-19, though more than 20 percent remained empty, according to county officials. Alameda County, by about the same time, had leased 443 rooms for those vulnerable to Covid-19, of which 96 percent were in use, and had reserved another 198 rooms for those who tested positive for the virus.
But Bay Area property values present a major obstacle. Kerry Abbott, director of Alameda County’s Department of Homeless Care and Coordination, said the $100,000 “per door” guidelines from the state fit very few properties making HomeKey “an incentive.”
According to a July 24 state-sponsored webinar, those eligible can apply using more expensive properties, but a financial match will be required, which is why established partnerships may be the key to success.
State materials explain that, “counties and cities can access billions more in additional federal stimulus funding” to provide shelter for the homeless during the pandemic.
Gov. Newsom also announced $45 million in philanthropic support from Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente. “These contributions, originally announced in January as part of the governor’s proposed Access to Housing Fund, were redirected by the companies to support the HomeKey effort,” state materials add.
Applications are now open for cities and counties, but “priority applications,” which will be funded using geographic criteria, are due Aug. 13. Final applications are due Sept. 29.
HomeKey would use CARES Act funds that must be spent by Dec. 30, meaning escrow must be closed on purchases. Priority will be given to “Tier One” projects, properties that can be occupied within 90 days, and where permanent housing is the goal.
Last week, San Jose Deputy Housing Director Rachel VanderVeen issued a request-for-information for hotel owners to submit funding applications by the Aug. 13 deadline.
Another question is how to effectively expand RoomKey’s focus to include those not eligible under the original guidelines. California Secretary of Business, Consumer Services and Housing Lourdes M. Castro Ramirez said during the July 24 webinar HomeKey designers were aware of the “deeply inequitable impact of homelessness on Black and Latinix communities.”
Geoffrey Ross, California Department of Housing and Community Development assistant deputy director, added that applications that actively address racial inequities are encouraged. Yet each city and county’s needs vary, he added, and “HomeKey has been intentionally designed not to be ‘one size fits all.’”
To some extent, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties will need to work together to help a population that includes transient people. Santa Clara County data shows that more than 80 percent of unsheltered people in the county originally became homeless in that county, leaving 15 to 20 percent who are transient.
Gioia and Abbott both commented on possible increases in the populations HomeKey will serve. “The state is releasing incarcerated people, many of whom have housing issues,” Gioia said. Abbott pointed to the possible end of eviction moratoriums, leading to more people losing their housing.
Of course, even an extremely successful Project HomeKey cannot solve the complex matrix of problems that creates homelessness. Job loss, unsustainably high housing costs, psychological and emotional issues, addictions, domestic violence—all of these and other factors contribute to someone, or a family, becoming homeless or unsheltered.
HomeKey is much more likely to form part of the complementary group of housing proposals, including the tiny homes, granny flats and garage apartments for which cities, counties and the state are beginning to rezone.
Residents in some areas will have to abandon long-held NIMBY attitudes to allow the changes to move forward. But there is reason to hope that a door has opened on what has seemed an intractable problem.
“We’ve long dreamed about scooping up thousands of motel rooms and converting them into housing for our homeless neighbors,” Newsom said in a recent media release. “The terrible pandemic we’re facing has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy all these vacant properties, and we’re using federal stimulus money to do it. Hand in hand with our county partners, we are on the precipice of the most meaningful expansion of homeless housing in decades.”
Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.