Change you can live in?

Pub date January 20, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

If you ask San Franciscans about the most pressing issues facing the city, homelessness and affordable housing are always near the top of the list. While this city’s housing problems are particularly dramatic, homelessness is on the rise across urban America. And in nearly every big city, public housing projects are crumbling, suffering from years of federal neglect.

But you wouldn’t know that to look at the latest stimulus package coming out of Washington, DC.

The proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, introduced Jan. 15, contains only $16 billion for affordable housing. That’s about half what advocates had sought — and a tiny fraction of what’s really needed.

The bill has the affordable housing community shaking its collective head. "Unfortunately, the news right now is not good. This first pass at the stimulus bill is not encouraging," Matt Schwarz, president of the California Housing Partnership, a San Francisco–based nonprofit working to expand affordable housing stock throughout California, told us.

Will President Obama, who barely mentioned homelessness during the campaign, look at affordable housing as a priority? Most housing activists say they’re cautiously optimistic. But some are starting to sound the alarm.

"I think, when it comes to political clout in DC, poor people and their allies are still in trouble," said Paul Boden, director of the San Francisco–based Western Regional Advocacy Project, a group that focuses primarily on homelessness issues. "It was disheartening to go to the Obama [transition team] Web site and find … a very miniscule mention of homelessness — and it’s under ‘veterans.’<0x2009>"

City officials are looking at the bright side. "Most people would agree that there’s been very little new money available at the federal level for affordable housing [in the past eight years]," Doug Shoemaker, director of the Mayor’s Office on Housing, told us. Shoemaker expects that to change under the Obama administration, especially with the pick of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan as US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, whom he characterized as "an incredible leader who really understands homelessness and affordable housing."

Olson Lee, deputy director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, sounded a similar note. "We’re looking forward to an administration that cares about affordable housing," he said. Projects like the Hunters View reconstruction project, which would restore a dilapidated public-housing complex in the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood, tops the list of projects that would shift into gear again if new federal dollars are made available, Lee noted.

But while city agencies seem to have high hopes for federal dollars that could be headed to San Francisco under the new administration, many grassroots-level affordable housing advocates are more cautious.

Longtime affordable housing activist Calvin Welch pointed out that there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the allocation of federal funding under the economic recovery package. "The first test is, does the Obama administration view affordable housing — especially affordable rental housing in cities — as a priority?"

From Welch’s perspective, the answer appears to be yes. But he added that no affordable housing practitioners were named to Obama’s transition team. And in San Francisco, a pending blow to health and human services due to local and state budget cuts will bring about more distress linked to housing issues.

"When those health and human services are reduced, the effect is an increase in the homeless population, or at least the temporarily unhoused population — a population with very challenging housing needs, which is at extreme risk," Welch told us. "I haven’t seen any response to that consequence. I have not read that any portion of the Obama stimulus package is focused on health and human services." Until the details are hammered out, he said, "We’re holding our breath."

A recent report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — a DC-based research and analysis organization focusing on issues affecting low-income families — underscores Welch’s concerns. The recession has prompted a rise in homelessness nationwide, the report notes, and an unusually large number of people are still likely to fall into severe poverty, putting them at risk of being turned out onto the streets.

"It is important that the package include funding for effective homelessness prevention strategies," CBPP notes.

Specifically, the report recommends that funding be made available for 200,000 additional Section 8 housing vouchers, which allow very low-income residents to rent privately-owned units of their choice. That number would only begin to address the need. In San Francisco, the waiting list for Section 8 has been closed since 2001, and some 13,000 people have languished on the list, according to Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. Despite the urging of organizations like CBPP, the first draft of the bill included no new additional funding for Section 8 vouchers.

The Obama administration has made it clear that new funding will become available for "shovel-ready" projects — those that are ready to move forward in a matter of months. According to the results of a survey conducted by the California Housing Partnership, San Francisco has 24 such affordable housing development projects waiting in the wings, which could provide an estimated 3,915 affordable homes and could potentially generate 4,500 construction-related jobs.

But Schwarz, president of CHP, says he’s less optimistic that those projects will move forward after seeing the proposed legislation. Schwarz says the $16 billion included for affordable housing measures in the proposed legislation was disheartening. With that figure, "We’re not expecting a significant portion of those stuck developments to get unstuck," he said. "There seems to have been some major backtracking, and we’re not quite sure where this is coming from."

While the bill falls short of what many of San Francisco’s affordable housing advocates had hoped for, it does include funding for public housing repair. "This economic recovery bill includes $5 billion to allow public housing authorities to complete repair and construction projects, including critical safety repairs," Drew Hammill, press secretary to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian. "This is more than double the amount that was included for this account in the fiscal year 2008 appropriations bill and double the amount that is pending in fiscal year 2009."

But Hammill acknowledged that the need for such repairs is great in San Francisco: "The existing backlog in San Francisco is over $250 million" he wrote, "with approximately $26 million of additional physical deterioration occurring each year."

Shortt, who heads the Housing Rights Committee, looks back on the past six years as "a disaster" for public housing. "It is very likely that we’ll see an infusion in public housing and affordable housing in this recovery package," she said. But she regards the expected $5 billion for public housing capital funds as "a drop in the bucket. It’s estimated that the overall need is $33 billion nationally." .

Shortt did have praise for Donovan, Obama’s HUD secretary pick. Even so, she says, "Whether Obama himself feels strongly about housing or not, politically it’s going to take a while before it’s high on the priority of the Beltway. It’s been relegated to the bottom of the heap for so long."