Ending Homelessness for San Franciscans A Bold Direction is Needed

San Francisco is at a precipice – deep into a housing crisis that exists within great wealth and economic fuel.  Residents more than ever are motivated to see homelessness addressed as property values and rents skyrocket.  Housing-insecure renters see themselves in the faces of those on the streets and respond at times with compassion and other times fear-based hostility.  Homeowners have spent small fortunes to acquire property.  Yet homelessness is more visible than ever with the proliferation of tents throughout the city, and the palpable deterioration of those forced to stay on the streets.

Every candidate running for Mayor states that homelessness is a top priority for them – and no doubt, it is the number one issue for San Francisco voters, with housing in general a close second, according to numerous polls.

But what does that mean, really?  A quick look at candidate websites shows that few are thinking big.  Jane Kim would call for a moratorium on evictions, and declare a homeless state of emergency.  Mark Leno’s website has few details, focusing mostly on his work in the past, such as fighting to exempt SRO tenants from Ellis Act and allowing school districts to build housing.  Angela Alioto’s website was under construction.  London Breed calls for a city that is affordable to all of us, wanting to continue Mayor Ed Lee’s call for 5,000 new housing units.  However, she gives few details beyond the “Housing for All initiative”.

The Housing for All initiative will appear on the June ballot, it was placed with signatures from four Supervisors with only nominal last-minute input from community organizations working on these issues. (Usually a very bad sign of political motivations – serious legislators will engage in large consensus and information gathering processes with experts to develop proposals).  This measure will generate funds for some housing, bringing in about $34 million for homeless housing and shelters – housing for about 1,200 homeless people, but also subsidizing market rate housing.  With a total of $76 million in revenue according to Controller’s Office, it will not come close to its “housing for all” promise.  It was carefully crafted with corporate interests at its core, competing with a childcare measure which would have taxed the business community much higher, and killing childcare if the housing measure gets higher votes and visa versa.  A housing win will translate into a tax break for downtown – but not enough of a tax to cause any real pain.  Given the controversy surrounding this, it will be an uphill battle getting two-thirds of San Franciscans to support and if passed will fall short of what is needed.

Raising revenue to address homelessness has been a great challenge given California’s restrictive laws governing raising revenues that require two-thirds approval of voters for any special tax that is dedicated to a particular use.  In November 2016, the city attempted a split measure with a sales tax increase and then a separate measure that dictated where funds would go if the sales tax passed.  The sales tax failed.  There was not a lot of thought or effort put into building a large enough coalition to pass such a measure – and the Mayor’s office backed off after polls showed it was behind.  In addition, an anti-homeless tent ban was put on the same ballot, putting out a lot of anti-homeless rhetoric that hurt the outcome.  Another measure addressing arts and family homelessness failed to get the two-thirds necessary, losing by just 2 points.  Neither of these measures got much attention from leaders at the top of our city.

In Los Angeles, a very serious effort to raise the sales tax by 0.25 percent passed, and in Santa Clara a $950 million bond was passed for homeless housing.  In both these cases, a true partnership with elected officials, non-profits and labor was credited as the reason for passage.  So far, San Francisco’s efforts have lacked such a true collaboration.  The latest June “Housing for All” measure being a case in point, with little to no effort for buy in, and a pitting of childcare against housing making it difficult for natural allies to come together.  When the measure is fully cooked at election day, we may find the recipe was deeply flawed and lacking the sugar necessary to hit the two-thirds sweet spot.  Meanwhile, we keep seeing superficial measures that cost little, and do little, and rely on failed recycled measures involving police or locked facilities to solve the problem.

However, keep faith, because we have a magical moment.   The California Supreme Court ruled that special taxes put on the ballot by voter initiative are only required to have 50 percent plus 1 of the votes to pass.  The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association is expected to go to the November ballot to overturn that decision, and likely there will be court challenges after the June election, but nonetheless we have a window of opportunity now to garner revenue.  At the same time, President Trump is giving massive tax breaks to corporations that are broadly opposed by San Francisco voters.  The tax break will bring federal corporate taxes down from 35 percent to 21 percent.  Current San Francisco local business taxes vary depending on the type of business but are only a portion of a percentage point.  Lastly, a private foundation, Tipping Point is investing in ending chronic homelessness and as part of that investment is undertaking a creative and landscape changing public relations endeavor that will educate San Francisco voters on true solutions to homelessness.

Combine all of that with a highly motivated voter base and we have a rare and historical moment where conditions are in place to effect great change and end homelessness for thousands of San Franciscans.

Implementing Our Collective Vision

Our vision is a San Francisco that prevents homelessness whenever feasible – be that a temporary subsidy for someone who loses their income due to an illness, or a long-term subsidy for an elder who loses the income of their family member to death, or a tenant who is being illegally evicted and simply needs legal representation.  A San Francisco where episodes of homelessness that are not preventable, such as those caused by the recent fires or other unforeseeable events, are addressed quickly with immediate placement in shelter and placement in housing within three months, before the damaging effects of homelessness truly take root.  A San Francisco where severely impaired residents are given the care they need to move off the streets into housing and the care they need to keep that housing – be that treatment or health care.

We recognize that housing is the primary solution to homelessness, and we must invest in it.  While housing is being developed, our emergency system is far too small, and the health of San Franciscans is degenerating without a roof over their head or access to water.  The city should enact a major revenue source to pay for homelessness prevention; permanent housing subsidies, housing trusts, as well as acquisition, construction and rehabilitation of properties for thousands of homeless people.  Funding is also needed to greatly expand our mental health system to care for the most disabled people among us.  A small portion should be used on emergency services including expansion and improvement of current shelters, expansion of navigation centers, until that point where the shelter system is adequate to support the need.  

Outline of Need

There are about 7,000 homeless people at any one time in our city. Over the course of the year, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, there are approximately 21,000 people who experience homelessness.  According to the last homeless count, about 41 percent of the population became homeless within the past year.   This includes families, youth, single adults and elders.  This includes people doubled up, staying in hotels, on the streets, in tents, in shelters or in parks.  In any one year, the city places about 800 people in turnover supportive housing units, and with other interventions including bus tickets out of town, local subsidies, federal housing vouchers and public housing placement about 2,500 households will exit homelessness in SF next year due to these efforts.  This kept our homeless numbers from rising as fast as other big cities on the west coast, but we need to think BIG and bring the numbers dramatically down.  

According to the DHSH, in order to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 percent we would need 850 units on top of the unfunded 800 in development, as well as 70 additional housing ladder units, 850 problem solving units, and 360 rapid re-housing units.  However – a system designed to force San Franciscans to be homeless for 10 – 20 years before they can get any help is absolutely unacceptable.  It is unacceptable to everyone – be they small business owners, neighbors, or tourists – but it is especially unacceptable to that person forced to live without a safe and decent home for long years on end.  To turn this around we need radical compassion and a willingness to tax the most fortunate among us.  Our rough estimates are that with an only 0.25 percent tax on corporations earning more than $25 million, we would bring in over $170 million annually, a 0.5 percent tax would bring in double that– which would pay for housing, mental health treatment, and shelter for thousands of San Franciscans. With the tragic Trump tax break comes great opportunity – San Francisco can and should capture a portion of that lost federal revenue and use it to end homelessness locally.