Our City Our Home: Fact and Fiction

Earlier this month, Our City Our Home qualified for the November ballot in San Francisco. If passed, the measure would develop 4,000 new permanent housing units for homeless and marginally housed people, expand homelessness prevention services, and develop new public mental health resources. Before turning in 28,000 petition signatures—roughly four times the amount required to make the ballot—the campaign hosted a rally on the steps of City Hall. At the rally, a crowd of homeless and formerly homeless people, service providers, small business owners, and political advocacy organizations spoke out on the importance of passing transformative legislation focused on tackling homelessness in the city. Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, expressed excitement regarding the amount of support the measure had already received, but warned that with the SF Chamber of Commerce already expressing opposition to the measure, the next few months would be a political street fight with grassroots facing off against powerful corporate interests.

In the months leading up to November, we are likely to see a lot of claims circulate about Our City Our Home and the measure’s broad base of supporters. Here are data-informed responses to some of the most prevalent myths.

Myth: Proposition D was rejected by voters in June and was dealing with the same issues as Our City Our Home.

While both pieces of legislation seek to address the housing crisis in San Francisco, there are a number of substantial differences between Our City Our Home and the failed Proposition D. For one, while both propose a gross receipts tax increase, Prop. D would have levied the tax (a 1.7 percent increase) on leases of commercial properties, which would have produced $70 million annually in new revenue. In contrast, Our City Our Home would levy a 0.5 percent gross receipts tax on businesses in the city making $50 million or more. Because the gross revenue of these mega-companies vastly outweighs those of commercial landlords, it represents a far richer tax base—an estimated $300 million annually.
A number of differences arise between the measures in their proposed allocation of funding. Proposition D represented an effort by the measure’s sponsors (Supervisors Safai, Sheehy, Tang, Cohen, and Farrell) to increase funding to build housing across income levels, with a portion of its resources allocated toward homeless folks in the city. As a result, only 45 percent of D’s revenue was reserved for housing and services for homeless individuals and families, with the majority of funds going toward renovation of existing Single Room Occupancy units, renovation of rent-controlled units occupied by residents making, on average 80 percent of AMI ($94,700 for a family of four in San Francisco) and the creation and preservation of “affordable” middle-income housing, which would have serviced those making up to 150 percent of AMI ($177,600 for a family of four in SF). Homeless people with an income often make nowhere near these amounts, and thus would have found themselves effectively barred from the majority of funds created by D.
In contrast, after deducting $9 million for administrative costs, 100 percent of the $300 million created by Our City Our Home would go toward homeless people: $150 million for the creation of permanent, supportive social housing, $30 million for improvement of shelter and drop-in services, and over $100 million for homeless prevention and mental/behavioral health services—all for homeless people and current SRO residents.
The proponents of Prop. D sought to address homelessness, but it was clear that their primary concern was the creation and preservation of housing irrespective of income, which meant including units that many San Franciscans would not consider “affordable.” Our City Our Home is a comprehensive approach that focuses on marginally housed people, with mental health, existing shelter resources, and permanent housing all being given necessary attention.

Myth: People who can’t afford to find homes in San Francisco should leave.

In recent years, many have been forced to leave their original residences in San Francisco to find cheaper places to live. While some leave prior to any official eviction, housing loss in San Francisco for many occurs through the legal eviction process. In 2012, the Eviction Defense Collaborative contacted 500 previous clients who had faced evictions in the year prior to ask where they ended up. Three hundred and twenty clients who were evicted secured housing somewhere else in the city, disproportionately in the Bayview-Hunters Point, Ingleside-Excelsior, and Tenderloin/Hayes Valley neighborhoods. Another 165 clients from the survey were forced to relocate outside of San Francisco, some remaining in the Bay Area. So, many people are indeed leaving the city as it becomes progressively too expensive to live in. However, some families and individuals have pre-existing employment, access to needed personal support systems, and other responsibilities in San Francisco, making it difficult for them to leave for cheaper housing, even if in the greater Bay Area.
Beyond the realities of displacement in San Francisco, consider the implicit moral argument made by the assertion that homeless people should leave the city if they can’t afford rents here. It assumes that one’s right to the city community is based on one’s material capacity to buy or rent a home in the city. We believe housing is more than merely a commodity to be bought and sold. We believe that integral to the social concept of the city is a collective responsibility to see to it that others are housed and well.

Myth: We spend too much on homelessness already.

The City budget for 2017-18 totaled to $10.21 billion, of which a little over $250 million went toward addressing homelessness. Whilst this might sound steep, it amounts to roughly 2.4 percent of the budget, or about as much as was spent on the Parks Commission that same year. With the majority of San Francisco residents citing homelessness as their number one concern and with the city’s homeless population continuing to grow, the amount we spend on the issue does not appear as exaggerated.
Nationwide, 94 percent of adults believe that stable, affordable housing is important to being able to achieve a secure middle-class lifestyle, yet nearly 70 percent think it is harder to secure such housing today than it was for previous generations. Significant majorities report that it is difficult to find affordable, quality housing (including 79 percent of young people just starting out in the workforce, 91 percent of families at or below the poverty line, and 64 percent of middle-income families). Across the country, more than half the public continues to make significant tradeoffs or sacrifices to cover housing costs. We are all touched by the housing crisis and many of us feel increasingly unstable in our living situations. Thus, by enacting more dramatic solutions to homelessness and devoting more funds to homelessness prevention, we can all feel slightly more secure in our city. Again, what San Francisco spends on homelessness becomes perhaps more palatable when we acknowledge that this is an issue that threatens the majority of its people.
Because homelessness continues to be extremely visible in San Francisco, one is tempted to assume that the money being spent on the issue is achieving very little, leading one to conclude that we “waste” resources on homelessness. In reality, the scope of our homelessness crisis is so large that the City’s efforts only manage to add up to a slight increase in homelessness over time. Annually, the City places about 800 people into housing and, through other services and programs, assists a total of 2,500 households in exiting homelessness. This, however, is not enough when there are over 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco at any one time (41 percent of whom became homeless within the past year). The City’s money is not being “wasted”—it is simply not enough to make a significant dent. Our City Our Home is the dramatic push we need to actually make a difference in a morally outrageous crisis that has dragged on long enough.
Even if we are not convinced by the moral imperative to act, the significant cost savings that occur when we invest in homelessness solutions show that we are not “wasting” too much money on this issue. Refusing to spend money on homelessness is costly, rendering the belief false that austerity is somehow more economically wise. Indeed, supporting social programs can reduce government spending in the long run, as the City incurs fewer costs related to law enforcement, health care services, and more. Thus, the “net cost” of homelessness services/the measure is lower than the $240/$300 million statistic.
Consider, for instance, that the City spent $20.6 million in 2015 on enforcing quality of life violations committed by homeless people alone. Such violations range from sitting on public sidewalks to building encampments — things that would not occur if the person in question were housed. Meanwhile, enforcing these laws does nothing to significantly reduce homeless people’s presence in public spaces and instead creates barriers to employment and exiting homelessness. If we were spending less on homelessness, we’d be spending a great deal more on our criminal justice system than we already are; if we did more to address homelessness, those $20.6 million could be put toward something far more fruitful and far less cruel.
People struggling with housing instability or homelessness also tend to have more health issues and increased health care use, driving up City spending on health care. The risk factors and lack of social support that come with being vulnerably housed affect one’s ability to get continuous, coordinated care, so people repeatedly use emergency rooms for medical crises that could be prevented. Additionally, homeless individuals are more likely to have infectious diseases, mental health problems, and chronic conditions, while substandard housing leads to higher rates of issues like asthma. This all results in homeless people being admitted to hospitals at disproportionate rates: nationwide, homeless individuals are five times more likely than housed people to be admitted to inpatient hospital units. They also stay in the hospital up to four days longer, at a cost of $2,000 to $4,000 a day. For children under age four, the cost of homelessness-related hospitalizations in the USA was more than $238 million in 2015 alone. Putting aside our moral obligations to pass OCOH, we have the financial incentive to connect homeless people to housing and improve access to mental health services/substance abuse programs in order to minimize these health care costs.
Finally, each year, San Francisco spends $40.46 per capita on street cleaning—about 5 times as much as the median spending of other major U.S. cities. The high number of homeless people relative to the city’s population contributes to this figure. One can only imagine how much greater this figure would be if we were spending less than we currently do on homelessness services, as devoting more funds toward these reduced the number of encampments and the need for so much street cleaning. By investing in permanent housing, homelessness prevention, and more sanitation stations through OCOH, the city could decrease spending on cleaning and sweeps and concurrently reduce the usage of hospitals, jails, etc.