Kama’oku Kauhale, Kapolei, Oahu, HI
Photo T. Nagai-Rothe
(7 minute read)
Photo T. Nagai-Rothe
(7 minute read)
Where Permanent Supportive Housing Meets Affordable Community Housing
A review of recently published local news on homelessness - and opinions
Author: T. Nagai-Rothe-SOS Richmond Director of Operations
Author: T. Nagai-Rothe-SOS Richmond Director of Operations
In local and national conversations, the needs of unhoused residents are most often addressed separately from the needs of affordable housing for the currently housed. Yet both groups sit side-by-side in the continuum that spans unhoused to securely housed residents. They both struggle with increasing housing costs and, for those who are employed, stagnant wages.
California will never build itself out of its housing crisis through traditional construction, zoning and financing. The state’s 2016 legislation on accessory dwelling units (ADUs - i.e. casitas, in-law units) and the California HOME Act that took effect January 2022 were smart moves to make it easier for homeowners to add housing units on existing property. Though helpful, that legislation is only part of a huge number of creative solutions required to address our unaffordable housing crisis.
If employed and housed California residents aren’t having their housing needs met, then helping our unhoused neighbors is going to require an even deeper examination of our assumptions about housing solutions — and even more creative solutions.
California Counties’ AT HOME Plan
The California State Association of Counties (CSAC) just unveiled its AT HOME Plan to clarify the role of cities, counties, the state and federal government vis-a-vis responsibility and funding to help our unhoused neighbors.
The plan acknowledges the current fragmented and disorganized approach to solving homelessness.
It recommends ongoing funding for housing as well as wraparound services - and more. It says that we collectively need to “Increase resources needed to acquire, build and operate housing solutions across the full housing continuum, especially permanent supportive housing for individuals with complex needs.”
Housing First or Work First?
The federal government and many states and municipalities are focused on a “Housing First” approach that aims to get people into stable housing as a base for addressing other needs. This makes good sense and has proven effective, IF it’s economically possible to house all those who need it. Sadly, in Richmond and West Contra Costa County, Housing First isn’t possible due to a lack of agency and non-profit coordination and financing.
Safe Organized Spaces Richmond (SOS) takes a Work First approach by creating trusting relationships with encampment residents and offering those who are interested paid work. The starting rate is $18 per hour and hours increase with experience and a desire to work more. 85% of our staff were hired directly from encampments and their work serves unhoused neighbors, including friends and former neighbors. An income allows staff members to take care of basic needs and have money to put toward housing when it becomes available.
Although SOS is known in Richmond for encampment services that include trash pick-up, mobile showers, a laundry shuttle, drinking water, ongoing outreach to encampment residents and response to urgent needs, the core of our work is decreasing isolation and fear by connecting to unhoused neighbors at every opportunity. Our staff gets to know them and their needs on a day-by-day and week-by-week basis so that SOS can help if urgent needs or a crisis arises - and so that help will be accepted from a friend at SOS.
Long term our North Star is equity empowerment and healthy, employed people in permanent housing – so we are closely tracking housing policy trends and how we can help bend the long arc of the moral universe toward (housing) justice.
What Really Works
The September 2022 Mercury News research on which Bay Area solutions to homelessness have been most effective yielded useful lessons:
Opportunity Housing is Real Housing
Many shed and tiny house experiments have been conducted in the Bay Area in the past five years. To the point about tiny home villages as permanent housing, Heather Knight of the SF Chronicle reports,
“Turns out a plan to shift that terminology could provide one answer to the decades-long quest in the city and state to get its poorest people off the sidewalks and under real roofs. It could also provide a ;missing rung’ on the housing ladder between sometimes dreadful emergency shelters that people often refuse to enter and uber-expensive permanent supportive housing that takes years to build.”
She goes on to say, “The legislation, SB634, would clarify that tiny homes — or what Becker likes to call “opportunity housing” or “midterm housing” — are indeed housing even though they lack permanent foundations and aren’t intended to be in one location forever. Instead, they are often built on land slated for eventual development and can be moved to new locations with forklifts when that development begins.
The shift in thinking would allow residents to become tenants and stay longer than they can in emergency shelters, perhaps using 30% of their income or government-funded vouchers to pay rent . . . “
Be Realistic About the Time and Money Required to Achieve Success
Solutions created by well-intentioned city and county officials and non-profits over-focus on housing (institutional approaches) and under focus on the need to develop trusting relationships that make it possible for unhoused residents to be willing to improve their living situations, develop healthier habits, consider work and develop a vision for their future (equity empowerment). This has always been a key part of SOS’s success in Greater Richmond. Our staff have personal relationships with folx living in encampments - some of whom were former neighbors of theirs. San Francisco’s targeted project in the Castro District is a good example of what is required.
The Intersection of Barely Housed and Unhoused Residents
This is where it’s helpful to break down strict funding and conceptual categories regarding solutions intended for unhoused vs. housed people. Historically, mobile home parks have been an affordable housing option. (This is why RVs - a smaller, less expensive form of mobile homes - become homes for those who can access them.) Residents own their unit and rent space to park it and access utilities. It’s affordable until the landlord raises the space rental for their mobile home. The corporatization of mobile home parks has put profits over resident needs.
California passed mobile home space rental protection legislation in July 2021 because many mobile home owners - many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes or low income workers - experienced unexpected rent increases that caused financial hardship.
One new approach is the purchase of mobile home parks and the creation of resident owned co-ops
This builds on an existing, affordable option and creates more control and protection from eviction for residents.
Could RV/mobile home/tiny home parks be created - inhabited by both previously unhoused and housed people? A resident-owned approach would provide more housing security and rental rates that are fair, without the fear of regularly escalating rents. Existing mobile home parks would need to be purchased and saved. Residents would need coaching in self-governance and park management. Unhoused residents would need upgraded RVs, tiny homes or mobile homes. The core infrastructure already exists and cities and counties are familiar with it.
Community First Approaches: Replacing Images of “Urban Renewal” with Self-Governing Villages
As a whole, our country lacks a vision and values for affordable congregate housing. Many families come from a culture of extended family living but our built infrastructure favors the market-driven single family home. We need to take seriously the robust models of sustainable cooperative living that exist.
The Community First! Village in Austin, TX created a 51 acre oasis in the the city that provides permanent supported housing to more than 200 formerly unhoused people in Phase I. Some housed neighbors have given up their large houses to join them in a commitment to deep community that connects beyond housing status.. The village includes a large garden, chickens and donkeys, an art studio and several micro-enterprises.
The predominantly Native Hawaiian residents of Pu’uhonua O Wai’anae follows a Community First approach to housing. Twinkle Borge, the community leader, calls them “Not homeless — a village without a place.” The 250 resident community has its own governance and operations systems and a detailed design for building their 20 acre farm village on the leeward side of Oahu.
Kama’okū Kauhale, a permanent supported housing community in Kapolei, Oahu, HI is part of a housing continuum - emergency, interim and permanent housing. It was the brainchild of current governor Josh Green, MD. Before being elected governor, he advocated to create a public-private partnership to create the project.
Urban community land trusts provide stable, affordable housing by taking housing stock out of the market-based system and protecting it in perpetuity from the endless upward spiral of land and housing costs. Both Oakland and San Jose have created models for this approach.
What Can I Do?
Separate and apart from complex legislation and expensive building projects, there are many steps we can take as individuals to improve the housing environment in our communities.