Representing Santa Monica at the National League of Cities (NLC) annual meeting in Reno, Nevada last week, I focused on two of our community’s most vexing problems: housing and homelessness.
The NLC’s keynote speaker was former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who reminded almost 3,500 mayors, councilmembers and other municipal officials from around the country, “It is a basic function of a city to provide housing for working people.”
Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas and past president of the NLC, stepped through the typical city housing options from homeless shelters to upgraded family home ownership. He pointed out that housing production nationwide has fallen short for decades now, particularly at the low end. “A family with one full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country today,” he said.
Santa Monica’s additional need is for middle-class housing, particularly home ownership. We are not the only community where indispensable workers like police, firefighters, paramedics, other health care providers and teachers have been finding affordability unattainable. Cisneros told his keynote crowd that high land costs and limited availability of housing subsidies make home ownership programs distressingly difficult in many cities across the country. “I’m a big fan of home ownership, but the most pressing problem we have in cities today is the lack of affordable rentals,” concluded Cisneros.
Talking with delegates from other cities, I heard options we can investigate locally, like housing trusts, but few communities are challenged with Santa Monica’s particularly high land acquisition costs and shortage of new developable sites. For more affordable ownership opportunities we may need to focus in the short term on first response emergency personnel and others for whom a particularly compelling case for deep subsidies can be made, and for whom the political will can be summoned for extraordinary expenditures.
If housing is tough, being unhoused is even tougher.
An off-site highlight of the NLC meeting was a tour of Reno’s new homeless services campus, where almost three acres of former industrial land have been dedicated recently to centralized and coordinated service providers. Only four blocks from the downtown casinos, Reno’s service campus includes a new dining hall where feeding programs have been brought indoors.
Just as in Santa Monica, moving food providers under a city roof has cleared the parks, and assured meaningful connection of those in need with programs intended to help them off the street permanently. Adjacent buildings provide shelter, showers and job referrals.
If all this sounds much like Santa Monica’s combination of the new 612 Colorado dining hall, SHWASHLOCK and OPCC, yes! In fact, the history of Reno’s efforts tracks ours almost eerily, starting with a community task force in the late 80s whose recommendations were not then implemented but which turned out, 15 or 20 years later, to be part of the formula for significant relief from the impacts of homelessness.
We in Santa Monica, however, may never see the easy availability of a single three-acre site for services co-location. Reno’s campus opened up in a route swap with the Union Pacific railroad, and even with almost-free land the site improvements meant an investment of over $11 million.
Reno residents, like Santa Monicans, remain troubled by long-term chronic homeless individuals, and by a small but significant criminal element among street people. The Reno Police Department has had success with a specially trained detail, almost the exact analog of Santa Monica’s very effective HLP team (Homeless Liaison Program).
In short, the homelessness solutions that work in Reno are the same ones that work in Santa Monica – and the missing piece is affordable housing for permanent placement of those helped by the continuum of care.
The National League of Cities serves an important role as the united advocacy voice for 19,000 United States cities, towns and villages. As I reported last spring from a national homelessness summit sponsored by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, awareness is growing that we must solve the national poverty problem, not struggle endlessly as individual cities to manage the homelessness crisis.
First results of the “Evaluation of Santa Monica’s Homeless Programs and Service Delivery System” by the Urban Institute are becoming available for public review this week. I’ll be sure, based on my conversations and observations in Reno, to make sure any rethinking of homelessness and housing reflects the intimate interconnectedness of these issues, and the need to involve regional and national resources.
Kevin McKeown is Council liaison to the Housing Commission