Sonoma County supervisors may shift federal housing money to fight homelessness

Sonoma County supervisors are poised to adopt new affordable housing policies on Tuesday targeting a problem that local governments across the Bay Area are struggling to solve: getting homeless people off the streets.

The county’s most recent idea is to steer its allotment of federal Housing and Urban Development funding - roughly ?$2.5 million per year - into housing for homeless people that would otherwise be available to all low-income people. If approved, a portion of Sonoma County’s low-income housing vouchers would be earmarked for homeless people, and affordable housing developers who dedicate a portion of the units in new projects specifically as homelessness housing would get first priority for county funding during the bidding process.

“We have given a really loud message that we’re prioritizing getting our most vulnerable people, who are really at risk of dying, into housing,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “Housing for homeless people is not necessarily a high priority for developers, especially in this dysfunctional housing market, so as policymakers we wanted to use the tools at our disposal to create some incentives for this type of housing. We’ve already studied this; now it’s time to start implementing it.”

The initiative marks the county’s most substantial effort to provide homeless people with long-term housing that is combined with support services, a national model replicated in cities and counties across the country. The goal is to provide housing first, then combat the underlying causes of homelessness with substance-abuse treatment, mental health care and financial counseling.

One proposal would double the number of Section 8 vouchers, or low-income rental subsidies, set aside for housing developments. The county would not receive additional vouchers but would tie some of them to specific housing units. County officials said there are tradeoffs for both types of rental subsidies.

“I have some concerns with the project-based vouchers .?.?. you lose some flexibility on where you’re allowed to live because it’s tied to a specific dwelling,” said James Hackett, who runs the federal housing assistance program in Sonoma County. “At the same time, so many people with the tenant-based vouchers can’t find a place to live because it’s a voluntary program.”

Hackett explained that landlords renting out their units are allowed to turn away people who hold Section 8 vouchers, a problem supervisors have acknowledged as a serious barrier to low-income housing amid a tight housing market throughout the region. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said that because of the loophole, many people with vouchers are unable to use them.

“We have such a low vacancy rate, and landlords are rejecting people with vouchers, so project-based vouchers could be an important way to place homeless individuals into permanent housing,” Gorin said. “This board has endorsed a housing-first philosophy; it has worked so many other places. Our challenge is we simply don’t have a lot of housing availability, so we don’t have many places to move homeless people into.”

The number of vouchers tied to housing developments instead of individuals would increase to 282, from 141 today. The remainder of the county’s 2,820 total vouchers would be given to people waiting on a list, as they become available.

There are more than 29,000 families or individuals signed up on the waiting list for the county’s ?Section 8 program, which provides housing subsidies for the unincorporated county as well as each city except Santa Rosa. The Santa Rosa Housing Authority runs its own program and maintains a separate waiting list.

Another new policy would ?prioritize county funding for affordable housing developments that include permanent homelessness housing.

Supervisors said they plan to build on the new housing policies, calling them an effective way to help people out of homelessness.

“There are many people who have lost their homes due to foreclosures, medical bankruptcy and because they’ve lost jobs,” Gorin said.

“This goes way beyond the more traditional causes of homelessness, like substance abuse and mental health issues.”

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