In his State of the City address Thursday, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced the “Housing Our Heroes” initiative. It calls on landlords to rent to homeless veterans and could be the missing piece of the puzzle, say those working on the problem.
In 2014, San Diego joined two dozen other cities in pledging to end chronic veteran homelessness by 2016. Now the clock is running down and many of those cities have outpaced San Diego.
Michael McConnell heads the local arm of the national initiative, 25 Cities. He said there’s enough in rental subsidies to house nearly all of the veterans on San Diego streets, but not enough landlords are willing to rent to them.
“That’s really where we’ve been falling short, due to our tight rental market and the lack of a high-level, coordinated effort to recruit landlords,” said McConnell. “We know from other cities across the country that when you do make the ask, landlords and property managers do step up to help end veteran homelessness.”
Those cities include Salt Lake City and Phoenix, where mayors Ralph Becker and Greg Stanton drummed up support with a friendly competition to see which city could end homelessness first. (Salt Lake City won, announcing an end to chronic veteran homelessness in 2013. Phoenix followed in 2014. And yes, both cities had significantly fewer homeless veterans than San Diego.)
While McConnell’s group has done some work to recruit landlords — reaching out at Chargers games with a tailgate party and a flyover banner reading, “Landlords help end veteran homelessness” — he said leadership on the issue has been lacking until now.
Indeed, the house hunt for any Section 8 tenant in San Diego, let alone veterans, has stretched from about a month to 45 days in recent years. And with a decade-long wait to become a Section 8 tenant, the need far surpasses the supply.
A spokeswoman for the San Diego Housing Commission, which administers the city’s Section 8 program, said there are currently 5,338 property owners who make 14,281 units available to individuals and families with rental vouchers. KPBS found some of those units were infested or in disrepair, but tenants stay because they feel they have no other options.
Nancy Susaki of Funders Together to End Homelessness offered this stark illustration: there are currently 300 individuals with Section 8 rental vouchers, including 100 veterans, who remain on the streets because they have nowhere to use them.
“We can assess, we can identify, we can figure out what the needs are of the people that are on the streets,” Susaki said. “But if we have no place to put them, we can’t end homelessness.”
Susaki said her group, which brings together funders interested in stamping out homelessness, has set aside $200,000 this year to help recruit landlords.
She said a common concern among property owners is that Section 8 tenants might cause more damage to rentals. McConnell said others are hesitant because they’ve seen news and fictional accounts of veterans acting out because of post traumatic stress.
“But what we know is veterans end up being great clients just like any other people who are in housing,” McConnell said. “And they also have the same problems as anybody else who’s in housing — we all go through different struggles in life, whether it’s loss of job or mental health issues at some point in time.”
Faulconer’s initiative would harness available federal funds and partnerships with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Apartment Association to identify landlords willing to accept homeless veterans receiving housing support. He said he’d also ask City Council to approve $4 million for the program.
“When veterans find themselves on the verge of homelessness or without housing, we will help them find a place to live, so the word ‘homeless’ never enters their vocabulary,” Faulconer said.
A week earlier, Councilman Todd Gloria also called on San Diegans to close the housing gap. The circumstances were much different from Faulconer’s polished State of the City; Gloria was answering questions on KPBS Midday Edition about the lack of homeless tents during this El Niño-fueled winter.
“I get frustrated when I get these calls in the winter from someone who gives a damn suddenly about the homeless,” Gloria said, adding that in the time he’s been on City Council homelessness funding has gone from a couple million dollars to tens of millions.
“It is not as though the city’s hand is not outreached on this,” he said. “It’s that too often we don’t have anyone on the other side willing to make the deal.”
The Section 8 program subsidizes the portion of rent a tenant cannot afford to pay; landlords receive full payment for their units. It requires extra paperwork on the front end, but advocates argue the subsidy makes Section 8 tenants more reliable.
A 2012 estimate used often by city officials puts the number of homeless veterans in San Diego at 1,700. Volunteers counted 1,381 veterans last winter, McConnell said. But his group has compiled an exhaustive list of homeless veterans and says there can be as many as 2,500 veterans who experience homelessness each year.