Voters in five California counties will decide in November whether to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into housing for the homeless.
San Diego County, home to the state’s second largest homeless population, isn’t one of them. There are no plans to make that pitch to county voters anytime soon despite growing street homelessness and a dearth of housing to address it.
Ballot measures in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties were months and years in the making, driven by organizing and political polling. They’ve been fueled by politicians and advocates who point to increasing public outcry about homelessness and skyrocketing housing costs as well as local studies that estimate housing stock needed to effectively end homelessness in their communities. Each relies on property or sales tax hikes – and in one case, an extension of a past one – to pay for new homes. Most of the measures aim to aid both those living on the streets and other groups in need of more affordable housing.
Advocates in those regions say they’re acting on a sense of urgency to address a housing crisis they believe could otherwise mushroom while San Diego, which saw a 19 percent year-over-year spike in street homelessness, looks on.
San Diego’s holding back for a handful of reasons. No group has rallied behind an effort here and even advocates who’d likely join one admit they haven’t established the metrics they’d need to pursue a ballot measure. Then there’s the fact that key San Diego leaders aren’t convinced a ballot initiative would be the right move, or are skeptical of tax increases for affordable housing in the first place.
The existence of a plan, focused activism and political champions were common threads in the stories behind ballot measures elsewhere in the state.
All were key in Santa Clara County, the Silicon Valley region where leaders are asking voters to approve a $950 million affordable housing bond that devotes the lion’s share of cash to addressing homelessness. As of last year, the region had more than 6,550 homeless residents – a population 25 percent smaller than San Diego’s.
Advocate Jennifer Loving, whose nonprofit Destination: Home is lobbying for the bond measure, said her region has made the case for the tax hike with reports that laid out the community cost of homelessness, successes and savings associated with housing people and the estimated 6,000 housing units the region will need to end homelessness by 2020.
“We had a line in the sand that came out of, ‘What is the solution that we need?’ This measure is, ‘How do we fund that solution?’” Loving said.
Santa Clara’s Board of Supervisors, made up of four Democrats and one Republican, unanimously voted in June to put the affordable housing bond measure on the ballot after polling showed it was already garnering significant support from voters.
San Diego politicians and advocates aren’t racing to follow Santa Clara’s lead – or necessarily convinced its approach is the right one.
In other regions, the backing of city mayors and county supervisors have been crucial. For now, those leaders in San Diego are focused on more piecemeal initiatives to house homeless veterans and those with serious mental illnesses and on getting more cash from the feds rather than taxpayers.
San Diego County Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts, who have championed a county plan to house 1,250 homeless San Diegans with serious mental illnesses, both say they’re monitoring efforts already under way.
“Some of these regional initiatives are in their infancy and we need to give them time to take hold and have an impact on this complex issue,” said Cox, who serves on the regional group that coordinates efforts to reduce homelessness.
Roberts did say he’ll be watching the ballot measures around the state.
“After the November elections, I will step back and review the outcome of related ballot measures elsewhere in the state,” Roberts said. “When you put something before voters, you should do so with the intention of winning and making meaningful change, not to make a statement.”
Supervisor Dave Roberts, the county board’s sole Democrat who’s also up for re-election this November, said he’ll also be watching the homelessness measures elsewhere to see if they could work in San Diego County.
It seems unlikely Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who’s pushed a city plan to house 1,000 veterans over the next year, would support a tax hike. He’s historically rejected them.
The mayor, like the supervisors, has spoken about the need for more federal Housing and Urban Development dollars in San Diego and more funding in general.
A spokesman said Faulconer doesn’t think bond and sales-tax measures elsewhere are the best approach.
“We believe we can make more lasting change by ensuring that the region is being as effective as it can in using (its) resources productively,” spokesman Craig Gustafson said. “We need to be sure that the services and programs that currently receive funding are actually providing the successful outcomes we’re seeking.”
Both the supervisors and Faulconer’s spokesman noted increased local spending and initiatives to aid the homeless in the past year.
But advocates don’t believe those efforts are enough address growing street homelessness countywide and are eager to see how movements elsewhere play out.
San Diego Housing Federation chief Stephen Russell, whose organization represents affordable housing developers and lobbies for more affordable housing, sees tacks used by leaders in other California counties as models for San Diego.
Russell and other San Diego activists were particularly impressed by the broad leadership and documentation of agreed-upon goals laid out in the other California counties. Russell said he hoped his organization could help bring stakeholders together to organize behind that mission.
Russell and Tom Theisen, board president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, agreed San Diego leaders need to establish benchmarks and needs before they can ask voters for cash.
“Those other communities clearly have put together a plan to actually end homelessness in their communities,” Theisen said. “We need to do the same thing here in San Diego before we can go to the voters and the business community and ask them to support this.”
Indeed, at a June panel co-sponsored by Voice of San Diego and nonprofit Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 featuring four homeless advocates, the group paused when VOSD CEO Scott Lewis asked how many units were needed to house San Diegans living on the street.
Only one panelist tried to guess.
“800 maybe?” Alpha Project COO Amy Gonyeau said after City Councilman Todd Gloria confessed he couldn’t immediately offer a number.
Leaders in other regions have established those numbers. San Diego may be inching closer to the organizational structure necessary to sketch out a plan.
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless and the Regional Continuum of Care Council, the countywide group that oversees homeless-aiding efforts, are set to merge soon. Leaders behind that decision have said the move will allow for more coordinated regional decision-making and data-crunching.
One of them is Gloria, who until recently led the continuum. He’s set to leave the board later this year when his City Council term ends. He’s now running for state Assembly.
Gloria, who’s promoted a handful of local ballot measures, said a more cohesive blueprint to address homelessness would be crucial to any measure’s success. He believes a countywide measure that funds both housing and supportive services would be ideal in San Diego.
“Data and shared goals are very important to pass a meaningful measure, which would provide funding for more housing, so I am hopeful our region can focus on identifying these needs,” Gloria said.