Thursday, July 7, 2022

Massive Fire Destroys Trailers Donated for Betty Kwan Chinn Housing Project

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2022 at 2:34 PM

The trailer fire at the foot of Hilfiker Lane this morning. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • The trailer fire at the foot of Hilfiker Lane this morning.

A massive fire at the foot of Hilfiker Lane in Eureka just before 12:30 a.m. today destroyed six modular trailers donated to local philanthropist Betty Kwan Chinn by PG&E for a housing project and damaged another five at the site, all of which will need to be demolished.

According to Humboldt Bay Fire, initial units arrived at the scene to find six of the wood-framed trailers fully engulfed with others being burned by radiant heat prompting the fire to be upgraded to a second alarm response.

The Eureka Police Department was also called in because firefighting efforts were being hindered by people who drove to the site in cars and motorhomes to watch.

The blaze, which Humboldt Bay Fire states “is under investigation but appears to be human-caused as there were no electrical or gas services to any of the trailers,” was brought under control in about an hour, according to a news release.

No one was injured during the incident.

“The trailers will be demolished and removed from the site due to the safety hazard they present,” the HBF release states. “This will not prevent the project from moving forward as the city of Eureka has secured state funding to purchase new trailers for Betty’s housing project at the site. Unfortunately, it won’t allow for the trailers to be donated for reuse as planned. Infrastructure development is planned for the site on the Crawley property in the near future.”

Read the full HBF release below:

At 12:22 A.M. four units from Humboldt Bay Fire were dispatched to a reported structure fire at the Foot of Hilfiker Lane in Eureka. While units were enroute, Humboldt Bay Fire Dispatch received additional reports that multiple large trailers were on fire.

The first arriving Humboldt Bay Fire Engine arrived on scene and found six wood-framed single-wide portable construction type trailers fully involved with fire with additional nearby trailers burning on the outside from radiant heat.

The initial Company Officer requested a second alarm and declared that the fire was a defensive operation. Additional responding units had their access hindered by passers-by in vehicles and motorhomes driving in to watch the operations.

Eureka Police Officers were requested to control traffic to allow access for emergency apparatus only. As additional units arrived, personnel checked the nearby trailers for any occupants. Once the trailers were confirmed unoccupied, multiple master streams were put into place. Fire personnel had the fire controlled within an hour. Pacific Gas and Electric was requested to respond to confirm that the nearby utility poles and electrical lines were not damaged.

The fire is under investigation but appears to be human-caused as there were no electrical or gas services to any of the trailers.

Humboldt Bay Fire would like to thank their allied emergency partners for their assistance: Arcata Fire Protection District, Blue Lake Volunteer Fire Department, Eureka Police Department, City Ambulance, and Pacific Gas and Electric.

There were no injuries to fire personnel or civilians, nor any damage to the residence located next to the trailers or the Humboldt Bay Fire Training Center. Smoke Alarms Save Lives.

The 11 modular trailers were originally donated by PG&E for a Betty Chin Housing project in 2017, six of the 11 trailers were destroyed in the fire and the other 5 were damaged. The trailers will be demolished and removed from the site due to the safety hazard they present. This will not prevent the project from moving forward as the City of Eureka has secured State funding to purchase new trailers for Betty’s housing project at the site. Unfortunately, it won’t allow for the trailers to be donated for reuse as planned. Infrastructure development is planned for the site on the Crawley property in the near future.

For further information regarding the fire incident please call 441-4000; for further information regarding the Betty Chin Housing project please call City Manager Miles Slattery at 441-4184.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022

What to Know About Gov. Gavin Newsom's State of the State Speech

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2022 at 11:55 AM

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the State of the State in Sacramento. - PHOTO BY MIGUEL GUTIERREZ JR., CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the State of the State in Sacramento.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic finally appears to be receding, Californians are in a funk.

They are nearly evenly split on whether the state is headed in the right direction, according to a survey released last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, and gave poor marks to Gov. Gavin Newsom on almost every policy issue, from wildfires to crime to homelessness, in another poll published a few weeks later by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

So on Tuesday evening, Newsom turned his annual State of the State address into a defiant pep talk, assuring wary residents that, in a world unmoored by autocratic leaders and attacks on voting and abortion rights, the “California way” is still a beacon.

“People have always looked to California for inspiration,” he said. “Now, in the midst of so much turmoil, with the stacking of stresses and dramatic social and economic change, California is doing what we have done for generations: lighting out the territory ahead of the rest, expanding the horizon of what’s possible.”

Newsom touted better job creation and lower coronavirus death rates than other states, an ongoing expansion of pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds and billions of dollars in additional funding for homelessness services during his administration.

But there’s only so much comfort to be found in troubled times.

In an 18-minute speech — uncharacteristically brief for Newsom — the governor could not entirely ignore the unfolding war in Ukraine, which he noted at the top of his remarks mattered far more to most people than anything he had to say, or looming challenges such as rising public anxiety over crime.

The only new policy announcement came during an acknowledgment of spiraling gas prices, which have recently surpassed an average of $5 per gallon in California.

After previously calling in January to pause the annual increase to the state gas tax scheduled for July, Newsom pledged to work with legislative leadership on a plan for a tax rebate for drivers.

“Now it’s clear we have to go farther,” he said, though he rejected calls from the oil industry and some lawmakers to ramp up oil drilling in the state.

The governor provided no further details about who would receive financial relief or how much. At a post-event press conference, Dee Dee Myers, the governor’s top economic adviser, said the plan, which is not yet complete, would likely distribute billions of dollars to California residents who had registered their cars with the state.

“We want to make sure that the money gets into the hands and pockets of the people who are paying these gas prices, and not into the hands of companies who might take advantage of a moment to increase profits,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom talks of the state's pandemic response and hopes for an end in site during the State of the State address at Dodger Stadium on March 9, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom talks of the state’s pandemic response during the State of the State address at Dodger Stadium on March 9, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

The speech in the auditorium of the California Natural Resources Agency, where Newsom unveiled his budget proposal in January, was a far cry from last year’s slicky-produced kickoff of his recall defense at Dodger Stadium — or even the usual pomp and circumstance of an annual event that is typically held in the majestic Assembly chamber at the state Capitol.

A bipartisan phalanx of legislators and other state officials filled the auditorium, which had been lightly decorated for the occasion with live plants onstage — native California species, naturally. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and test negative for COVID, but with a statewide indoor mask requirement recently dropped, face coverings were sparse.

Republicans, before and after the event, put out a series of videos and statements on the “real state of the state,” slamming Newsom and fellow Democrats for policies that they said had made California unsafe and unaffordable. 

Seeming to anticipate those criticisms, Newsom nodded a handful of times to the issues that voters have consistently ranked as the most pressing in the state, including homelessness and public safety. He touted his commitment to violence-prevention programs and a recent proposal to establish county mental health courts, among other solutions that he said would not repeat the failures of the past.

But his focus was largely on the grander scheme. He repeatedly presented California as an alternative to the anger and fear dividing not just the country, but the planet.

“California does democracy like nowhere else in the world. No other place offers opportunity to so many from so many different backgrounds,” Newsom said. “The California way means rejecting old binaries and finding new solutions to big problems.”

His best hope at overcoming those “binaries” in the near future may be his rebate proposal, which follows weeks of loud pleas by Republican legislators to suspend the state gas tax.

Their early reaction was muted, however. GOP leaders said they were willing to work with the governor on the policy while also dismissing it as another half-baked plan from a man with lots of ideas and not enough follow-through.

Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita said it was “humorous” to hear Newsom speak loftily of democracy and inclusiveness during the State of the State.

“He just completely forgoed all the realities of what’s happening in this state,” Wilk said. “He is not addressing the needs of everyday Californians.”

Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature and could act without any Republican votes, were more receptive to Newsom’s proposal on relief for gas prices, applauding loudly when he announced it during his speech. 

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, who have been cold on the governor’s pitch to suspend the gas tax increase, released a joint statement after the event promising to “put the state’s robust revenue growth to work by returning substantial tax relief to families and small businesses as fast as possible.”

In an election year where the sour mood could be a significant liability for Newsom and fellow Democrats across the ballot, the rebate is potentially a major political gift. For all of Newsom’s attempts to cheer up gloomy Californians on Tuesday evening, the biggest serotonin boost was likely experienced by members of his own party.

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Friday, March 4, 2022

Newsom Unveils ‘Completely New Strategy’ for California’s Mental Health Crisis

Posted By on Fri, Mar 4, 2022 at 9:17 AM

Governor Gavin Newsom at press conference on the next phase of the state’s pandemic response on Feb. 17, 2022. - PHOTO BY ALISHA JUCEVIC FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters
  • Governor Gavin Newsom at press conference on the next phase of the state’s pandemic response on Feb. 17, 2022.
Gov. Gavin Newsom today unveiled a much anticipated proposal to address a mental health crisis increasingly visible on trash-strewn sidewalks and in cramped jail cells around California.

The proposal, known as the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (or CARE) Court, would provide a framework for courts to compel people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders into treatment, while also providing participants with supportive housing and wrap-around services.

“This is a completely new strategy,” Newsom said at a press conference today to introduce the new plan.  “And I hope that creates a space for a different conversation than we’ve had in the past.”

All 58 counties would be required to participate in the program, which is currently just a policy framework and still needs to be approved by the Legislature. Counties could face penalties for failing to provide requisite services, administration officials said. 

“This is a completely new strategy. And I hope that creates a space for a different conversation than we’ve had in the past.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom

That’s one of several details that differentiates this proposal from Laura’s Law, which also entails court-ordered treatment but allows counties to decide whether they want to participate. Newsom noted that, in one year, only 218 people were served by Laura’s Law. The Newsom administration estimates that the CARE Court program could serve between 7,000 and 12,000 Californians.

Administration officials say the new proposal is different, in part, because of the resources it comes with. It builds on a $12 billion allocation to address homelessness last year, as well as another $2 billion proposed this year, they said. 

People could come into the program through short-term involuntary hospital stays (also known as “5150s”), through the criminal justice system or at the recommendation of family members, mental health providers or first responders, among others. They would not need to be homeless to participate.

The court would order a tailored plan involving some combination of housing, medication and services, and would offer the support of a full clinical team, as well as a public defender and a “supporter” who could help a participant make care decisions and prepare advanced mental health directives.

Unlike with conservatorships, which can be indefinite, participation would be time limited – one year, with the possibility of an additional one-year extension.

A stream of state and local leaders spoke to the urgency of the need at the news conference, held on the San Jose campus of Momentum for Health, a behavioral health treatment organization.  

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, a widely regarded trailblazer who has presided over that county’s mental health court for decades, told those gathered: “We need to stop trying to fix a failed system that is rapidly, in my view, from what I see every day, moving us back to where we were 100 years ago when the answer for the mentally ill was simply to incarcerate them, put them in the hospital and keep them there until they die.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whose city has seen a dramatic burgeoning of encampments in its parks, vacant lots and underpasses, described joining the city’s homeless count on a recent freezing morning. She lost her composure as she shooed a rat off of a sleeping woman, she said. She later learned that the woman had spent three years living in that same spot, feeding rats because they were her “chosen company” and refusing services.

“She had been offered care, shelter, housing countless times but had been left to freeze on the pavement of our city,” Schaaf said. 

“It’s time that our Golden State stops walking by our greatest moral shame and faces it head-on with clarity and compassion,” she said.

“It’s time that our Golden State stops walking by our greatest moral shame and faces it head-on with clarity and compassion.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf

With the new proposal, state leaders are trying to forge a new path beyond the decades-long stalemate surrounding involuntary treatment of the most seriously mentaly ill.

Mark Ghaly, the secretary of Health and Human Services, described the need to move beyond “old and broken models.” The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which established the standards for involuntary treatment for people with disabilities, passed in 1967, more than half a century ago. In recent years, much of the debate about how to serve people with serious mental illness has centered on whether or not to change that law. Bills moving through the Legislature are still grappling with that question.

Newsom took care to emphasize his interest in working with disability rights groups on the new proposal.

Kevin Baker, director of governmental relations for ACLU California Action, said in an email to CalMatters that his organization is “keeping an open mind” while waiting to see more details, though noting that “there are a million questions and a million things that could go wrong.”

“The problem of homelessness is caused by the cost of housing, and we won’t solve homelessness, mental health or substance abuse problems in our communities by locking people up and drugging them against their will,” he said. “New funding for housing and services would be good, if we also keep in mind that people don’t lose their civil liberties just because the government wants to help them, no matter how sincerely.”  

He added that he thought the proposal is a significant and complex change in the law that should be heard by legislative committees and “not quietly slipped into a budget trailer bill as I hear may be the plan.”

County behavioral health departments would shoulder significant responsibility for implementing the new plan. Michelle Doty Cabrera, executive director of the California Behavioral Health Directors Association, told CalMatters that her members are all too aware of the “runaway train of need” for mental health services. While celebrating Newsom’s commitment to bring in more funding for housing, she said she worried that the administration was not planning to allocate enough resources for increased services. 

“There’s no way you can squeeze blood from a turnip,” she said. “We’re at our limit in terms of what we can do. We need more resources to do more.”

The California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians, and Public Conservators echoed this sentiment in a similar statement, saying they needed more resources to meet the “significant impacts” the program would undoubtedly have on demand for their services.

“The governor has thrown down the gauntlet and said we’re going to change things in a big way.”

Randall Hagar, legislative advocate and policy consultant for the Psychiatric Physicians Alliance of California

Randall Hagar, legislative advocate and policy consultant for the Psychiatric Physicians Alliance of California, called the new proposal “really welcome.

“The governor has thrown down the gauntlet and said we’re going to change things in a big way,” he said. “It’s one of the first new ideas I’ve heard in a long time.”

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Thursday, March 3, 2022

How Long are Californians Waiting for Rent Relief?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2022 at 4:51 PM

Housing activists and rent strikers participate in a vigil for tenants who they say will not be covered by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rent relief plan at the Elihu M. Harris, State of California office building in Oakland on Jan. 29, 2021. - PHOTO BY ANNE WERNIKOFF, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
  • Housing activists and rent strikers participate in a vigil for tenants who they say will not be covered by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rent relief plan at the Elihu M. Harris, State of California office building in Oakland on Jan. 29, 2021.
Only 16 percent of nearly half a million renters who applied for rent relief from the state of California have been paid, according to a new analysis released today. And the clock is ticking: Under state law, landlords will be able to evict tenants who failed to pay rent by April 1.

Of more than 488,000 households who applied for assistance since the program launched in March of 2021, about 180,000 were approved. Four percent were denied, and more than half of applicants are still awaiting a response, according to the study, produced by the National Equity Atlas, Housing Now and the Western Center on Law & Poverty using state data. 

But even most renters whose applications were approved are still waiting for a check, according to the analysis. Of the 180,000 households whose applications were approved, just more than 75,000 households were paid. And they still need more help: 90 percent of those households have reapplied for more money.

The number of people paid, according to the study, is significantly lower than what is shown on the state’s public dashboard — 191,000 households “served” and $2.2 billion paid. 

Monica Hernández, a spokesperson with the California Department of Housing and Community Development, disputed the report’s findings and said that the state’s dashboard has “the most current and accurate numbers.” 

Of 467,000 complete applications to date, 191,000 payments, or 41 percent, have been made, she said, and each week more than $80 million is going out to more than 8,000 households.

The study’s authors said they stood behind their analysis, which shows that $900 million has been paid (“application complete, paid” in the state’s data), while another $1.15 billion has only been approved (“application complete, payment pending”). 

“It doesn’t matter if you have a piece of paper that says you’re approved, you need the money,” said Madeline Howard, a senior staff attorney at the Western Center and co-author of the report. “It doesn’t reflect the experience of the tenants who are living this day to day.”

The study also found that applicants waited a median of more than three months to get an approval, and another month to get paid — 135 days total. The wait times have been getting shorter, however: Households who applied for aid last March waited about six months to get paid, while those who applied in October faced a wait time of just less than four months.

In her emailed response, Hernández said that the wait time measure “does not account for the different rules that different applications applied under at different times” or “for incomplete, duplicate, or potentially fraudulent applications that we are just now clearing out of the data.”  

“It doesn’t matter if you have a piece of paper that says you’re approved, you need the money.”

Madeline Howard, a senior staff attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty

California received about $5.2 billion from the federal government to help renters stay housed and keep landlords paid. The state is in charge of administering about half of that, while 25 cities and counties are administering the rest. The new study focuses on the state program, which covers nearly two-thirds of Californians.

In January, the state received $62 million in additional federal aid, or only 3 percent of the nearly $2 billion it requested in November. Still, California received one-third of the funds reallocated by the U.S. Treasury, which Hernandez said spoke to federal officials’ “confidence in our ability to distribute funds to households in need in a timely fashion.” 

According to Hernández, a budget bill the Legislature passed in February that allocates General Fund dollars to state and local rent relief programs “means that every eligible applicant seeking assistance for eligible costs submitted and incurred on or before March 31, 2022, will be assisted.”

The new study is the most complete look yet at how rent relief is going in California.

The full data set was not released to the Western Center through the state Public Records Act until after the center announced its intent to sue the Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the program with the help of a private contractor. Repeated Public Records Act requests for the full data set had previously been denied. These groups have been tracking California’s eviction and rent relief efforts from the beginning.

CalMatters has requested similar data from the state through several Public Records Act requests and had been repeatedly told the data did not exist.

“We don’t track data and create a report on dates that folks applied and then they received a response. What we do is we’re able to look at the age of applications within the system and make sure that all applications are assigned by a certain date,” Geoffrey Ross, deputy director for the Division of Federal Financial Assistance at the housing department, told CalMatters on Oct. 11.

Hernández said that statement was accurate at the time.

A state ban on evictions for non-payment of rent went into effect at the start of the pandemic and was extended several times. That protection ended last October — with one condition. Through March 31, landlords would be blocked from evicting tenants over non-payment of rent through Sept. 30, 2021, if they had applied for rent relief from the state. That additional layer of protection disappears on April 1.

“I’m really confused as to why we haven’t heard anything to extend the eviction protections,” Howard said. “People are waiting. They don’t have their money.”

The state rent relief program continues to face other challenges that have persisted from its inception, according to another recent survey of 58 tenant organizations across the state by Tenants Together, an advocacy group. Ninety percent of survey respondents reported difficulties accessing the application and 82 percent reported difficulty getting information about their applications.

The survey found that California’s most vulnerable tenants — including non-English speakers, seniors, and people with informal leases — continue to face the greatest hurdles to getting rent relief. 

“There’s I think a lack of understanding in the Legislature that people become homeless after they’re evicted from their homes,” said Shanti Singh, legislative and communications director for the group that conducted the survey.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

California Counted Its Homeless Population, but Can It Track the Money?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2022 at 7:10 PM

Sacramento firefighters respond to a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80 near 14th Street and X Street on Feb. 24, 2022. - PHOTO BY MIGUEL GUTIERREZ JR., CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
  • Sacramento firefighters respond to a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80 near 14th Street and X Street on Feb. 24, 2022.
As she headed to her car after two hours of counting and surveying Sacramento’s homeless population, the state’s top housing official acknowledged there is a long road ahead.

“We’re building the system, building the capacity, building the data, and communities are rising to the occasion. I know people are really frustrated because they feel like they don’t see that change,” said Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. “But I don’t think you can see change that is going to be long-lasting overnight.”

As she spoke, just a few blocks away, a homeless encampment was going up in flames. 

No one was injured, unlike a fire earlier the same day at a San Francisco encampment that killed a woman and that Gov. Gavin Newsom called “unconscionable.” But dozens of people — who had been camping beneath the on-ramp to Highway 50 on one of the coldest nights of the year — watched as firefighters sprayed hundreds of gallons of water at the inferno they had once called home.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said John Vasquez, who said he had been living there for nearly two years. “We don’t have anything. Everything got burned. Clothes, tents, IDs.”

The 911 call came from another volunteer for Sacramento’s point-in-time count, a Census-like tally of people experiencing homelessness that took place across California last week. As those numbers trickle in over the summer, experts believe the data will help illustrate the reality Californians can no longer ignore: Homelessness has reached a tipping point.

John Vasquez, 61, sorts through the remains of a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80, near 14th Street, in Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
John Vasquez, 61, sorts through the remains of a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80, near 14th Street, in Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

California last tallied its homeless population in January 2020, and found at least 161,000 people without a roof over their heads on any given night, with the biggest concentration in Los Angeles. Most were single adults, about a third were chronically homeless and Black Californians were over-represented in the count nearly five-fold.

The world has changed a lot during the deadliest pandemic in a century.

The state poured billions of dollars into alleviating homelessness, creating thousands of new shelter beds and housing units. But the housing affordability crisis — to which most experts attribute homelessness — only worsened as millions lost their jobs and rents skyrocketed. Shelters also reduced bed capacity and federal officials urged local law enforcement not to disband camps like the one in Sacramento to guard against the coronavirus, making tent cities more visible than ever.

That’s why most researchers aren’t wondering whether the new homeless numbers will show an increase. The only question is, by how much.

The result of California’s tally is very likely to be an undercount, in part because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which orders the count, excludes people who are couch-surfing or staying in cheap motels in their definition of homelessness. Researchers say that means families with children who are teetering on the edge are most likely to be overlooked.

It also relies largely on volunteers to count what they think they see, and on local agencies to calculate the population of the areas they don’t cover, estimations later verified by HUD.

“I’m counting one, two, three, four, five, six down there, seven, maybe eight tents on this side,” said Jason Pu, HUD’s regional administrator in charge of California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada, pointing across the dimly lit street at a string of tents and tarps beside Highway 50. “What do you think?”

Cities with a dropoff in volunteers because of the ongoing pandemic may report a drop in the homeless population, even if it actually grew, said Chris Weare, a UC Berkeley lecturer who researches homelessness. Weare believes some jurisdictions keep their count artificially low for political optics, even though a city’s share of state and federal homeless dollars is based on these numbers.

“Think of the headlines,” he said.

Is all the money making a difference?

For all its flaws, the count is still an invitation for policymakers to interact with the people affected by their decisions, Castro Ramírez said at a small kickoff event at CSU Sacramento.

“Very few people come over here and talk to us,” said Jessica Hud, who’s been homeless for five years, and had been staying in the encampment on X and 10th Street for about seven months.

But like their housed neighbors — who in recent polls have expressed despair over the government’s handling of homelessness — many also say the situation is at its worst.

“I’ve lived in Sacramento all my life and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Rocknie Simon, Hud’s partner, who has been homeless for about 10 years.

Volunteers walk near a homeless camp in Sacramento during the city's point-in-time count of the unhoused population on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Volunteers walk near a homeless camp in Sacramento during the city’s point-in-time count of the unhoused population on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Why isn’t the state’s generous spending more visible on the state’s streets? 

Officials and advocates chalk it up to decades of disinvestment. ​In 2012, for example, the state began unwinding its redevelopment agencies, which were in charge of revitalizing “blighted” areas across the state.​ With the end of redevelopment came the end of the single largest source of non-federal money for affordable housing in the state, and California lawmakers didn’t begin to plug that hole until around 2019.

“We don’t fix a problem that’s been brewing since Vietnam and exacerbated over the last two decades by tech and other things in five years,” said Jennifer Loving, chief executive officer of Destination: Home, a homelessness nonprofit in San Jose. For every two people who are housed in her community, another three become homeless.

But if tracking data on how many people are homeless is difficult, tracking the payoff from billions of dollars the state is now spending to help them is even more challenging.

“I know (the governor) is frustrated, I know the Legislature is frustrated, the public is frustrated,” Assembly Budget Chairperson Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said during a recent hearing. “We have appropriated billions and billions of dollars to this issue. And it’s not clear where we’ve made progress.”

The reason for the limited available data is, in part, because local entities serving people on the ground hadn’t always been required to report outcomes to the state, and no state body provided effective oversight of the myriad agencies that address homelessness, the State Auditor found. A slew of laws passed last year are supposed to change that.

This summer, using $5.6 million, the newly created Interagency Council on Homelessness is set to release a report detailing the outcomes of state spending between 2018 and 2021, to be followed by a final report in December. Newly appropriated dollars are tied to more stringent planning and reporting requirements: Cities and counties will set goals for the $2 billion they will receive over two years from the state to address homelessness, and about a fifth of that money will be set aside as bonus funds for those who meet their goals.

Newly available metrics collected by local officials still reveal some information about how they are serving the homeless population. Over the course of 2020, for example, the state reported that local agencies served more than 246,000 people, and nearly 40% of them moved into some form of housing. (That number is higher than the one-night snapshot because someone may have been homeless at the start of the year, but housed by the end.) What the data doesn’t reveal is where people went, which types of programs worked better than others, or which service providers excelled and which ones fell behind.

“We’re in this state that’s driving the data revolution and it’s just not showing up in the homelessness field,” said Weare, from UC Berkeley.

“We have appropriated billions and billions of dollars to this issue. And it’s not clear where we’ve made progress.”

Phil ing, chairperson of the Assembly budget committee

Last summer, with a historic budget windfall, state lawmakers allocated $12 billion for homeleness, most of which hasn’t hit the streets. This year, they have an even bigger surplus, but the dearth of data is making it difficult to evaluate the additional spending Newsom proposed: $1.5 billion for temporary bridge housing and $500 million to deal with encampments, building on the $50 million in grants Newsom announced last week to shelter or rehouse 1,400 people now in camps.

“We’re stuck,” said Wendy Carrillo, a Democratic Assemblymember from Los Angeles who leads the state Assembly’s budget subcommittee that deals with homelessness. “We’re releasing this funding to be able to help address the issue, but in return, the data is not coming back fast enough for the Legislature to be able to make an informed decision as to, are we going to put more dollars into something, and does it work?”

Republican lawmakers have called for a special session to address homelessness parallel to the ongoing legislative session — an idea they say hasn’t gotten any traction in the supermajority Democratic legislature.

“When you have a special session, you can put your entire focus on that. So we’re hoping that the governor will take up a special look at that perhaps that comes on the heels of the homeless count,” said state Sen. Patricia Bates, a Republican from Laguna Hills.

On the ground in Sacramento

“Counting people is different from helping people get off the streets,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at the Feb. 23 kickoff event, before about 600 volunteers fanned out. The last point-in-time survey found at least 5,500 homeless people in the county in 2019, a number he expects will only increase this year.

“Here in the city and county of Sacramento, we are committed to making housing and shelter a human and a legal right, and mental health care and treatment as a human and legal right,” he continued. “That has to be our commitment coming out of this point-in-time count.”

Steinberg was referring to an ordinance he introduced last November that would require the city to create enough housing units or temporary shelter spaces for everyone who needs them by 2023. If a person living on the street turned down two available housing or shelter options, they would be compelled to come inside. But if those spots weren’t made available, the person could sue the city.

“Counting people is different from helping people get off the streets.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg

The proposal, which met fierce opposition from some advocates for favoring shelter over housing, is now undergoing a legal review. Local voters may be asked to consider two similar ballot initiatives in November. Their aim: to clear the growing number of encampments sprouting across the city, which are not only upsetting housed residents and businesses, but threatening the safety of the people living there. The city would have to dramatically increase options for people to go indoors, which it has thus far failed to do.

Muhammad, who declined to provide his last name, warms his hands at a fire next to his tent in Sacramento. Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Muhammad, who declined to provide his last name, warms his hands at a fire next to his tent in Sacramento. Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Sacramento fire spokesperson Keith Wade told CalMatters the department responds to fires in homeless encampments on a daily basis. Fires with the potential to damage critical infrastructure — like the one under the Highway 50 on-ramp — are more rare, he said. CalTrans had to shut down the on-ramp “for a while” to ensure it could hold up oncoming traffic. The fire remains under investigation, but Wade said it was likely arson.

“It’s not uncommon for one person experiencing homelessness who has a disagreement or some sort of issue with another to burn that person’s personal items because that’s the one thing that person has left in this world,” he said.

Vasquez, who was displaced from the camp, doesn’t know what comes next. He said he had been living in an apartment before becoming homeless, but could no longer afford rent after his roommates moved out.

“What can we do?” he asked. “Start all over again, with nothing. We had nothing, and we start with nothing.”

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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Do-over: Cal State's Resubmitted Application Increases Affordable Student Housing Projection by 800 Beds

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2022 at 12:39 PM

Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021. - PHOTO BY PATRICK GARCIA FOR CALMATTERS COLLEGE JOURNALISM NETWORK
  • Photo by Patrick Garcia for CalMatters College Journalism Network
  • Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021.
After the California State University system realized it misread the fine print for a new state grant to build affordable student housing, officials went back to the drawing board, ran new numbers, and told lawmakers they have a plan to develop more discounted student homes.

The application do-over means as many as 800 more Cal State students — for a total of nearly 3,400 — may soon see heavily subsidized housing slots at a time when tens of thousands of California students are facing a dire housing crunch. The proposed housing projects would also cost the state less than what the Cal States put forth last fall — a rare instance of spending less to gain more in higher education.

The Cal State system submitted its revised plans to the governor’s office for approval in late January, two months after a 2021 CalMatters report found that the system needlessly proposed fewer affordable beds.

In its initial application to claim a portion of the $2 billion Gov. Gavin Newsom set aside for student housing, Cal State incorrectly assumed that it could use that money — and only that money — to build affordable units for low-income students.

As CalMatters reported and Cal State officials later acknowledged, rules governing the grant program allowed Cal State to combine state money with outside funds. Typically, campuses build housing by borrowing money. The state grant can serve as a large down payment on that student housing mortgage. Using a mix of funds allows campuses to build more units and take out less debt than they would have otherwise, savings that are then passed onto students. It’s an approach that several University of California campuses originally sought.

Cal State’s revised plans call for $823 million in total funding for housing projects across 10 campuses — with $535 million of that money coming from the new state housing grant and the rest from outside funds.

That $535 million amount is important. By the rules of the grant, the Cal States get $600 million over the three-year life of the grant program — assuming lawmakers and the governor follow through with their promise to fully fund the program.

The Cal State system’s original proposal sought $773 million in proposals — all from the grant. So even though that original slate of plans had more affordable beds listed, not all could have been built.

The math includes a lot of moving parts but it rests on the average cost to build a bed — a whopping $225,000 for Cal States and $240,000 for the UCs, based on grant project data the systems submitted.

How the grant language defines an “affordable” bed varies by campus, but the rents can’t exceed 33 percent of a county’s typical wage for a low-income person. In Los Angeles and San Diego, that means rents of roughly $700 to $800 a month. At UC Berkeley, it’s closer to $1,100 a month.

However the math works out, the state needs more affordable beds for students. Numerous California public universities report long waiting lists of students seeking campus housing. San Francisco State writes in its grant application that it has space for 4,000 student beds but in recent years has had a waitlist of 2,000 students seeking housing. Other research suggests tens of thousands of college students struggle with unstable housing situations and experience homelessness.

At the same time, campuses are in the midst of a building spree, though student housing rents can still be high. Meanwhile, lawmakers are pressuring the UC and Cal State systems to expand their enrollments, which will require more student housing. Several UC campuses technically house more students than they have beds for those students.

While the Cal States stretched their grant money further, they’re still proposing to pay for most of the affordable housing units with state grant money. Had the university system proposed using an equal amount of money from the state grant and from outside resources, campuses could build another 1,100 affordable beds, said Cal State trustee Jack McGrory,a San Diego-based developer. He crunched the numbers for CalMatters with a formula other developers use.

But a financing model that uses less state grant money would have been too expensive for the campuses, wrote Toni Molle, a spokesperson for the system. “Projects would not have been financially viable at higher levels of debt co-funding,” she wrote in an email.

“I'm not going to second-guess that,” said McGrory, who shared his calculations with CalMatters after Molle’s reply. He added that as a private developer, he tries to spend no more than half of his own funds for projects, but that affordable housing requires a different calculus because there’s less rental revenue to pay back the debt.

Still, one University of California campus seeking this grant money did propose using a lot more debt to build affordable beds. As one option, UC San Diego wants to use $100 million in new state grant funding to develop 1,100 ultra-affordable units for students as part of a $365 million project. No other campus at either public university system in California comes anywhere close to building that many beds. An alternative UC San Diego plan would create just 390 affordable beds but charge incredibly low rents of $418 a month.

Other UC projects hover around 300 affordable beds, on average. The same goes for Cal State’s 10 projects, with San Francisco State proposing the most in that system — 750 affordable beds.

That makes sense given how much experience UC San Diego has with student housing construction, said Paavo Monkkonen, an urban planning professor at UCLA.

The UC’s house roughly a third of their students while the Cal State system houses less than 15 percent of theirs, according to a 2021 Legislative Analyst’s Office report.

There’s no obligation for campuses to use a certain percentage of debt to finance their affordable housing projects, said Rebecca Kirk, an official within the governor’s Department of Finance, which is the office responsible for reviewing the campus housing grant proposals. It’s supposed to submit its recommendations to lawmakers March 1. Construction on these projects could start as early as Dec. 31, 2022.

Looking ahead, Monkkonen said the state should better coordinate the student housing construction efforts of California’s public colleges and universities to share financing and other ideas.

“This is a very obvious place for knowledge sharing,” he said. “We're all on the same team.”

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Student Housing is Tight. A California Plan Wants $5 billion for Affordable Beds

Posted By on Wed, Jan 26, 2022 at 11:05 AM

Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021. - PHOTO BY PATRICK GARCIA FOR CALMATTERS COLLEGE JOURNALISM NETWORK
  • Photo by Patrick Garcia for CalMatters College Journalism Network
  • Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021.
The University of California housed more students than the system officially had room for last fall. Yet UC leaders, lawmakers and the governor all want to dramatically expand student enrollment.

But that ambition is at odds with a housing crunch crippling the UC and campuses across California.

Students will need somewhere to live and a new legislative plan would throw in $5 billion to help the state’s campuses ramp up their housing stock.

Assembly Bill 1602 by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, would create a $5 billion fund that would lend money, interest-free, to public colleges and universities seeking to expand their supply of affordable housing.

That much money could house around 21,000 more students, based on recent analyses that show campuses spend an average of roughly $240,000 per student bed when constructing housing. But even that may not meet the total need given how many students struggle with housing insecurity and homelessness.

The plan builds on a $2 billion grant for affordable student housing lawmakers approved last year, and signals the state’s increasing commitment to tackle all the costs students encounter in earning a degree. McCarty sees the loan program as a way to capitalize on another expected massive state budget surplus. Also, unlike financial aid programs that require annual funding, the state can help build housing once and allow a generation of students to reap the benefits, the thinking goes.

Campuses struggle to finance their housing projects so they can cover operating and debt repayment expenses while still being affordable to students, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office told lawmakers in November. Removing interest from the equation would allow campuses to pass more of the savings onto students, McCarty told CalMatters.

But the proposal faces a long road through the Legislature and currently doesn’t define what affordable units are, other than they should cost less than local market rates.

Program details

Under McCarty’s plan, the University of California, California State University, and to a smaller extent, the California Community Colleges, would tap into these funds swiftly, build more student homes, and then over a period of no more than 30 years use student rental income to repay what they borrowed — a revolving zero-interest loan. Then the state could lend another round of money for student housing as the coffers for this program replenish.

The loan would be managed by the State Treasurer. Campuses would be able to use funds to build new structures, demolish old ones and renovate existing dorms. McCarty wants the bill to pass in the next few months and go into effect immediately. The money would reach campuses mid-2023 at the earliest.

“We have a college affordability crisis and we have a housing supply crisis,” said McCarty. “These two things are really acute right now in California.”

He proposed a similar revolving loan last year but those plans were gutted.

Think of the student housing funding splurge as the third leg in the college-affordability barstool that also includes:

  • California’s pledge to cover the tuition costs of low-income students at the UC, CSU and community colleges;
  • and another big program on the way to give UC and CSU added dollars to afford out-of-pocket expenses like housing, food and transportation.

The promise of cheaper housing would make those new out-of-pocket student dollars travel further.

Newly-built facilities at UC Merced on August 2, 2019. - PHOTO BY ANNE WERNIKOFF FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
  • Newly-built facilities at UC Merced on August 2, 2019.

What is an affordable unit and who’ll get it?

While the proposed loan program largely builds on the initial three-year, $2 billion student housing grant program lawmakers approved last year, there are key differences.

As written, the bill doesn’t define what affordable rent means — just that they should be below local market levels for student housing. Last year’s grant program, however, is more specific: It caps rent at a low level of what county median incomes are. In Los Angeles, for example, campus housing built with the grant money can’t charge more than $700 a month per bed in rent in today’s dollars. Though standard university units are typically cheaper than off-campus housing, they can still go for over $1,600 a month, UCLA and UC Berkeley reported.

Nor does the proposed loan program designate what percentage of the money would go to the higher-education systems. The grant program reserved half of all money for community colleges, 30 percent for the Cal States and 20 percent for the UCs. That caught some UC insiders off guard, given that few community colleges have a history of building student housing.

McCarty said most of the loan funds would likely go to the Cal States and UCs, but those details may change. Another difference between the two housing programs: McCarty’s loan bill presently would permit funds to be used for faculty and staff housing.

“We have a college affordability crisis and we have a housing supply crisis.”

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Democrat, Sacramento

For sure the state needs more student housing. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to add 7,000 more UC students from California by 2027 on top of the nearly 11,000 additional slots he and lawmakers approved last year. The UC has its own goal of expanding enrollment by 20,000 students by 2030 — including 4,000 graduate students — though not necessarily all of those added slots would be for in-person learning.

Expanding enrollment and not housing supply “is going to be a big problem,” McCarty said.

It would also likely violate the delicate balancing act some UC campuses have worked out with their local governments. UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz are legally obligated to provide housing space for every new student they enroll. Meanwhile, a judge blocked a UC Berkeley expansion, citing state environmental law.

Campuses have been building… but not enough

The system has made strides: UC campuses have added 22,000 beds in the last four years and has plans to add 20,000 more beds in the next four years, a UC official told UC Regents last week. Cal States have added 14,000 beds in recent years.

Even so, students are in the midst of a dire housing crunch. The UC reported that its housing occupancy was at 102 percent of available space in fall 2021. Numerous campuses had more demand for campus housing than beds available last fall and hundreds of students took to living in hotels. A third of California’s college students grappled with unstable housing, according to a 2019 survey. Likely tens of thousands of students experience homelessness.

Sometimes the higher education systems can’t even get out of their own way: CalMatters uncovered one instance in late 2021 in which a bureaucratic snafu could wind up costing the Cal State system 3,000 beds.

The UC, Cal States and community colleges have already proposed more than $3 billion in state-supported housing projects — far exceeding the $2 billion housing grant lawmakers approved last year.

The bill’s first legislative hurdle will be to win votes in the Assembly’s higher education committee, likely sometime in March.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Is ‘Right to Housing’ a Solution to California Homelessness?

Posted By on Tue, Dec 7, 2021 at 5:22 AM

Josh Lowe, 32, made a makeshift raft out of longboards and wood to get across the San Mateo Creek to where he has been staying in San Clemente on Nov. 6, 2021. Lowe moved to the woods with his dog Anna since the encampment on the CalTrans property was disbanded on August 27th. - PHOTO BY ARIANA DREHSLER FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters
  • Josh Lowe, 32, made a makeshift raft out of longboards and wood to get across the San Mateo Creek to where he has been staying in San Clemente on Nov. 6, 2021. Lowe moved to the woods with his dog Anna since the encampment on the CalTrans property was disbanded on August 27th.
The law says that every student is entitled to a free public education. 

What if it said the same about housing?

That’s what Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, believes to be the key to addressing California’s homelessness. He recently proposed an ordinance that would require the city to provide at least two housing or shelter options to people living on the streets.

If those options weren’t available, the person could sue the city. But if the homeless individual turned down the available options, they would be compelled to come inside, albeit using social workers, not police.

In the latest episode of the California Housing Crisis Podcast, The Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon and CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias interview Steinberg on his proposal, and how it has evolved over the years. (Please subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsSoundcloud and Stitcher.)

“I want to put out what I believe, which is fundamentally, that the public policy of the society must be that people live indoors,” he said. “Ninety to 95 percent of that is the government’s obligation. The last five to 10 percent may fall on some individuals.”

Aside from housing or shelter, two of the options that a person must be offered include spaces at “Safe Ground” sanctioned tent encampments, hotel rooms, tiny homes and trailers. 

“People have a much better chance to get permanent housing if they’re indoors rather than outdoors,” Steinberg explained. “We can’t get mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment for people living on the river.”

But, like the rest of the state, Sacramento is far from able to provide at least a single shelter bed per person, much less an affordable housing unit. If approved by the City Council, Steinberg’s plan would take effect starting in 2023, or later if the city makes substantial progress on housing options by fall 2022.

Liam and Manuela also discussed the results of a poll on homelessness in Los Angeles County conducted by the L.A. Business Council Institute and the L.A. Times.

The poll found 94 percent of voters viewed homelessness as a serious or very serious problem – a similar number as two years ago. However, over the past couple years the city and county have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with homelessness.

What has changed, however, is how people think the issue must be addressed: While voters were evenly split last time about spending money on short-term solutions such as shelter and on long-term solutions such as housing, 57 percent said officials should focus on “short-term shelter sites.”

Gimme Shelter issue suggestions

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Monday, November 29, 2021

Cal State Blunder May Mean Loss of 3,000 New Student Housing Beds

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2021 at 8:58 AM

Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021. - PHOTO BY PATRICK GARCIA FOR CALMATTERS COLLEGE JOURNALISM NETWORK
  • Photo by Patrick Garcia for CalMatters College Journalism Network
  • Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021.
Thousands of affordable student housing slots are in jeopardy after the Cal State system misread the fine print for a new $2 billion state student housing program, CalMatters has discovered. With the deadline for applications passed, a solution remains unclear.

Thousands of students at California State University may lose out on affordable housing because the Cal State system misread the fine print of a new state student housing program.

The error — uncovered by CalMatters and acknowledged by Cal State officials — is straightforward but costly. In filling out paperwork required to get its portion of the $2 billion Gov. Gavin Newsom set aside for student housing, Cal State incorrectly assumed that it could use that money — and only that money — to build dorms and apartments for low-income students.

In reality, state rules allow Cal State to combine this limited pot of state money with outside funds, such as dollars from bonds the university regularly issues. Using a mix of funds allows a campus to either build larger structures to include more beds or combine projects to house more students. 

The consequence for Cal State’s blunder: Unless state lawmakers intervene, as many as 3,000 students will be deprived of affordable housing.

CalMatters discovered the discrepancy by reviewing building applications, official correspondence and other documents related to the three-year, $2 billion Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program that the Legislature approved in this year’s state budget. Over that three-year period, Cal State is slated to receive $600 million from the grant program to build housing at low rents for students. 

The error comes after a Cal State vice chancellor implored the state to change the rules to accommodate more flexible spending. 

The state housing program is seen as one way to defray much of the costs of college attendance. More than half of Cal State and UC students from California don’t pay for tuition, but campus rent can tack on as much as $11,000 a year for Cal State students, though federal grants can help cover those expenses. 

Arguably hundreds of thousands of California university and community college students struggle to afford a stable place to live. University housing is typically cheaper than off-campus housing in the surrounding communities. 

Fixing Cal State’s snafu may be difficult

The Cal State paperwork snafu directly affects the initial $150 million portion of funds carved out for the university system in this year’s state budget. Applications for using the funds were due by Oct. 31. Because the deadline came and went, a do-over for Cal State is tricky, said Rebecca Kirk, a project manager at the Department of Finance, an agency of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration that is overseeing management of the student housing grant money.

“Because that initial filing round had an established deadline of October 31, that was kind of the cut-off on the initial rounds,” she said in an interview. Fixing the error would be “a pretty significant potential change” to the proposals, Kirk said.

The department has until March 1 of next year to submit to the Legislature a list of recommended housing projects the state should fund. From there, lawmakers and the governor will ultimately decide what gets funded in either the state’s budget process or a standalone bill. 

It’s unclear whether lawmakers could allow Cal State to come up with new construction plans to make better use of the money. The law governing these funds is silent on whether lawmakers can deviate from what campuses initially proposed in their applications. 

“If CSU erroneously submitted their application based on a bureaucratic misunderstanding, we should give them every opportunity to correct it,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco who is chairperson of the Assembly’s budget committee, one of the two committees that’ll receive the Department of Finance’s recommendations. “Student housing is too important of an issue to let bureaucracy stand in the way.”

Humboldt State University - FILE
  • File
  • Humboldt State University

The speed at which the decisions have to be made is intentional: The law prioritizes affordable student housing projects that can start construction by the end of 2022. 

The Cal State system owned up to its error when asked by CalMatters. The university “misinterpreted” the guidance that the Department of Finance gave campuses as “intending for the program to fund the student housing grant project in its entirety,” Vi San Juan, Cal State’s vice chancellor in charge of construction, wrote in a statement. The Department of Finance’s guidance, shared with the state’s public higher education systems Oct. 7, said that “proposals that include funding contributions from other sources will be considered.”

Kirk said the system could revise its remaining proposals that aren’t funded in the first year of the program in the funding rounds for 2022 and 2023. 

Mixing state and outside funds can mean more student housing

The potentially massive setback for students comes as a result of a misunderstanding of the rules by the Cal State system that has persisted for weeks. On Nov. 8, Robert Eaton, the Cal State vice chancellor who oversees financing, mistakenly told lawmakers in a public hearing that the student housing grant program’s funds cannot be combined with other money. He then urged lawmakers to change the program’s rules to allow for that. 

Doing so “would spread the grant dollars over a larger number of projects, thereby potentially providing affordability benefits to an even greater number of students,” Eaton said. The Cal State system can easily borrow money through its existing construction bond program. Eaton said that already about a third of Cal State’s $8.8 billion construction bond debt is for financing student housing. 

Experts say now’s an especially ripe time to plan for housing construction because borrowing rates are so low. The savings from near-zero interest plus state housing dollars drive down the cost of construction, which leads to student savings because campuses can charge less for housing.

“If CSU erroneously submitted their application based on a bureaucratic misunderstanding, we should give them every opportunity to correct it.”

Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco

Jack McGrory, a Cal State trustee, said in an interview that if the system were allowed to use a mix of funds, it could build 5,000 to 6,000 beds rather than the roughly 3,300 it proposed. McGrory, a building developer in San Diego, spoke with CalMatters before it became clear that the flexibility Cal State sought was already built into the state student housing program.

It’s a tactic the University of California knew to pursue in its state student housing applications. UCLA, for example, wants to use $35 million in state grant money and $29 million of its own to build 179 doubles with private bathrooms. Because of the new housing grant’s affordability rules, rents per student will be $600 a month when the project is completed in 2025 — about a third of what UCLA typically charges for such accommodations, the UC application said.

UC Berkeley plans to use $100 million in state housing money in conjunction with about $200 million in UC bond money to bring down the rents students will eventually pay. Mixing the two pots of funds would allow the campus to add 300 additional beds at rents of $1,100 — about a third less than what other campus students pay. 

The community college system, California’s largest public university system, does not typically build student housing. 

A history of housing shortages

California’s foray into financing student housing is new. Previously, lawmakers approved some money for campuses to cover short-term rent or hotel fees for students experiencing homelessness.

Lawmakers’ growing interest in student housing is a reflection of their bid to have the UC and Cal State enroll more California students. The state plans to up enrollment by 15,000 students at the two systems next year — and more students means more pressure to house them. 

Hundreds of UC students have resorted to living in hotels because campuses have no space for them and nearby apartments off-campus are either too expensive or unavailable. Eight UC campuses this fall had 7,500 students on housing waitlists. The Cal State system reported 8,700 students wait-listed for housing. 

Two UC campuses — at Davis and Santa Cruz — are locked into legally binding deals with their local governments to expand enrollment only if they can add an equal amount of new beds. Legal disputes such as these have led to housing construction delays at UC Santa Cruz and an outright ban on expanding enrollment at UC Berkeley.

The housing squeeze exists despite the fact that Cal State and UC combined have built enough new housing for some 36,000 students since 2015 and plan to add another 21,000 slots in the near-future.

Another student housing solution

At the same November hearing where Cal State’s Robert Eaton incorrectly interpreted housing financing rules, the UC told lawmakers that it would benefit from a program in which the state gives the university system interest-free loans to build housing as another way to expand the affordable student housing stock. An influential lawmaker in higher-education, Sacramento Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, proposed such a bill this year but it was heavily revised and excluded the loan aspect when it finally passed.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said his campus would benefit from added state investment because it’s coming close to maxing out the amount of money it can borrow from the bond market. UC San Diego wants to build enough student housing to offer a four-year housing guarantee to all undergraduates with rents that are at least 20 percent below market rate. The campus has been in a construction frenzy to get there: Khosla said the campus has built 6,000 new beds since 2013 and plans another 10,000 by 2030. A “revolving loan” from the state at 0 percent interest would lead to enough savings for UC San Diego to reduce campus rents to 38 percent below market rate for the campus’s lowest-income students, Khosla said. 

But other campuses are running out of land to build more housing. That may mean tearing down existing buildings to build taller ones. It’s another scenario in which the state’s increasing footprint in campus housing may play a key role. 

And with another year of record high tax revenue appearing likely next year, the state’s lawmakers will have a lot of options to fund a new batch of big projects. 

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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Friday, September 17, 2021

California Commits $500 Million More to Student Housing: 'A Drop in the Bucket'

Posted By on Fri, Sep 17, 2021 at 8:26 AM

Newly-built facilities at UC Merced on August 2, 2019. - PHOTO BY ANNE WERNIKOFF, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
  • Newly-built facilities at UC Merced on August 2, 2019.
Free tuition is great, and California excels at that compared to the rest of the country. But with rents sky high, affordable housing has become the chief expense for most students – and relief is harder to come by.

Lawmakers have a plan for that: They’ve poured $500 million into this year’s state budget so that public colleges and universities can build affordable housing or renovate existing property.

The plan – part of a commitment of $2 billion over three years if the Legislature fully funds it – may seem like a massive sum, but the amount of housing the money can build is likely a rounding error in the total need for the state’s students.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts,” said Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor and director of CityLab, an urban design research center.

The housing program that lawmakers approved last week and that is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s expected signature is new – part of the heap of surplus cash in the state budget this year. The governor initially proposed $4 billion for student housing but it got halved during negotiations with the Legislature. The deal:

  • Creates a grant process that colleges apply for, committing 50 percent of the money to community colleges, 30 percent to California State University and 20 percent to the University of California;
  • Caps rents for low-income students at a low percentage of what the median income is in the area. In Los Angeles, monthly rent would be $700 per student;
  • Says the money is meant for full-time students only, which by default excludes most community college students.

If the full-time requirement slows down applications from community colleges, “we can adjust in the future,” said Nancy Skinner, a Democrat and state senator from Oakland who chairs the Senate’s budget committee.

That would require another act of the Legislature to change the terms of the housing program, but she doesn’t rule out that the promise of cheaper rent may compel more community college students to enroll full-time if their campuses take up the money. A full-time schedule means graduating faster, but often students can’t attend that many classes because of work obligations.

The argument for more student housing is a political no-brainer — only one Republican lawmaker voted no on the measure. It “relieves pressure on student housing costs while simultaneously increasing supply around universities and helping to improve housing affordability in these areas in general,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for Newsom’s Department of Finance.

But the housing problem besetting all of higher education boils down to an elementary-school math problem: Building homes for students costs a lot, arguably hundreds of thousands of students need affordable units, and all that adds up to an amount that far exceeds what the state is providing in its housing plan.

Scope of the housing problem

Surveys show that a large number of students lack reliable housing options, which means they live in cars, couch-surf, temporarily reside with family or seek other options that make their lives unstable — a terrible recipe for doing well in school.

More than a third of students reported some version of housing insecurity in California, according to a 2019 survey by the California Student Aid Commission. But that masks the range of strife depending on the student. More than half of community college students in Los Angeles experienced housing insecurity, a 2016 survey found. Community college students are often older and have less income, so their economic and social safety nets are more threadbare. But even at the University of California, 16% of those surveyed were housing insecure and 6% of students who receive federal aid grants because of their lower-income status experienced a bout of homelessness.

The UC had 100,000 beds available for students last fall and expects to create space for 25,000 more by 2025, but the system enrolls 285,000 students. (Though not every student without student housing wants it.)

The scale is big. So is the price tag to house all those students.

Cost to house a single student

It’s hard to calculate how much building a unit of student housing costs. Some measures look at the price per bed, which lowers the average cost because placing three students into a room costs a third of having one student live in a room.

“We don’t have a per-bed cost estimate,” said Palmer of Newsom’s Finance Department.

The Cal State system built enough units to house 12,800 students between 2014 and 2020 at a cost of $1.3 billion, which works out to about $100,000 a bed — a figure that is likely higher today given the drastic jump in prices for building supplies. The system also calculated that it had 17,700 students with “unmet” housing need.

All those figures spell out a cost of $1.8 billion just to build the units Cal State says it needed.

But the fresh round of student housing money from the state commits just 30% of the total $2 billion pot to the Cal State, or $600 million – far less than what’s presumably required to meet student demand.

A housing project at UCLA that’s supposed to deliver 1,159 beds by next year costs a whopping $180,000 a bed. The 20% the whole UC system is to get from the $2 billion pool would fall just short of covering two of those structures.

And it’s possible using figures for dorms underestimates the true cost of the housing students need, said Cuff. That’s because many students are older and with families, especially at community colleges. Those households require more space and amenities, such as kitchens. In that case, the units would be closer in cost to what cities spend on affordable housing, which averaged $425,000 a unit in 2016.

But because colleges could build on land they own, especially community colleges that have more available space, a key expense — buying land — for building homes would go away.

Should community colleges get the most money?

There’s some grumbling within the UC that the system should have gotten a larger share of the state money, in large part because it has a large housing program and can put the money to work quickly.

Lawmakers left the door open to funding a housing plan for students from more than one of the three state systems.

Student housing would be a new enterprise for most community colleges, which typically don’t run dorms. About a dozen of California’s 116 community colleges provide housing, suggesting the system has less experience to get into home-building. The state-funded housing program anticipated that, putting aside up to $25 million that community colleges can use for planning, such as legal fees and engineering studies.

“I highly expect that in the very first year, we will not see as much or as many proposals from community colleges,” Skinner said.

Instead, the plans will come from the Cal States and UCs that have more experience in developing housing.

“Community colleges were all imagined to get housing from their neighborhoods,” said Cuff. But with rents and the price for land soaring, the colleges need to build housing to create community for their students.

It’s also a good use of state money, said Paavo Monkkonen, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Unlike grant money or financial aid, housing is a one-time expense that pays dividends because it can be used repeatedly.

But for sure the state needs more housing, otherwise the units built with this new money may result in a lottery system where only the lucky few get discounted units. “A better system would be one in which there’s a long-term plan to grow the stock sufficiently that everyone that wants to live there, can,” he said.

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