Orange County Takes First Step to Spur Homeless Housing

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

County Supervisors (from left to right) Michelle Steel, Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee weigh in on the newly formed OC housing trust fund aimed at building housing for homeless people. March 12, 2018.

Orange County’s homeless residents are one step closer to having individual housing options after county supervisors agreed to sign onto a regional body aimed at creating 2,700 new supportive housing units.

“We have both a housing and homelessness crisis throughout the state of California,” said County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett at the March 12 public meeting.

“Without housing, we’re creating a burden on current and future residents. This is especially true for those suffering from homelessness and those in our workforce who may be one paycheck away from homelessness,” Bartlett said.  

Supervisors unanimously adopted the the Orange County Housing Trust Fund agreement. Cities throughout the county need to approve a similar agreement in order to participate in the trust.  

“I do know that our comments here will be listened to and relied upon by cities. At the end of the day, we need to rely on cities to get projects done,” Supervisor Andrew Do said.

Fullerton Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald said, during public comment, that cities throughout the county are eager to sign up.

“Cities around the county look forward to putting the same item on their agendas for formal approval in the weeks to come,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald is also president of the Association of California Cities – Orange County (ACC-OC), which represents cities throughout the county to lobby the state legislature on policies for its members.

ACC-OC began lobbying the state legislature April 2018 for a regional housing body to help fund 2,700 permanent supportive housing units for homeless people. Supportive housing typically means medical care, mental health treatment, job counseling and a variety of other social services will be provided at the site.  

Former Gov. Jerry Brown, last September, signed the bill required to create the regional housing trust, a Joint Powers Authority (JPA).

Since then, ACC-OC, along with various city managers around the county and County staff, began drafting up the JPA agreement and governing bylaws.

Preliminary numbers from January’s federally mandated Point in Time Count, a biennial homeless headcount, tallied least 3,400 people are sleeping on the streets in OC. A Voice of OC analysis found at least 1,300 additional people are sleeping in homeless shelters throughout the county. Official numbers are expected to released in April.

A 2017 UC Irvine cost study found it’s significantly cheaper to house homeless people rather than leaving them on the streets. The annual cost drops from $98,000 per person to $51,000 — the savings stem mostly from less emergency room visits, arrests and court appearances.

The nine-member housing trust board of directors will consist of five city councilmembers and four county elected offices: a city councilmember from the most populous city in each the northern, central and southern parts of OC; and two more cities will sit on the board, but will have to be picked by a “city selection committee,” according to the bylaws.

Additionally, two County Supervisors will sit on the board and two directors will be picked from the following countywide offices: District Attorney, Sheriff-Coroner, county Assessor, Clerk-Recorder, Auditor-Controller and the Treasurer Tax-Collector.

The housing trust won’t be able to raise taxes, regulate land use, own or operate housing units or override a city to approve a housing project, according to the agreement.

“It gives local control, city control of their own local projects. So this housing trust really speaks to the collaboration we have with the county, not just the County of Orange, but all the cities,” Do said.

Supervisor Doug Chaffee asked why the housing trust couldn’t issue bonds calling them “less risky” compared to a loan.

County CEO Frank Kim, who was involved in drafting up the JPA agreement and bylaws, said the housing trust’s potential members wanted to discuss the possibility of bonds once the board of directors and its committees are seated.

“In terms of why there is limitation on that, in our discussions with all the various potential partners, they wanted to take some time to discuss that … So, that’s why we did identify it in the language of the JPA that future amendments could be proposed that would allow the JPA to issue debt and pursue bond financing,” Kim said. “But the parties wanted to allow the governance committee, once seated, to have that discussion.”

Bartlett said, “We want as much flexibility as possible, so that when you talk about building housing, we have many vehicles to choose from in regard to financing.”

Chaffee also said the private sector should be brought into the housing trust’s board of directors to better help secure private funding.

“If we are to go after private money, it seems to me we ought to have some private entities on the board, otherwise where are you going to start when you start asking for those monies,” Chaffee said, adding United Way — a local nonprofit — can help.

Do said there’s room to add others to the board.

“These are legitimate concerns. So I would say to the desire that we want to get the nonprofit and the private sector involved, there is flexibility to allow for that,” he said.  

The Housing Funding Strategy from OC Community Resources department last June estimated the 2,700 permanent supportive housing units would cost roughly $930 million to build. At the time, there was a funding gap of $353 million to build and an estimated $350 million gap in operating costs and rent subsidies, according to the staff report. Various funding sources reduced the construction funding gap to $252 million and staff are still looking how to close the operational funding gap.

Former electeds and business leaders throughout the county publicly told supervisors and city leaders, last year, the County should apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in state grants and other funding streams that are becoming available this year.

Homeless people aren’t the only ones the housing trust will help.

Residents who are low income to extremely low income residents will also have some new housing units built for them, according to the JPA agreement.

According to the state Housing and Community Development department, people who make 50 to 80 percent of the area’s median income (AMI) are considered low income, people who make 30 to 50 percent are very low income and people who make up to 30 percent are extremely low income.

For OC, low income means a single person makes between $38,300 and $61,328; if a person makes between $22,980 and $38,300, then they’re considered very low income. Anything less than $22,980 is considered extremely low income, according to 2018 affordable housing income guidelines from the state housing department. The threshold numbers increase alongside the number of people in the family.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but I’m happy we’re finally getting started,” Bartlett said. “I believe all of our cities understand that housing affordability is a regional challenge.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.