Half a decade ago, Orange County’s city and county officials rallied behind a new strategy to address homelessness:

Build 2,700 units of housing for homeless people with on-site support services – something studies have shown improves people’s lives while reducing overall costs for taxpayers.

Nearly five years later, the county is moving forward on a series of projects, including one in Costa Mesa slated to break ground next month that will convert a Motel 6 into housing for 80 veterans and seniors.

But local officials remain far behind its objectives.

Lagging Behind Housing Goals

So far, OC has finished only about 17% of its permanent supportive housing goal, according to the latest data from the Orange County Housing Finance Trust, the joint city-county agency that coordinates funding for the projects.

As of this week, a total of 479 permanent supportive housing units have been “completed,” while another 608 are under construction, according to the agency’s data.

“That’s great that everyone agrees that we need it. But if the plan is, we’ll have it in 5 to 15 years,” homelessness will only continue to grow by then, said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents homeless people in Orange County.

“We’re well on our way to having another year where the number reduction in homelessness is the same as the number of people who died in the streets this year,” she added.

State leaders have set aside billions of dollars for local governments to convert motels, hotels and other buildings into permanent supportive housing, under a grant program known as “Project Homekey.”

That means money isn’t a barrier anymore to creating the housing, said county Supervisor Katrina Foley, who has met with mayors and city managers in the areas she represents to encourage them to allow motel conversions.

“The money is available if people are ready to go” with projects, she said.

Foley added that officials need to be proactive about identifying properties “so we can pounce when we have funding grant opportunities.”

Encouraging Local Officials to Convert Rundown Motels

The vast majority of the county’s motel conversions are in districts represented by Foley – the only supervisor known to have convened city officials to encourage them to apply for the grants.

Requests for comment were not returned from the other four county supervisors.

The OC Housing Finance Trust’s chairman, Stephen Faessal, provided a written statement noting the agency has received $25 million to fund “1,065 affordable and permanent supportive housing” units.

608 of those are permanent supportive homes currently under construction, wrote Faessal, who also is an elected Anaheim councilman.

Foley said the county “languished for a couple years” before she was elected supervisor in 2021 and convened city leaders in her district.

Before that, “there was no real outreach to my city” of Costa Mesa, said Foley, who was the city’s mayor until she was elected to the county board.

Instead, she said, the county was “reacting instead of outreaching and engaging and creating a proactive plan.”

The five county supervisors oversee much of the state and federal homeless funding in OC.

The county has been working on six motel conversions under Project Homekey grants, totaling 391 units once they’re completed at an unknown date. Three are in Stanton, and one each are in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim.

[Click here for a list of the county motel and hotel conversion projects.]

In cities like Anaheim, Stanton and Costa Mesa, the motel conversion projects have been credited by mayors as making their communities safer by reducing crime and nuisance calls at the motels, while improving the lives of the people who move into the converted motels. 

Santa Ana has also touted successes with its motel conversion projects, known as The Orchard and Casa Querencia, that together house around 125 formerly homeless people.

A view of The Orchard permanent supportive housing project in Santa Ana, as seen from the rear parking area on Dec. 8, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

According to city officials, 97% of residents in both projects during the past year continued to stay in permanent housing.

And based on UC Irvine’s homelessless cost study from 2018, the city says the conversions save taxpayers as much as $21 million per year.

The study cited savings from factors like fewer hospitalizations and arrests when people are stably housed.

Going forward, Foley said, the Project Homekey conversions are “our best bet for expediting permanent supportive housing.”

“Because you’re not building from the ground up,” she said. “You’re renovating.”

Advocates like Weitzman say other parts of the county should step up and host conversion projects if they’re serious about addressing homelessness.

“The thing we have to do if we want to get ahead of [rising homelessness], is get housing and housing projects online this year,” Weitzman said.

This article has been updated to include a statement provided by Stephen Faessel, chairman of OC Housing Finance Trust.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.