Bramson: When the numbers don’t add up
Homeless advocate Richard Scott at an encampment on the Guadalupe River Creek trail in February 2022. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Since 2015, over 20,000 people have left the streets to find permanent housing in Santa Clara County. Let that sink in for a second. It’s the population of many small cities in California.

How have they found these new homes? It’s a combination of supportive services, rental subsidies, new affordable housing and crisis response. Often, people are able to figure out how to resolve their homelessness on their own or just need basic one-time assistance to overcome an unexpected financial challenge. And for the hardest cases, those struggling with severe physical or mental issues, nine times out of 10 they successfully stay stable, safe and housed over the long term.

You can cut the numbers up any way you like, but the fact remains that we are creating more pathways to homes than ever before for thousands of veterans, families, youth and seniors.

Yet still we see so many people outside everyday on our streets. This is because we live in a place that is out of reach for so many. It’s simple math: if you’re not paying less for rent or making more money, the economic pressures in Silicon Valley will crush you without mercy.

But arithmetic like this doesn’t make for good headlines. The rhetoric machine likes to foment discord with the general public. It’s either that nothing is being done or it’s being done the wrong way. We need to criminalize, blame the individual for their shortcomings, complain about costs, or find a way to protect the community first, which almost always means putting the needs of the most vulnerable people last.

It’s worth noting that the talking heads saying these things tend to have no real experience with the work. They haven’t talked to the people who have struggled to learn what they need and want to truly thrive. They haven’t explored the landscape of what has and hasn’t worked over the past several decades. They haven’t taken the time to consider the detriment that their shortsightedness and base pandering might cause for years to come.

Take affordable housing production for example. Lately, plenty of people have been complaining ad nauseam about the high cost per door to build and how we must do something cheaper and faster. Reasonable points, but if cost is your only measure of value you’ll probably end up getting what you paid for.

And far from the $850,000 apartment price tag you hear about in the news, the reality is smart planning from city and county staff means that for every $1 we spend locally, we’re leveraging that amount four to six times over from state, federal and private sources. Moreover, there’s a measurable return on investment and incredible community benefits created through this practical and fiscally sound approach.

The recent housing allocation of Measure E funds is a revealing way to see what really happens when you put this all together. In June, San Jose awarded $53,050,885 to fund four affordable developments with 443 new homes. On average, that’s less than $120,000 per door, providing incredible value while bringing in $329 million from outside financing.

For this investment, the city gets a 55-year deed restriction on the land, so rents are set and can’t be raised for generations to come. The ground floors of these buildings will become childcare centers and nonprofit office space for community-based organizations serving the needs of the entire neighborhood.

And the developers of these sites also pay millions of dollars in impact fees that will help to improve the conditions of nearby parks and roads. There’s no ongoing costs to the city for keeping these developments open, and the initial public dollars provided are loans — not grants — so the money will come back to the city down the line to fund new future housing developments.

With this type of well thought out approach that absolutely produces a product that makes the poorest people’s lives much better, you have to believe that forces shooting it down either don’t understand the math or simply have other interests at play.

Later this month, an update to the Community Plan to End Homelessness will be released. It’ll share tremendous results in the progress of our partners’ work to end and prevent homelessness. There will be data and narrative detailing the results and how it all has worked. A hell of a lot more still needs to be done because the solution just isn’t at the scale to meet the need, but that doesn’t mean what’s being done isn’t working well.

Sadly, though, none of that will really matter. When you see folks sleeping on the city sidewalks and by the creeks, it just feels like something doesn’t add up. And when some of the people who are supposed to represent our best interest present misleading, repackaged equations to old problems, it’s easy to see why anyone might be tempted to believe that perhaps this time two plus two might finally equal five.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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