Roberts: Cheaper housing: another method or a new paradigm?
First Community Housing's Second Street Studios in San Jose is pictured in June when 150 homeless residents moved in.

All throughout California, everyone is talking about how we need to create cheaper housing for people who are homeless. As homelessness increases throughout the state, and millions and millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in homeless services and housing, the people who paid those taxes are losing their patience.

The media has picked up on what most of us are seeing. Earlier this month, USA Today published a story titled “Some of Los Angeles’ homeless could get apartments that cost more than private homes.” The story was written after an L.A. City Controller audited the city’s investment in building housing for people who are homeless. He found that the average cost of a supportive housing unit was $531,373, while the median price of a market-rate condo was $546,000.

Years ago, after we had finished building a supportive housing development in downtown San Diego, I opened my Redfin real estate app on my iPhone only to find that market-rate condos were selling for cheaper than the cost of our apartments.

Here in San Jose, we are finishing construction on a supportive housing development for people who are homeless with an average apartment cost of $477,000. It’s lower than Los Angeles, but still an expensive price tag for a small studio or one bedroom. Sure, the median cost of a home in San Jose is $991,000. but the median price per square foot for a home is $630. That means if I buy a 400 square-foot condo in San Jose – the typical size of a supportive housing unit for a homeless person – the median price should be $252,000, way lower than our $477,000.

So, do we need a new method in this fight – a new, cheaper way of building housing? Here are my five perspectives on building that new method.

First, simply building cheaper housing is not a new idea. Decades ago, when I was in architecture school, I studied how countries were developing more affordable housing. Back then, homelessness was not a crisis and supportive housing was non-existent, but poverty was still prevalent.

In the 1980’s, the new and innovative themes in cheaper housing were utilizing construction materials that were local and indigenous; modular designs, and units designed to be able to change as people’s (and families’) lives changed (i.e., a floor plan that could be transitioned for a young couple, to a large family, to retired empty-nesters). These themes were effective then and they can be effective today.

Second, you want cheaper housing? Build it forty years ago. In 1980, the average price of a home was $47,200. In 2000, it was $119,600. Today the cost is $199,200. I’m not proposing a time machine that would allow us to build with 1980’s costs, but I am emphasizing the urgency of building now. The longer we wait, the higher the cost.

Third, ensure that short-term housing solutions are linked to building long-term housing. Local policymakers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into building shelters and navigation centers as a response to our state’s homeless crisis. But can these resources create long-term solutions? Like, buying land for shelters today, that will be converted to long-term supportive housing units tomorrow, or building structures that can be converted to apartment units later.

Fourth, design for people, not planning codes. Nowadays, we create studios for one person, one bedrooms for couples, and multiple bedrooms for families. But we should look at the needs of the people we are housing. Some people are struggling with PTSD or have families, and need larger and more open apartments. Other people are able and willing to live in a smaller-unit, or a shared-housing apartment (i.e., four bedrooms and shared living and kitchen), thereby housing more people in the same sized building.

Fifth, don’t just focus on innovative housing, but also innovative funding sources. Even if we can reduce the cost of building housing by 20% or even 30%, we still need sufficient resources to fund a housing gap that we have neglected for decades.

I think the “haves” (people who own homes) should be helping the “have-nots” (who don’t have homes). That means institutionalizing statewide fees on property taxes, real estate transactions, utilities bills, construction materials and home appliances that go toward a permanent long-term fund that invests in supportive and affordable housing.

We certainly need to continue to re-look at how we develop new methods and solutions in the short-term, but more importantly, we also need to change the paradigm and our longer-term approach toward building enough homes for all Californians.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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