CLPHA Summer 2015 Membership Meeting Roundup


The Honorable Todd Gloria, a San Diego City Councilman and one-time Interim Mayor – delivered a well-received keynote speech at CLPHA's Summer 2015 meeting on the twin challenges of creating housing for homeless people and affordable housing generally in a city with some of the nation’s priciest real estate. 

Gloria outlined for CLPHA members some of the major problems facing his region. It’s predicted that San Diego County will add a million people over the next 20 years. That will require the city alone to add 88,000 units of housing, half of which will need to be affordable. But the city isn’t close to creating housing at a pace that would allow it to meet that need, he said. And the need is already great. SDHC has a waiting list of 45,000, he said.

San Diego also has a significant population of homeless people. Of the county’s estimated 9,000 homeless individuals, two-thirds are within city limits, he said. That was a reality of which Gloria said he was “ashamed. That’s a tremendous problem for a city that wants to claim itself to be ‘America’s Finest City’ You cannot be ‘America’s Finest City’ if you have thousands of people sleeping outdoors.”

Gloria expressed confidence that the San Diego Housing Commission, of which he was once a commissioner, has the right leader in Richard C. Gentry, executive director, and approach to tackle these two problems.

Leaving the public-housing program in 2007 and becoming an MTW agency gave SDHC the flexibility to innovate to address issues of homelessness and affordability, said Gloria. He admitted he was initially cool to the idea of exiting the federal public-housing program, seeing it as a “Trojan horse” to depart the affordable-housing business. He later came to champion the idea.

“It’s worked out so very well to have local control… of our decisions when it comes to housing. What Rick and Debbie Ruane (SDHC’s Senior Vice President, Real Estate Division)” have been able to do is leverage that to have a stable funding source. And to be able to leverage those properties to create more affordable housing is truly a good news story.”

Gloria credited Gentry for the SDHC’s focus on creating housing for homeless San Diegans. An example of that focus, he said, was the plan Gentry and Gloria proposed in 2014 called Housing First San Diego. The plan calls for SDHC to, over three years, build 1,500 units for formerly homeless individuals. While to critics that might seem an expensive solution, Gloria pointed to a San Diego study that found that placing homeless people in housing reduced costs to taxpayers by 60 percent because of the  reduced volume of 911 calls requiring the dispatch of police or ambulances.

Gloria other message for CLPHA members was on the importance of them taking their message directly to policymakers. “My personal belief is that you really have to be advocating in city halls, state capitals and in Washington D.C.,” he said. “I hate to add to your list of things to do… but your advocacy in those places can be transformational, not just for the programs you administer but for the lives you touch.”

A panel on SDHC’s strategy for trying to significantly reduce the city’s homeless population, emphasized the importance of partnerships in addressing the homelessness challenge which, in San Diego like other cities, is large and complex.

“Partnerships help us to fully leverage all the resources and expertise that are in the community,” said Michael McConnell, a member of the San Diego affiliate of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a national network. “We’ve learned across the country that no one entity can solve this problem… It’s going to take a well-coordinated effort of strategic investments and expertise, investment in infrastructure to decrease the numbers,” of homeless people.

Melissa Peterman, SDHC’s Director of Homeless Housing Innovations, said the commission’s Housing First plan calls for creating 1,500 units over three years to help reduce the number of people living on the streets. The five-point plan includes awarding up to $30 million in development funds through a Notice of Funding Availability that left it up to applicants to suggest the approaches they would try. The plan also includes the commitment of up to 1,500 federal rental-housing vouchers to support the goal; the renovation of the landmark Hotel Churchill in downtown San Diego to add 72 units, the use of MTW funds to acquire a new property to add more units, and SDHC’s dedication of 25 of its existing affordable units toward the goal.

Funders Together to End Homelessness brought “cash to the table” that could be used by organizations applying for development money to “enhance their projects,” McConnell said. It also provided another sounding board in reviewing proposals. 

McConnell stressed the importance of taking risks in fighting homelessness since not every strategy will work. For instance, before joining the Housing First initiative, Funders to End Homelessness had issued its own Notice of Funding Availability that found few takers. His organization wound up rolling that money into the SDHC effort.  

“I think it’s really important to be willing to not get it perfect the first time,” he said. “Just be willing to fail and move forward and learn from those lessons. It’s not the end of the world and it could lead to something even better.”

A panel on portfolio sustainability provided members a chance to discuss the evolving nature of managing their real estate portfolios at a time of continued unpredictability in federal funding and the advent of new opportunities to leverage those portfolios through programs like RAD.

Deborah Ruane, SDHC’s Senior VP, Real Estate Division, and Allen Feliz of TCAM, explained how SDHC’s 2007 exit from the public housing program required the agency to gain a deeper understanding than ever before of its housing assets.

“We knew we needed to become more of an asset management (operation), we needed to bring it in house, it had to become part of our core,” Ruane told members.

To do so, took retraining staff, partly to help change the organizational culture, and incorporating new technology tools that allow SDHC executives to better monitor the performance of their assets and people, both Ruane and Feliz said. “The amount of data that we’re collecting is helping us do everything from decide whether we should keep or dispose of an asset, whether we should reward or counsel an employee, it’s amazing how much we can drill into it.”

Also participating in the session giving the perspective of agencies still participating in the public-housing program were Gail Livingston, Deputy Administrator, Boston Housing Authority; Bobbi Marsells, Assistant Secretary, Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, and Tory Gunsolley, Executive Director of the Houston Housing Authority.

Livingston said BHA in January solicited ideas from beyond the organization on how to best preserve its pubic-housing housing stock in ways not dependent on federal funding. “We received 57 different responses on 38 different properties, which was pretty astounding to us,” Livingston said, adding that the recommendations included using RAD or making available to developers agency-owned land for market rate units to subsidize deeply-affordable housing. Opening up the process so ideas could come from outside the agency was important, she said, to “reinforce our belief that this is not a public-housing problem; this is a community problem… of stakeholders.”  Meanwhile, the need to continue lobbying HUD for replacement vouchers isn’t ended by these newer approaches to sustaining portfolios, she said.

Like other PHAs, Milwaukee has aggressively taken on a developer role, using fees from that to support its public housing, which has become a smaller part of its portfolio as HACM shifts more of its focus to Housing Choice vouchers, Marsells said. It has also dealt with the challenge of its scattered site housing by turning 500 previously HACM resident families into homeowners and selling some units to developers. It has brought on board people with “more private-sector experience rather than public housing since we’re trying to really transition our portfolio into a private sector model.”

Gunsolley said he also saw development as HHA’s near-term answer to maintaining its portfolio. “The first strategy, that we’re implementing right now, is to build our way to sustainability. Because in Texas, it’s a very, very developer friendly state. The tax credit program has very generous developer fees compared to many other states.” Gunsolley said his goal is to build four or five new developments from disaster-recovery funds from 2008’s Hurricane Ike and to use the resulting developer fees to build additional developments.

Dr. Jon Pynoos, one of the nation’s leading experts on the housing needs of seniors, led a panel on the topic that coincided with the release of CLPHA’s new “Aging in Place” publication. Other panel participants were Pilar Sanchez, VP of Housing and Community Development, Housing Authority of the City of Austin; Ed Lowdnes, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Kansas City (Missouri), and Tracey Scott, VP if Strategy and Innovation at the Atlanta Housing Authority. The strategies of their three PHAs are represented in the CLPHA publication. (Links to their presentations are available.) 

Pynoos commended the strategies illustrated in the publication, like PHA efforts to keep seniors connected to healthcare services and to families and friends. He added useful details that CLPHA members took note of. For instance, in talking about the need to upgrade the physical setting, he particularly singled out lighting. “Older people need two to three times more light than younger people,” Pynoos said. “Most of the places we build are underlit. It can lead to problems such as falls.”

He also recommended lower kitchen cabinets and bathrooms with walk-in showers instead of tubs.

A particular area of study for Pynoos has been physical falls, which for seniors can be catastrophic. So he recommended using evidence-based fall-prevention programs like “Stepping On” and “Tai Chi for Better Balance” to improve seniors’ physical strength and mobility.

Enrichment programs, especially intergenerational ones that bring seniors together with younger people for art or other activities, can be very effective in keeping older residents engaged, Pynoos said.

Meanwhile, Pynoos had a surprising suggestion for meeting the transportation needs of seniors – Uber, which is typically viewed as more for Millennials than seniors. “Uber is a less expensive way to get to places. If it can be incorporated into a transportation plan, they’re willing to take people and share rides in a way that you can to places quickly and more cheaply...”

California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins was scheduled to speak to CLPHA but had to remain in Sacramento due to legislative demands, said Deanna Spehn, her special assistant who spoke in Atkins’ place.
Atkins has a long history of advocating for decent affordable housing, a result of seeing so much substandard housing in her native West Virginia and as a San Diego politician, Spehn said. Meanwhile, California is facing one of the nation’s worst housing crises, experiencing disproportionate homelessness and some of the least affordable housing.
With the leadership of Atkins and other officials, California is confronting the crisis and making some progress, however, Spehn said. In June 2014, voters passed a proposition to repurpose $600 million in bond funds to affordable and transitional housing and services for veterans and their families. The state also spent $100 million on housing out of general funds in 2014, a relatively small amount given th size of the state and the need, but it was the first new investment in housing in 14 years. Also, some funds from California’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases are being directed to creating affordable housing.
Meanwhile, Atkins pushed for a package of affordable housing legislation to be included in the budget for FY2016 which began this month. It included bills to increase the state’s low-income housing tax credit by $300 million and to help former prison inmates find housing. Another bill, the most important in the package, Spehn said, would create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing by charging a $75 recording fee on certain real estate transactions, as when loans are taken out against real estate or properties are transferred to new owners without sales. Commercial and real estate sales would be exempted, she said. 

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano provided a first-hand account of the tumult in that city following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while he was in police custody. The riots that followed touched Graziano’s agency, with an arson destroying a tax-credit, senior housing project being built. But Graziano reported that the developer and insurer have committed to rebuilding the development.

Overall, about 300 businesses were destroyed. A third of those were fully insured, a third lacked insurance and a third had “totally inadequate insurance, Graziano said. So the struggle now is to bring this all back. The Mayor has established this initiative called One Baltimore to coordinate the efforts, to get all the different actors: state, city and federal government, the foundation world, community groups, to work together so we can coordinate. The good news is, everybody said: ‘What can we do to help?’ But we have to have a way to organize around that.”

After the rioting came a spike in violent crime, particularly murders, unlike anything seen in many years, said Graziano. Baltimore officials theorize that people selling drugs stolen from pharmacies during the riots have set off turf wars with pre-existing drug dealers and that police, for whatever reasons, are policing much less aggressively. “The real challenge right now is how do we re-engage the police,” while improving Baltimoreans trust in a police department long distrusted in Baltimore’s African American neighborhoods.

The challenge is magnified by Baltimore’s deep poverty – 36 percent of children under age five live in poverty and 84 percent of children in public school get free or reduced lunches, said Graziano who cited a number of other bleak indicators.

Graziano ended on a more positive note, however, showing members a number of newer developments Baltimore Housing either built or under development that are meant to improve the realities for many of his city’s families.

He also told CLPHA members of senior-level White House attention being devoted to Baltimore. There was a White House meeting with top administration officials and members of Maryland’s delegation to Capitol Hill. There is now a weekly meeting to track progress in dealing with the city’s problems. “The White House has been very supportive,” he said.

Maria Velasquez, SDHC’s Vice President, Communications, closed the meeting with a overview of how her agency improved the way it tells the public its story despite living with the budget constraints typical of PHAs.

Video, electronic newsletters, fact sheets and multimedia reports have proven to be very cost-effective ways to communicate, she said. The fact sheets allow SDHC to tailor data already residing on its website for various purposes, including use by HUD officials testifying before Congress. Meanwhile, multimedia reports featuring video have proven useful to reporters across the U.S, she said. For instance, “We have a multimedia report, actually, on creating affordable housing through public housing conversion,” Velasquez said. “The news media appreciates this and also our elected officials appreciate being able to go on our website and look through these reports.”

Velasquez stressed that when she took over SDHC’s communications shop in 2008, her unit relied on a single MacBook laptop. To keep costs down, she also initially relied on interns, students from local colleges with design and multimedia skills. So it doesn’t necessarily take a tremendous upfront investment for a housing agency to improve its communications practices.  She now has more robust technology and a larger permanent staff.

Richard C. Gentry, SDHC Executive Director, said it’s essential for PHAs to step up their communications game: “The way I look at it, there are two kinds of capital in this world, financial capital and there’s political capital. If I have financial capital but I don’t have political capital, somebody’s going to take that money away from me. If I’ve got political capital but no financial capital, we’ll find the money. So which is more important? This is not rocket science. This is simply telling your story” about an agency's effective programs and strategies.

Return to: CLPHA Report -July 14, 2015