Lack of Support for Supportive Housing
Mike Alvidrez (right), executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, with Jennifer Schneider, a resident services coordinator and Jeff Page, a resident at Rainbow Apartments. The 89-unit complex provides supportive housing, which means in addition to beds, residents get services such as rehab programs and job training.Photo by Gary Leonard

Homeless service providers were left scrambling last week in the wake of the federal housing department's announcement that funding for Los Angeles' affordable housing has been cut 13% for this year. The biggest swipe was leveled at supportive housing projects, those that provide otherwise homeless residents a suite of services in addition to a roof over their heads.

Out of the $1.4 billion the Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated to homeless services nationwide for this year, Los Angeles County received about $52.5 million - nearly $8 million less than last year. Most significantly, HUD is not subsidizing any new supportive housing facilities through its Shelter Plus Care program, which are seen as a major force to getting people off the streets.

"These subsidies make or break projects in Downtown - this is ground zero here," said Joseph Corcoran, director of planning and housing development for SRO Housing Corp., which has developed 21 permanent supportive housing facilities in Downtown. "Skid Row is a tough neighborhood and for the individuals who live here, if we are going to keep them in housing, they are going to need that subsidy."

Downtown's two major permanent supportive housing providers, SRO Housing and Skid Row Housing Trust, operate more than 40 permanent facilities in the area, in addition to transitional apartments and emergency beds. The largest facilities include Rainbow Apartments, an 89-unit facility at 643 S. San Pedro St. that opened last year, and the Southern, which has 55 subsidized units and is at 412 E. Fifth St. (see sidebar p. 10).

Permanent supportive housing facilities offer formerly homeless tenants who commonly have mental disabilities subsidized rents in buildings with onsite services like rehab programs, job training or psychiatry. HUD often supplies partial funding for these projects in the form of rental subsidies.

Although the department will continue to fund existing projects, HUD refused to cover seven developments that were proposed to be built this year, housing officials said. Three of those - Skid Row Housing Trust's Cobb apartments and Abbey apartments and SRO Housing Corp.'s Lyndon Hotel - are in Downtown.

"This will really dampen the creation of new supportive housing," said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership, which builds permanent supportive housing throughout the county. "Hopefully we can all get it resolved in a positive way."

Strive for Support

At the Rainbow Apartments, a Skid Row Housing Trust facility that opened last year, tenants live among sunny courtyards and community rooms. Bulletin boards boast fliers for movie nights, game tournaments and onsite Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. A psychiatrist, a nurse and a medical team are available at least once a week. A resident service coordinator works full time with tenants.

To live at the Rainbow, residents must be formerly homeless and suffer from a mental disability. Because of subsidies from HUD, along with low-income housing tax funds, residents only pay 30% of their monthly income, and can stay for an unlimited time as long as they abide by house rules.

"What we have to do is convince people that they don't have to be scared about this type of housing," said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust. "If we can make it work here, then people throughout the county can make it work too."

The idea of permanent supportive housing has been catching on, and now many homeless advocates see it as among the most effective means in getting the chronically homeless off the streets. Its popularity in recent years reflects a shift from the philosophy that homeless people should climb the ranks of transitional housing options before moving into a long-term living situation.

"Up until a few years ago, everybody's focus was on shelters and transitional housing," said Dora Leong Gallo, the CEO of A Community of Friends, which develops permanent supportive housing projects throughout the county. "But, you can only have people there for a limited time, and that means people can get kicked out before they are ready to leave."

In January, a consortium of Los Angeles academics signed a petition declaring permanent supportive housing a priority for ending homelessness, saying not only is it a moral solution, but also less expensive than keeping people on the streets. A 2004 study by the Lewin Group found that it costs the city $30 per night to care for one homeless individual at a supportive housing facility. But costs that accrue from being homeless can be much higher: A night in jail costs the city about $60, and a night in a hospital costs nearly $1,500.

But, Alvidrez said, applying for permanent supportive housing funding is complex. While some capital costs for construction can come from donations, sometimes from nearby market-rate housing developers, the Trust relies on federal and city money to pay for maintaining services and supplementing the reduced rent for the tenants.

Hammering down disparate funding sources from various entities in the city, state and federal government makes permanent supportive housing much more difficult than developing market-rate housing projects, Alvidrez said.

"We are swimming against the current with these kinds of projects," said Molly Rysman, director of special projects for the Housing Trust. "None of these programs are made to support this kind of housing."

More City Money

The cut in HUD funding, announced Feb. 20, was followed last week by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's announcement that he is allocating $137 million toward building 21 affordable housing projects, which will include $54 million for 274 units of supportive housing.

Three permanent supportive housing projects in Downtown will benefit from the city support: the Skid Row Housing Trust's New Carver building, the SRO Housing Corp.'s James M. Wood project, both in Skid Row, and Little Tokyo Service Center's 36th St. Apartments.

As part of what Villaraigosa is calling his "Permanent Supportive Housing Program," the city, in addition to providing money for construction costs, will also fund some project-based subsidies that will help compensate facilities for tenants' reduced rent, a role that HUD usually fills. The consolidation, homeless housing providers say, is a welcomed arrangement.

"From now on we will tailor our projects to go after the city's funding, now that we can't rely on HUD to reinstate its funding," Corcoran said. However, one of the city's requirements may make that tailoring difficult: The funding will only go toward facilities that offer in-room bathrooms and kitchens, which can bump up the costs of converting older buildings into permanent supportive housing projects, officials said.

Additionally, some recent state funding has created new provisions for housing funds: Proposition 63, passed in 2004, provides funding for some support services for the mentally ill, while Proposition 1C, approved last November, allocates $200 million for development of supportive housing statewide.

But even with the new city support, providers say that the lack of HUD funding for new projects will put them in a difficult situation.

"If the city had not had their program with project-based vouchers there would be no new projects for supportive housing this year," said Gallo, whose newest project, the Rayen Apartments in North Hills, is one of the five supportive housing projects that was recommended for receiving the new city funding.

"We thought with this new funding, we would be able to do more projects this year," Gallo said. "Now, it's a wash, not a bonus. And the question is how long will HUD continue to say no new housing for Los Angeles?"

Representatives from Villaraigosa's office, along with homeless service officials, flew to Washington, D.C., last week to try to convince federal officials that the money is necessary to create more permanent housing. So far, officials said, it appears HUD may allocate some funding for the 24-unit Lyndon Hotel, which is already under construction at 417 E. Seventh St.

But HUD spokesman Larry Bush said that the department will not change its allocations for this year. He added that the discussions between HUD and Los Angeles officials are mainly about how to make sure the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, a state-chartered public agency, has better success with next year's bid.

HUD withheld the funding because the department was concerned with the Housing Authority's practices, officials said. HUD has audited and reviewed the Housing Authority multiple times in the last decade; they found deficiencies such as a lack of review of projects and developments not being built within HUD's one-year time allowance. Although top Housing Authority staff were ousted in 2005, officials said that they had thought the situation had since improved.

"Of the 10 problems HUD identified, 80% have been resolved, so we are very confident that within the next 45 days we will be able to resolve 100% of the findings," said Lourdes Castro-Ramirez of the Housing Authority. "HUD is working with us to provide the proper support and guidance to rectify concerns they have had with the department over the last nine years."

Everybody's Responsibility

Even though supportive housing projects have been open around the county for years - with many coming online in the 1980s - the city and county are pushing harder than ever to open more facilities and disperse them throughout Los Angeles, not just in Skid Row.

According to a study by Shelter Partnership, the Ninth Council District, which encompasses much of Downtown, has nearly 4,000 beds for homeless people, about 40% of the beds in the city.

"There are many projects in Downtown, and that's because the housing stock is there," said Schwartz from Shelter Partnership. "There are SROs to rehabilitate and turn into this kind of housing, and it is where the most homeless people reside and also where the city made a commitment to improving housing stock."

Still, some organizations have tried to disperse their facilities throughout the county in an effort to decentralize services from Skid Row, and to give homeless people a choice about where they live. A Community of Friends makes it a point not to build in Downtown at all.

"There are already good developers in Skid Row and their mission is very specific to that boundary," said Gallo. "Also, we believe very strongly that homelessness affects everybody regardless of geography."

Explaining 'Affordable' Housing

Complexes Often Mix Incomes and Service Levels

Permanent supportive housing is just one form of housing for people who are formerly homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and those with mental or physical disabilities, addictions or who live below the poverty line. Some types of housing offer units integrated with market-rate residents, have offsite services or are specific to a certain segment of the population. Most of these types of housing are found in different facilities in Downtown Los Angeles.

Permanent Supportive Housing: Created primarily for formerly homeless people or those with extremely low incomes who are dealing with a mental or physical disability or a substance abuse issue, permanent supportive housing facilities assure access to comprehensive support, almost always onsite. This often includes a fulltime case manager and services such as Alcoholic Anonymous, job counseling and life skills. Sometimes medical teams and nurses are also available. Tenants are allowed to stay in the units as long as lease arrangements are followed, and rents are subsidized by city or federal funding.

Special Needs Housing: Another important and popular solution to keeping individuals and families off the streets, Special Needs Housing is for people with mental or physical disabilities, substance abuse issues or those living with HIV or AIDS. Units may be in an entirely subsidized building or scattered throughout market-rate housing facilities. Programs such as Beyond Shelter obtain affordable units in buildings also occupied by market-rate residents in an effort to give low-income tenants a choice as to their community. Programs and support services are not usually located onsite and residents with special needs are linked to community services such as recovery programs, crises intervention and life skills.

Service-Enriched Affordable Housing: This is housing for people with low incomes, but not necessarily on the verge of homelessness, including families, elderly people and couples. Typically, units will be in a fully affordable building targeted to low-income households with some onsite services. New Economics for Women offers this type of housing primarily for low income singles. Their facilities have onsite programs and classes such as child care and financial management, as well as after-school tutoring.

Housing for Older Adults: This encapsulates a broad range of housing. Typically, the term implies low income senior housing, restricted to people over age 62 and has some service component and some staffing,

Information is based on definitions provided by the Housing Plus Services Committee of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, along with help from Paul Zimmerman of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing.

Contact Kathleen Nye Flynn at kathleen@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 3/12/2007

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