Don’t give up on ‘housing first’

The murder of a resident of the Palms Inn in Santa Rosa this month serves as the tragic capstone of a tough year for local efforts to help homeless residents get into housing. The “housing first” approach favored by local leaders can work, and so can public-private partnerships to implement it, but there’s clearly need for improvement.

The “housing first” model prioritizes getting people off the street with few if any strings attached. Once formerly homeless residents have a roof, bed and access to basic hygiene, they can stabilize. Then they may be more receptive to services for physical and mental health, substance use disorders, education, job skills and whatever else they need.

Not all “housing first” programs are the same, though. The state’s approach was Project Homekey, which helped local governments purchase and rehabilitate hotels and motels to house homeless people. Sonoma County purchased the Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Inn under the program.

The county also uses public-private partnerships to provide housing. Owners receive rent payments, much of the money coming from federally funded housing vouchers, for their tenants. Homeless military veterans have been a particular focus. Local leaders have encouraged property owners with anything from a vacant additional dwelling unit to a hotel to step up and become “Housing Heroes” under the program.

The Palms Inn has housed formerly homeless people, including veterans, since 2016, but as The Press Democrat has documented this year, maintenance and safety issues plagued the facility, culminating in this month’s stabbing death.

Those sorts of problems are not unique to for-profit facilities such as the Palms. The nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County bought a Santa Rosa motel to provide housing, and it, too, has had health and safety issues.

Improving living circumstances at places like the Palms won’t be cheap, but it is necessary. One key is treating the arrangement as one of landlord and tenants, not as a public program. The Palms’ owner is receiving rent. He has an obligation to provide the same sorts of upkeep that any landlord does. Tenants who flout the rules should be subject to eviction.

County inspectors should inspect units at “housing first” sites to ensure they meet health and safety codes. Where they do not, demand timely repairs. No one wants to lose badly needed affordable housing units, but inspectors shouldn’t turn their backs on violations. The county has indicated that it might be able to help some landlords in the voucher program with the cost of repairs, especially where it will open more units. Perhaps that’s an option at the Palms.

Local governments also could expedite some permitting for these sites. The Palms tried to install a security fence, but work was halted for lack of a permit. Security isn’t cheap to begin with. For example, The Press Democrat reported that a canceled security contract for two Project Homekey sites could have cost up to $660,900 for five months. If landlords pay for security, the last thing they need is a bureaucratic delay.

“Housing first” remains a viable approach to addressing the homelessness crisis, but it must evolve. The county and city must learn lessons from early struggles so that more people can be helped off the streets as quickly as possible.