Change you can live in?

Inauguration Issue: New stimulus plan falls short on housing money

If you ask San Franciscans about the most pressing issues facing the city, homelessness and affordable housing are always near the top of the list. While this city's housing problems are particularly dramatic, homelessness is on the rise across urban America. And in nearly every big city, public housing projects are crumbling, suffering from years of federal neglect.

But you wouldn't know that to look at the latest stimulus package coming out of Washington, DC.

The proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, introduced Jan. 15, contains only $16 billion for affordable housing. That's about half what advocates had sought — and a tiny fraction of what's really needed.

The bill has the affordable housing community shaking its collective head. "Unfortunately, the news right now is not good. This first pass at the stimulus bill is not encouraging," Matt Schwarz, president of the California Housing Partnership, a San Francisco–based nonprofit working to expand affordable housing stock throughout California, told us.

Will President Obama, who barely mentioned homelessness during the campaign, look at affordable housing as a priority? Most housing activists say they're cautiously optimistic. But some are starting to sound the alarm.

"I think, when it comes to political clout in DC, poor people and their allies are still in trouble," said Paul Boden, director of the San Francisco–based Western Regional Advocacy Project, a group that focuses primarily on homelessness issues. "It was disheartening to go to the Obama [transition team] Web site and find ... a very miniscule mention of homelessness — and it's under 'veterans.'<0x2009>"

City officials are looking at the bright side. "Most people would agree that there's been very little new money available at the federal level for affordable housing [in the past eight years]," Doug Shoemaker, director of the Mayor's Office on Housing, told us. Shoemaker expects that to change under the Obama administration, especially with the pick of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan as US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, whom he characterized as "an incredible leader who really understands homelessness and affordable housing."

Olson Lee, deputy director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, sounded a similar note. "We're looking forward to an administration that cares about affordable housing," he said. Projects like the Hunters View reconstruction project, which would restore a dilapidated public-housing complex in the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood, tops the list of projects that would shift into gear again if new federal dollars are made available, Lee noted.

But while city agencies seem to have high hopes for federal dollars that could be headed to San Francisco under the new administration, many grassroots-level affordable housing advocates are more cautious.

Longtime affordable housing activist Calvin Welch pointed out that there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the allocation of federal funding under the economic recovery package. "The first test is, does the Obama administration view affordable housing — especially affordable rental housing in cities — as a priority?"

From Welch's perspective, the answer appears to be yes. But he added that no affordable housing practitioners were named to Obama's transition team. And in San Francisco, a pending blow to health and human services due to local and state budget cuts will bring about more distress linked to housing issues.

"When those health and human services are reduced, the effect is an increase in the homeless population, or at least the temporarily unhoused population — a population with very challenging housing needs, which is at extreme risk," Welch told us.