A conversation about the highs and lows of the state program with SF’s Eviction Defense Collaborative.

A digital image of three houses and a house key
Project Homekey has entered its second phase, with $1.3 billion budgeted for fiscal year 2022-2023. (Quiver Watts)

The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to several new streams of funding for housing and homelessness. Among them, the state activated Project Roomkey in March 2020: a program designed to move unsheltered people sick with COVID—as well as immunocompromised homeless people—into motels on a short-term basis. Now Project Roomkey is drawing to a close, and the state has activated Project Homekey in its wake: a grant program that allows agencies in California cities to buy hotels, motels, apartment buildings, and other underutilized spaces to provide longer-term housing for unsheltered people. For example, in September 2020 San Jose was awarded $14,516,000 of Homekey funds to turn a 76-unit property that had been used for temporary housing relief into a permanent residence for its occupants. In Oakland there’s the Temescal Project: a 22-unit motel purchased in December 2020 that is set to be turned into permanent housing with priority for veterans.

The original grant period for Project Homekey ended in December of 2020, but it is being offered again. Going forward, the state is offering $1.45 billion for fiscal year 2021-2022, and $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2022-2023. Based on the average cost per unit acquired using the 2020 Homekey funds, this money should be sufficient to acquire almost 20,000 units statewide. However, recent estimates calculate that over 150,000 people are currently unhoused in California—a number almost ten times greater than the number of units that will be purchased with Homekey funds.

To learn more about Project Homekey, Street Spirit got on the phone with Ora Prochovnick and Tyler Rougeau of Eviction Defense Collaborative—an organization in San Francisco that helps low-income tenants respond to eviction lawsuits. Ora is the agency’s Director of Litigation and Policy, and Tyler is Directing Attorney for the Shelter Client Advocacy Program. 

Whether you’re brand new to Homekey or an expert, this conversation is an opportunity to see how two bright minds in the fight for housing justice see one of California’s newest strategies to address this ongoing crisis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Street Spirit: Do you think the Project Homekey funds will meaningfully change the landscape for houseless people? What kind of impact can we expect this to have?

Ora: I firmly believe that the best way to address the issue of homelessness is to provide people with homes.

To the degree that the program is successful at doing that, I am all in support. I don’t think that [it alone] is enough. You have a much bigger need than you have resources, and this is just a drop in the pool. We live in a society where the basic human need for shelter is intrinsically tied to profit. As long as that is the case we are going to struggle with this challenge.

Street Spirit: It’s my understanding that Homekey allocates one-time grants. It sounds like some organizations aren’t interested in these grants because they don’t provide sustainability. What would you say to that?

Ora: I make the disclaimer that I am not an expert, but the goal of the program is acquisition: to acquire already-existing properties. It’s faster and much cheaper than building new structures. Intrinsically I think that’s a good program. But that’s all the funding is doing. If the agencies are in the business of supportive housing and they don’t have the resources to sustain it, then it isn’t going to be successful.

Street Spirit: The program is California-wide, but it’s got to look different in different towns and cities, right? Is that anything that was coming up in different conversations? How did that play out in the original set of funds?

Ora: I am a proponent of the distribution and control being at the local level because that’s where they know what the needs are. You said it yourself in the way you phrased your question, because the needs won’t present themselves in San Francisco in the way they present themselves in Fresno. Each locality should be given the ability to understand how best to put this money to use to get the local population help.

Street Spirit: In that spirit, looking at the first allocations of Homekey in the Bay Area, what did it look like for both of you as far as how that money was used? Particular highlights? Spots you thought could’ve gone better? What’s the report going into the next phase?

Ora: The greatest negative I heard was the speed—the window of time between announcement and expenditure. The money was awarded in September 2020 and had to be spent by December 2020. This was an extraordinarily tight window of time. In the market for properties suitable for affordable housing, an acquisition cannot be expected to be successful in such a shortened time frame. That is why I believe that allowing more time could have led to a greater number of acquisitions. 

“We are creating the problem at the same time we are trying to address the problem”

Tyler: [San Francisco acquired two properties]. One of them, the Diva Hotel, is now being converted into permanent supportive housing. One had less than 50 percent vacancy when it was still a commercial hotel. Now it is an additional 200 units [of housing], which is a positive. But there are a lot of things that remain to be seen about how those buildings will be transitioned, the effect they will have, and the future properties that will be purchased. 

Street Spirit: If you had a magic wand how would you change Homekey? 

Tyler: Additional money would be needed. Just to have the amount we need to acquire the housing units needed. I would like at the local level that, as people are being offered housing, that those people going into that housing get to have a say in [the housing they are offered]. The housing placement system in San Francisco, and elsewhere, uses the Coordinated Entry system, which we hear from folks frequently is demeaning and frustrating.

For instance, take the folks in San Francisco shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels. If they are fortunate enough to be offered permanent housing, they may get housing that is a great fit for them or they may get housing offers that will not work for them at all. In either case, the placement system is a one-way street. In my view, the system of housing allocation would benefit greatly from active decision-making and input from the people it is aiming to serve.

This is a wish list for how we deal with housing and homelessness, not just Homekey. A mechanism for people to have control over their own lives and getting and staying in housing. Right now Homekey is not set up to do that. Mostly they deal with aggregate numbers. The people working in the system aren’t necessarily the problem. The proposals they make are just often not able to consider actual individuals beyond the data.

Ora: This is not an unsolvable problem. The problem is that we haven’t provided affordable housing to the folks who need it. It would go a long way to have a legitimate census showing how many people need housing, then making that many acquisitions. We’re in this opportune time of post-COVID, or semi-post, with people relocating. There’s a lot of extra office space. Maybe some of those [newly empty spaces] can be converted, and the funds can be used for that. 

We need to provide services as well. A lot of this is done in the name of supportive housing but the support part is seriously lacking. Some of the funding should be in the vein of making sure people can remain housed. Whether that’s really strong social worker experience [or] case management, making sure to meet people’s needs.

Street Spirit: How does Homekey fit into the big picture solution to the crisis of homelessness? 

Tyler: It’s not a magic solution that once we have enough housing that the homelessness problem will be solved. We reinvent the system, year after year, by evicting people and making them unhoused. If we want to tackle the problem at large, acquiring housing is just a necessary step. It’s not sufficient though, because most of the new housing we build excludes people. People come in, buy housing, and turn it into market rate or unaffordable housing for [wealthy] people. If we have that “growth” on one hand and are creating this unaffordability problem on the other hand, it’s a self-defeating process. 

We are creating the problem at the same time we are trying to address the problem. At some point if we want to tackle this problem we have to address the full issue. Eviction protection, which the state is moving toward, and rent caps, which are super popular. We need these sorts of things to tamp down this displacement. 

In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.

Paolo Bicchieri is a journalist, poet, and author living on the coast.