How Bay Area Housing Is Failing Veterans And What To Do About It

Bisnow Bay Area
Julie Littman
November 10, 2017

The Bay Area’s housing crisis is putting the squeeze on middle-class families, but the impact is even greater on Bay Area veterans, who have a higher risk of homelessness. Veterans often need more specialized housing solutions that connect them with services that will get them back on their feet.

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“While Bay Area vets are facing some of the same housing price pressures as everyone else, vets are particularly vulnerable if they are disabled or elderly and living on low or fixed incomes,” Eden Housing Senior Project Manager Susie Criscimagna said. Most affordable apartments have a long or closed waiting list, and it could take years or decades for someone to get to the top of the list, she said. At its recently completed development, Valor Crossing in Dublin, Eden Housing received 1,900 applications for 66 units. “Affordable housing in communities throughout the Bay Area helps to ensure that our vets have homes to live in, but unfortunately, the demand currently far outstrips the supply,” Criscimagna said. Two out of five veterans in San Francisco experienced homelessness in 2016, according to a University of Southern California report. About 80% of veterans left the military without a job and more than half of veterans surveyed had signs of PTSD and two-thirds had signs of depression.

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“Veterans too often become homeless after deployment, suffering from physical and mental health issues as a result of their service,” Palo Alto Housing Director of Development Rob Wilkins said. “Veterans experiencing homelessness are more likely to live on the street than in shelters, and often remain on the street for extended periods of time.” The number of homeless vets in San Francisco rose to 684 in 2017 compared to 557 in 2015, but progress is being made. San Francisco has increased its focus on ending chronic homelessness for veterans and it has already started to pay off. The city had 137 chronically homeless vets in 2017 compared to 26 in 2013, according to the most recent San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey. Individuals who have a disabling condition and have been homeless for a year or more or have had four episodes of homelessness in the past three years are considered chronically homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 2017 Santa Clara County Homeless Census reported 660 unsheltered veterans, but this is the lowest count within the last six years. In 2009, there were 866 homeless vets in Santa Clara County. “While the number of homeless veterans across the Bay Area has decreased in recent years, the need for more veteran housing is still stark,” Wilkins said.

What’s Being Done To Keep Vets Off The Streets

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Tackling homelessness, including homelessness among veterans, has become a top priority around the Bay Area, according to Wilkins. San Francisco has been pushing for veteran housing and new supportive housing complexes have been opening up around the city. The Winton Hotel opened in May and offers 42 units for veterans. The recently reopened Crown Hotel on Valencia Street offers 30 units for vets. The city also will open 70 units of supportive housing for chronically homeless vets in November.  “Building more affordable housing in general also helps to open up the supply of housing and ensure that vets have a place to live,” Criscimagna said. Eden Housing worked with the City of Dublin to provide veteran preference for its Valor Crossing project. Veterans are put on the top of the applicant pool so they are not stuck on a long waiting list, according to Criscimagna. Palo Alto Housing recently broke ground on an affordable veterans housing project in Mountain View. The complex will provide 67 units for low-income veterans and households earning 60% of the Santa Clara County median income. It is expected to be completed fall 2018.

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The challenge of veteran homelessness can be overcome through local, innovative engagement activities with the homeless veteran population so they feel more a part of the community, Wilkins said. A recent San Mateo County Stand Down event, which included 50 organizations, provided services to 150 homeless veterans. Best practices like the VA’s Housing First model, which provides a low-barrier supportive permanent housing model, and harm reduction strategies, which aim to reduce negative outcomes associated with drug use, also should be a part of the solution, Wilkins said. “Bay Area cities and developers need to stay actively engaged with the Department of Veterans Affairs and local service providers with the goal of ending homelessness,” Wilkins said.

Creating Service-Oriented Housing Goes Beyond Basic Design

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Developers also are building projects that provide access to services either on-site or off-site nearby. KTGY Architecture + Planning associate principal Jessica Musick said several considerations need to be taken into account when designing an affordable housing project for veterans. Taking advantage of incentives available under the state density bonus law, such as reduced setbacks and open space, and extra building heights and low parking ratios, are an important part of the early planning stages. “It is also important to create an efficient building design that limits structural and mechanical gymnastics so there is the budget to include thoughtful amenities and common area spaces that foster an environment that encourages health and community,” Musick said.

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Design has to consider the placement of shared spaces, such as a community center, a lobby and a courtyard that provide residential services and social interactions that increase resident satisfaction and well-being. “Having a location near transit, neighborhood amenities and additional supportive services also provides an important amenity to the residents,” Musick said. At Eden Housing, on-site services are tailored to low-income residents that help keep some housed and from returning to homelessness, Eden Hous Criscimagna said. Programming includes job readiness training and counseling, computer skills classes, health and wellness such as nutrition classes and smoking cessation, and family programs such as youth activities, literacy development and parenting skills development.

A Challenging Road Ahead?

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Outside of the challenges of creating an engaging community for veterans, funding is among the biggest challenges to build these projects. State, local, federal and private funding is often needed to fully fund these projects and move them forward. On a state level, new laws will make it easier to finance and build more housing for all Californians, including vets, according to Criscimagna. The state’s Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention program also offers loans for building affordable homes for veterans, she said. Changes to tax credits on a federal level are creating concerns, Criscimagna said. The 4% low-income housing tax credit was a key component for financing Valor Crossing in Dublin. The proposed House of Representatives’ tax plan would eliminate the tax credit that provides critical financing for affordable housing, including homes for veterans, she said.