Hotels for the Homeless Winding Down… Maybe 

While the mayor and supervisors prepare to battle on the shelter-in-place hotel program, the city has a chance to restructure its homelessness policy.

At the beginning of the pandemic, with tourism all but gone, and congregate homeless shelters emptied out to prevent viral transmission, city officials put two-and-two together with the shelter-in-place hotel program. 

But over the past month, Mayor London Breed and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) have said they are gradually winding down the SIP program, which currently houses about 2,300 people experiencing homelessness in hotel rooms. What followed was a reprise of this spring’s conflict over the number of hotel rooms the city should — or could afford to — lease, pitting the mayor and the Board of Supervisors against each other, while the fate of unhoused San Franciscans hung in the balance. 

After the mayor’s announcement of the SIP program’s end, and a hearing in which homeless service providers said they could not rehouse people as fast as the city planned, members of the Board of Supervisors announced legislation that would stop the closure of the hotels, mandate that all current hotel residents be moved into permanent housing, and allow new unhoused residents to move into the hotels as rooms become vacant. In response, the mayor pledged to slow down the closure of the hotels, after initially promising that as many of 500 people would be moved out by the end of the year. HSH also reversed its initial plan of moving some hotel residents into congregate shelters and outdoor safe sleeping sights, instead pledging to move every hotel resident into permanent supportive housing. 

A homeless man carries his sleeping bag and belongings around his shoulders on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

Whether the board’s or the mayor’s vision — or, most likely, something in between — wins the day, a lot of complicated pieces are going to need to fall into place, fast. But in that maelstrom, there’s a chance the city could begin to reinvent its approach to homelessness, and ultimately provide a lot more housing, a lot more quickly, than it ever has before. 

“This was always meant to be temporary,” Abigail Stewart-Kahn, head of the Department of Homelessness, said at the Nov. 10 hearing, “I’m going to be very candid that this is both one of the biggest opportunities and one of the biggest challenges our city has ever faced in the homlessness space.”

Time and Money 

The SIP hotel program has been widely credited with reducing the city’s coronavirus infection and mortality rates, especially among older and more vulnerable populations. But the program was never as big as the supervisors hoped. In the spring, the board unanimously passed an ordinance requiring the city to lease over 8,000 hotel rooms, more than 7,000 of which would be for the homeless. The Mayor and HSH ignored that order, calling it unrealistic, and instead leased about 2,600 hotel rooms, mostly for elderly people or people with underlying medical conditions.

Now, as Mayor Breed seeks to wind the program down, progressive members of the Board of Supervisors are hoping to keep it going, arguing that the SIP hotels are more important than ever.

Protesters left signs on Mayor London Breed’s door in Lower Haight on April 30, 2020. Photo by Nuala Bishari

“There is no reason to dismantle this critical cost effective public health intervention, in the middle of a surge in the virus, in the cold rainy season, without a clear plan for the health of thousands of mostly elderly, vulnerable people in the hotels now,” Supervisor Matt Haney said in a statement announcing the ordinance he is co-sponsoring with Supervisors Dean Preston, Shamann Walton, and Hillary Ronen. 

At the Nov. 10 hearing, homelessness service providers agreed that the city’s proposed timeframe for moving everyone out of the SIP hotels by the end of June was unrealistic. “The aim to rehouse 2,400 people in eight months is just short of implausible,” said Joe Wilson, executive director of the homelessness outreach non-profit Hospitality House. 

Stewart-Kahn said that no hotel resident will be sent back to the streets, congregate shelters, or outdoor safe sleeping sites. (As part of an ongoing policy, the city will offer free one-way bus tickets to homeless individuals who wish to go live with a friend or family member.) While Stewart-Kahn conceded that the city is willing to extend the timeframe for winding down the SIP hotels, she argued that the process of moving people out needs to start now, and proceed with “urgency.” “We need to be able to move people into stability,” Stewart Kahn said at the hearing. “Our collective resources are better spent on housing than on hotels that are expensive.”

This is the confusing part, because these hotels are very expensive — but not necessarily for the city itself. SIP hotel rooms cost around $8,000 each per month, and the program as a whole costs between $15 and $18 million per month, or about $178 million per year. The hotel rooms are much more expensive than rental apartments. 

However, the city’s contribution is likely going to be just a small fraction of the total cost, as FEMA reimburses the city up to 75 percent for the hotel rooms, and state programs contribute as well. With all these subsidies, the city will spend just $3 million on the program on an annual basis, according to city controller Ben Rosenfeld.  

Homeless people hang out along Taylor Street in the Tenderloin on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

At the hearing, Rosenfeld said he felt better about the continuation of the FEMA money, which is renewed on a month-to-month basis, after Joe Biden was elected president. But he emphasized that at some point, that money will stop flowing, and that the city, with its major fiscal issues, won’t be able to continue the program on its own. 

“To continue that program without these emergency resources would be financially crushing to the city,” he said. 

Supervisors disagree, arguing that funding sources like 2018’s Prop C, money from which is just now becoming available, and federal stimulus funds could be leveraged to preserve the program at least in part. Details on their proposals’ funding sources and specific provisions have yet to be released. 

Making More Hay 

Much of the frustration coming from the Board of Supervisors on this issue appears to stem from a lack of communication from the Mayor’s Office. 

“What I am feeling frustrated about is that this decision was made without consultation of this Board, in complete contradiction to legally passed legislation by this Board,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at the hearing. She and other board members spoke to the continued lack of trust following the mayor and HSH’s decision not to adhere to the Board’s direction to lease over 8,000 hotel rooms. 

Yet another issue in play is that the city still does not have all of the permanent supportive housing units it will need to house everyone currently staying in SIP hotels. That will be contingent on the execution of Mayor Breed’s homelessness recovery plan, announced in July, to lease or purchase 1,500 supportive housing units over the next two years. It would be the largest expansion of the city’s supportive housing stock in two decades. 

That effort has already begun through the state’s Project Homekey, which enabled the city to purchase the Granada Hotel, a 232-room SRO, and the 130-room Hotel Diva, for permanent supportive housing. The homelessness recovery plan will also include units subsidized by the private philanthropy Tipping Point Community. 

Photo courtesy of Corey Browning/Special to S.F. Examiner

And while the city has pledged that SIP hotel residents will not be moved to safe sleeping sites, supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Sandra Lee Fewer have proposed legislation that would require the city to provide enough space at such sites for everyone currently living on the street. 

San Francisco, notably, has been a lot more amenable to increasing its stock of permanent supportive housing than other cities in the Bay Area and throughout California. Novato and Milpitas both recently turned down state funding to purchase hotels for the homeless, although it appears a court order will ensure the Milpitas project goes through.  

The city has also kept up its Shelter-In-Place hotel program longer than its Bay Area peers. KQED recently reported that at least 2,300 unhoused people have exited SIP hotels in seven Bay Area counties, not including San Francisco, and that only 15 percent of them have moved into permanent supportive housing. 

But even if Mayor Breed and HSH’s plans are more ambitious than what’s happening in other counties, the numbers still don’t add up: 1,500 permanent supportive housing units in two years cannot house the 2,300 SIP hotel residents in the proposed seven-month wind-down period, let alone the many other people still living on the streets. 

That’s where the Supervisors are pushing for answers and accountability, while simultaneously working to find ways to make the mayor follow the laws they’ve passed. It’s a heightened version of the dynamic moderates and progressives have exhibited in the past, with moderates like Mayor Breed pushing for fiscal responsibility and progressives pushing to extract as many resources as possible for the most vulnerable. 

Signs for hotels and other businesses line Ellis Street near Union Square on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

This time around, however, the subject of debate is people, and their ability to keep themselves safe and healthy during an extraordinarily difficult time. 

But out of all this uncertainty, there could be promising opportunities to positively impact more unhoused people’s lives. While everyone from Supervisor Ronen to homelessness service providers to HSH director Stewart-Kahn acknowledged that leasing hotel rooms is not a long term solution, the SIP hotel program proved that the city can move quickly to mobilize its existing resources. 

San Francisco has a lot of people experiencing homelessness and a lot of hotels — and not all fancy ones, either. And even in a time of fiscal austerity, the city also has a growing array of funding sources, from Prop C, to the tax measures passed this year, to private philanthropies like Tipping Point Community. Last year’s COPA Act provides more opportunities for non-profits to purchase and preserve very low-income housing, while Prop I creates new financial incentives for large property owners to sell to the city or non-profits. 

The net result could be a move from building permanent supportive housing to buying it. That could provide a lot more housing faster, cheaper, and with less community opposition than ground-up projects. 

Now, the challenge for the mayor and the supervisors is not just putting the pieces together, but working together. 

Related Stories