It’s important all year, but the concept of “home” seems to be everywhere as we approach the end of the year. In the coming weeks, Americans across the country will return to the place they call “home,” invite friends and family to join them, and gather in their houses for the holidays. In fact, for the last 10 years the fall season has even begun with Housing America Month, which underscores the importance of supporting the public resources that strive to put safe housing within everyone’s grasp.
It’s especially easy at this time of year to believe that all of us will experience “home,” but numbers tell a different story. Across the country, nearly 650,000 people will sleep on the street on any given night. And Santa Barbara is not immune; in the 2017 Point in Time Count, volunteers identified 790 homeless residents within the city limits alone.
Housing America Month recognizes the power that public housing, which provides a home to more than 2.3 million people, and other affordable housing programs have to battle this epidemic. Unfortunately, these important resources are not receiving the attention they need.
Because Congress has woefully underfunded the Section 8 program — which provides rental assistance funds for seniors, the disabled, and low-income families — no new vouchers have been issued since February. This accounts for the biggest challenge to the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara. Without that support, our wait list for residents looking for affordable housing has reached six to seven years. And the delay is only growing.
The residents in need of a compassionate hand up include the people we interact with each day, such as retail clerks, receptionists, and many others. They are often forced to live in substandard homes and must commute hours each day to make ends meet. It is unacceptable.
It is a challenge, but we are not helpless. As a result of the California Legislature’s housing package of bills recently signed into law by Governor Brown, local jurisdictions will begin receiving a new permanent source of funds for affordable housing and they will have the ability to implement new tools. Among them is inclusionary housing, which requires developers of rental housing to offer a percentage of their units as affordable housing. The state also recently approved accessory dwelling unit legislation that will make more housing possible locally. Santa Barbara will need to carefully consider these new tools and implement what makes sense to promote new affordable housing. I encourage everyone in our community to support measures — from federal to local — that make sense for Santa Barbara.
We are proud to also be introducing some relief in the form of Grace Village on upper State Street in 2018. When finished, this will be home to 57 low-income seniors. We are also in the planning stages for a 17-unit development for homeless veterans on East Carrillo Street. But as has become customary, this project is facing ongoing funding challenges because of an overburdened Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.
With budgets tight, we are always looking for new ways to address our housing needs. Recently, we celebrated the graduation of 13 people from our Family Self-Sufficiency program, which helps move families off of government assistance and become more independent. More than 290 individuals have graduated from this amazing program to date, and 46 of them have gone on to become homeowners.
During this season that emphasizes being home, consider what you can do support this vital need, such as contacting representatives about the importance of affordable housing. If you are able, get to know the local organizations and nonprofits involved in housing or homelessness by volunteering any time of the year. While there may not be one single act that can change this situation overnight, it is an issue that we can battle together.
Rob Fredericks is executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara.