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San Francisco’s Homeless Housing System Is Like a Conveyor Belt, and It’s Stuck

A new collaboration tries to dislodge hundreds of desperately needed housing units.

The Drs. Julian + Raye Richardson Apartments in Hayes Valley have 120 units available to formerly homeless people—but new residents can only move in when current residents graduate to other housing.


It’s long been said that the biggest obstacle to solving San Francisco’s homeless crisis is a lack of available homes. Considering that it costs a developer at least $400,000 to build a single unit of housing in this most expensive of American cities, the supply-demand problem makes an obvious culprit. But there’s another way to house the homeless, one that doesn’t involve the costly and lengthy construction of new buildings. The city already oversees thousands of units of supportive housing—i.e., housing that includes on-site social services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, which are needed by the most vulnerable people, including the homeless. After they have stabilized, a process that can take months or years, many supportive housing occupants no longer need such intensive (and expensive) support, and are ready for more independent living situations—generally market-rate apartments paid for by federal Section 8 housing vouchers, often located in better parts of the city than the gritty neighborhoods where most supportive housing is located. Every time one of those supportive units is vacated, it frees up space for a currently homeless person to move in. For the system to run properly, it has to function like a conveyor belt. But in San Francisco, for a variety of reasons, that belt has been jammed. According to homeless service providers, the city has chronically failed to provide supportive housing tenants with suitable and affordable exits into market-rate housing, even when they are more than ready to do so. 

But an innovative new program funded with $1.2 million by the philanthropic foundation Tipping Point Community, as part of its recent $100 million commitment to fighting homelessness, is trying to get the system moving again. The program, called Moving On, is run by a nonprofit called Brilliant Corners in collaboration with two San Francisco city agencies—the new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHSH) and the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA). Moving On’s goal is to usher 600 people out of supportive housing and into market-rate housing over a three-year period. To build that many units from scratch would cost close to $300 million. Brilliant Corners and its partners believe they can rent those units for a fraction of the cost.  

For decades, the city and its nonprofit partners have been trying to kick the conveyor belt into action, but despite their best efforts, they have seen little progress. The main reason for the failure, say homeless policy experts, has been the city’s inability to convince enough landlords to take a chance on renting to tenants who were graduating out of supportive housing. Since its founding in the mid-2000s, Brilliant Corners has sought ways to incentivize landlords to take the gamble on housing-vulnerable populations. To do this, the nonprofit essentially acts as real estate brokers for the poor, bringing a knowledge of housing markets and a fluency in the bottom-line language of property ownership that’s relatively rare in the homeless service-provider world. In a city where high-level real estate machinations usually end up driving prices up and poor people out, this dynamic—of free-market logic being used for altruistic purposes—is a happy irony.

The process, which requires deep and ongoing collaboration between city and nonprofit staffers, supportive housing tenants, and private landlords, works like this. The DHSH asks tenants if they’re interested in moving to a more independent setting. It then evaluates those who say they are interested, checking whether they’ve paid their rent on time, have been otherwise satisfactory tenants, and have not committed certain violent felonies, among other preconditions. Once approved, the tenants are sent to the SFHA, which provides them with federal housing vouchers for Section 8 housing. So far, this is the same approach that the city has used for years, with meager results. The problem has always been the same: The prospective tenants, often going it alone in San Francisco’s dog-eat-dog rental market, simply can’t find landlords willing to rent to them. Homeless housing veterans say that getting such tenants into privately owned Section 8 housing has been almost as onerous as landing them in publicly owned Section 8 housing projects, which have years-long waiting lists.   

This is where Brilliant Corners comes in. The nonprofit wears two very different hats: It’s a social-work institution that provides clinical and other support to extremely vulnerable populations, and it’s also a de facto real estate brokerage. Wearing the latter hat, it wins over landlords by speaking their language. “We try to up the level of professionalism,” says Bill Pickel, the nonprofit’s executive director. "I don’t want to make it sound like I’m condescending to our wonderful social workers, but we try not to present a social worker face to the landlord community.” 

A team of housing resource specialists, whose sole job is to find landlords, educates them about the nonprofit and its clients, and gives them step-by-step guidance on navigating the supportive housing and Section 8 system. Then, they convince and cajole landlords to rent to them. Using these methods, Brilliant Corners has succeeded in finding scattered-site housing for thousands of vulnerable, often formerly homeless people across the state. After the organization found housing for 120 former residents of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, in 2014 it won a contract with the city and county of Los Angeles to run an $18 million program called the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool, through which it has secured more than 2,000 units for formerly homeless people and high users of social services. This track record is why DHSH head Jeff Kositsky endorsed them, and Tipping Point funded them.

In San Francisco, Brilliant Corners’ pitch to landlords became a lot more attractive after the housing vouchers’ value, which ostensibly reflects market-rate rental prices but had been absurdly low, was raised 30 percent in January to $2,652 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. That’s still well under the average $3,448 rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco, but it’s close enough to at least make a negotiation possible, especially on properties in less-desirable parts of the city. Brilliant Corners sweetens the deal further by offering landlords a range of cash incentives (the amount varies by neighborhood) and, if necessary, paying the rent on a property to hold it while Section 8 paperwork is finalized. Both of these costs will henceforth be covered by Tipping Point. 

Perhaps more important than financial incentives is the fact that Brilliant Corners offers landlords 24-hour, on-call support. “Say there’s an individual who’s playing his music loud at 2 in the morning,” says Heather Shepherd, Moving On’s program director. "We’re going to go out there and talk to him, say, ‘What does it mean to be a good neighbor? What can we do differently? Can we get you some headphones?’” For property owners or managers leery of taking on people with problematic histories, knowing Brilliant Corners is committed to providing such support is a big selling point.

But not all landlords are motivated solely by practical or bottom-line concerns. “There are a lot of good landlords out there,” says Barry Benda, Brilliant Corners’s housing director. “They’re motivated by feeling that they’re doing the right thing. We’ve had a couple of situations where the amount of rent was a couple hundred dollars more than the payment standard of the housing authority, and we’ve actually seen them take less rent, when they realize, “I’m doing a good thing here, I’m helping somebody.’”

But the landlord side of the equation isn’t the only challenge for program organizers. Before the Moving On initiative was launched in December 2016, no one involved was sure how many people would even apply. A 2014 city controller’s report found that the main reason people weren’t transitioning out of supportive housing was that “they have no inclination to move.” Inertia, the continued need for services, and a “golden ticket” mentality, were all cited as impediments, in addition to the shortage of available units to move into. “We thought, gosh, maybe folks won’t be interested, we’re going to have to drag them kicking and screaming out of their supportive housing units,” says Pickel. Fortunately, the opposite was the case. “There was a lot of built up desire.”  

The response was overwhelming: Close to 400 people applied, and 120 are currently in the program, of whom 13 have already been housed, with 23 more in the pipeline. The apartments are located throughout the city, from the Sunset to the Bayview to the Mission and downtown. (Brilliant Corners is working with single adults; a parallel campaign run by Hamilton Family Center is aimed at families in supportive housing.) 

DHSH head Jeff Kositsky wasn’t surprised at the response. “I used to run supportive housing for many years, and I’ve seen people come in off the streets who you would never imagine are going to get better, but people get better,” he says. “They address physical disabilities, mental health issues, substance abuse issues. It takes some people a couple of years, and it takes some people 10 years. But people get better and some people are able to move on. That’s where this program comes in. And it’s great.”


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