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2 measures would raise record-breaking $6 billion for affordable housing
Chronicle Editorial Board
Two years after voters approved billions of dollars to fund low-income homes around California, affordable-housing advocates are upping the ante big-time — with two statewide bond measures on the Nov. 6 ballot to raise a record-breaking $6 billion for housing for struggling families, veterans and severely mentally ill people.
If they pass, the two measures would generate the most money ever approved by statewide voters for affordable and supportive housing in California.
So far, no organized opposition has emerged for Proposition 1, which would create a $4 billion bond for loans, construction and preservation of rental housing for families and loans to veterans for the purchase of homes and farms.
Neither is there any organized campaign against Proposition 2, which would divert $2 billion from the state’s 14-year-old Mental Health Services Act — the 1 percent tax on millionaires created by Proposition 63 — toward building supportive housing for people with severe mental illness who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.
Proponents are so optimistic about the two bonds, plus six similar local measures in the Bay Area that would raise an additional $1 billion total, that they are calling this “The Year of Affordable Housing.” Both need just over 50 percent approval to pass — and the same advocates were key to 2016’s passage of $3 billion in local affordable housing taxes and bonds throughout the state.
Proponents so far have raised about $3.4 million for campaigns for both measures.
“The housing and homeless crises are inextricably linked, and this would be the first significant statewide investment of any kind in a very, very long time in trying to solve this crisis,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, a major supporter of both bonds. “It would be historic.”
He said that 10 years ago, the state spent $1.7 billion more annually than it does now for the type of funding Proposition 1 would generate — but that was erased by the recession, the expiration of several multi-billion-dollar state housing bonds and the elimination of billions of dollars in yearly statewide redevelopment money.
“The failure of the state to fund this type of housing has really made this necessary,” Chiu said.
Amie Fishman, head of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, said the 2016 measures passed in Alameda and Santa Clara counties alone are already funding more than 2,000 affordable housing units, but that was just a start that needs to be capitalized upon. Studies show that more than half of all Californians spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on rent — and San Francisco, according to the financial advice site Walletwyse, has the highest average rent in the nation, at about $3,500 a month.
“We have seen this kind of funding, this kind of housing work, and it’s obvious where we need to go,” Fishman said. “This type of housing is our future. This is our time.”
Fishman said Proposition 1 would pay for 50,000 low-cost homes for several categories of people including those with incomes of 60 percent or below of the area median income, and Proposition 2 would build 20,000 supportive housing units, which means housing with counseling on-site to help people with mental, drug or other challenges.
About one-third of all those homes are expected to be built in the Bay Area, and one of the more enthusiastic supporters of that prospect is San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
“If we are going to make housing available for all income levels, we need these,” she said. “And it’s not just about San Francisco — it’s about the whole state.”
Mental health and homelessness are so intertwined that it is only logical that state money earmarked for treating people with mental illness also go toward housing those same people, say proponents of Proposition 2 — even though housing was not included in the Mental Health Services Act’s goals when it passed in 2004.
A major supporter of Proposition 2 is Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-authored the actwhen he served in the Assembly and told The Chronicle back in 2004 before it passed that he wanted it to fund housing in addition to services. This new measure is meant to rectify the failure of that intent to be adequately articulated, he said.
“Homelessness is often a symptom of untreated mental illness,” he said, and treating mentally ill street people is infinitely harder if they have no roof. “I finally decided it was time to amend Prop. 63 for this — the issue of homelessness throughout California has become a top-tier priority.”
All told, the Mental Health Services Act tax raises roughly $2 billion a year. But in some years, counties have had trouble spending all of that money. Proposition 2 would allow the sale of bonds to go toward supportive-housing construction, and use unspent Mental Health Services funds to pay off the bonds. About $130 million a year would go toward repaying the bonds.
National studies estimate that one-fourth of homeless people are mentally ill. The rate is closer to one in three in San Francisco. Many of those people have severe illnesses like schizophrenia, serious post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder. Services that help people with mental illness access health care are critical, but for many people safe, stable housing is a more important first step, say experts in public health and homelessness.
This isn’t the first effort to use the act’s money in this way: In 2016, state legislators passed a bill to put $2 billion from the Mental Health Services Act toward supportive housing. But a Sacramento lawyer sued, arguing that the state needed voter approval to use that money for housing instead of services. That lawsuit has not yet been decided.
The backers of Proposition 2 opted not to wait on the outcome of the suit and to bring the matter to voters instead.
Proposition 2 opponents argue that money raised by the Mental Health Services Act needs to go not toward buildings, but to exactly what the name implies: services.
Housing is incredibly important, said Douglas Dunn with National Alliance on Mental Illness Contra Costa, a patient- and family-advocacy group. But housing for people with serious mental illness must come with supportive services, and Proposition 2 would cut into funding for such services, Dunn said.
“We all agree, yes, there’s a housing crisis, particularly for the most vulnerable of our citizens,” Dunn said. “But this just builds brick and mortar. It doesn’t have a funding stream for wraparound services necessary to keep people in these homes.”
However, Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing in Hayward, says Proposition 2 does, in fact, pay for not just construction of housing, but services for people who need them. Supportive housing by definition, she said, must include on-site programs like counseling and case management.
“Somebody out there may think this is a redirection of funding, but I think this is what the funding should be doing,” Mandolini said. “A significant portion of homeless people have mental health issues, and the lack of housing is exacerbating their issues. Getting them to a stable place to live is the first step. Then you help them get the services.”
Kevin Fagan and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:, Twitter: Twitter: @KevinChron, @erinallday
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