SF Chronicle: Sen. Padilla bill would increase federal funding for housing — in one case by more than 6,500%

By Tal Kopan

WASHINGTON — Sen. Alex Padilla unveiled a housing and homelessness bill on Friday, legislation that would massively increase federal investments in both traditional and experimental approaches to one of California’s most intractable problems.

While the bill faces long odds of becoming law, the California Democrat’s proposal sets a marker for what a progressive federal housing policy could look like. It also enters Padilla into some of the thornier controversies on the subject, including investing in safe parking sites that have been met with fierce neighborhood opposition in communities across the state and hotel/motel conversions to house homeless residents.

Padilla says his bill is a holistic approach, aiming to tackle the problem of housing insecurity from different angles. The hundreds of billions of dollars for new housing would be paired with other large investments in short-term options like the parking sites and with programs to help those who historically are most vulnerable, like the elderly and disabled people.

“A problem of this size and a problem of this importance calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Padilla said at an event announcing the bill at a Sacramento apartment complex that was converted from a hotel under a state affordable housing program.

“Local governments are doing their part, the state is doing its part, and I’m proud to announce the Housing For All Act of 2022 as a guide for how the federal government can better do its part,” he said.

The pressing need is evident to anyone in the Bay Area, as homelessness has been visibly on the rise. That was driven home this week when a fire at an encampment under a freeway overpass in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood killed one woman and injured three other people.

“This tragic incident is yet another reminder of how urgent the work is to provide every person with the dignity and safety of housing,” Padilla told The Chronicle. “We can and must do better.”

Padilla’s plan also acknowledges the limitations of what the federal government can do on housing. Much of housing policy, like zoning and permitting, is done at the state and local levels. What Congress can add is money.

“I’ve seen the issue at different levels of government,” Padilla said in an interview with The Chronicle, noting his experience on L.A. City Council and in the state Legislature. “The most important thing the federal government can do is bring resources to bear on so many fronts.”

But those limitations are significant. The bill would increase money for housing vouchers, but has no clear answer to address landlords not accepting them. It would pour unprecedented billions into building affordable housing, but has no way to get around local attempts to block projects, or regulatory hurdles that can delay them indefinitely.

Padilla’s hope is that by increasing supply long-term, giving people short-term options and assistance to navigate them, and addressing housing instability as a multi-faceted problem, those issues will not be as significant.

The investments in his bill are enormous compared with present spending, in one case increasing federal funding by more than 6,500%. The biggest increase in Padilla’s bill would put $45 billion into the Housing Trust Fund that finances affordable housing for the lowest-income households each year for the next 10 years, more than 65 times the roughly $690 million it got in fiscal year 2021. The money for Emergency Solutions Grants, which help people and families find housing after a crisis or homelessness, would nearly double to $500 million per year, and federal grants for communities to create affordable housing would nearly quadruple, to $4 billion per year.

The bill also puts money behind some more experimental approaches to housing. An entire section of the legislation is focused on “innovative, community-driven solutions,” which draw heavily from efforts being tested in the state. “Many of the programs in my bill were inspired by efforts that were pioneered right here in California,” Padilla said.

It would create a $25 million safe parking program to create parking sites that offer places for those who live out of their vehicles to park overnight, usually with onsite support like bathrooms and security, and to offer services around those sites. Another $500 million would go toward converting spaces like hotels, motels or spaces like shopping malls to help house individuals or provide support to the vulnerable. Money would also go toward eviction protection, crisis grants and library-based programs. The bill would also seek to promote housing that’s planned close to transit and would create a racial equity commission within the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Padilla said in the interview that the goal behind some of the experimental, and controversial, approaches was to meet people where their need is, in addition to working toward bigger fixes.

“A safe place to park overnight for someone experiencing homelessness … that is not a long-term solution,” Padilla said. “But it is sometimes tough for people to get to a long-term solution when they’re worried about getting through a night or getting through a week. … It also becomes a focal point for service providers to center their outreach.”

All told, Padilla’s bill would put more than $530 billion over 10 years toward combating homelessness and increasing and improving housing, according to his office, a sum that alone rivals the $500 billion in new funding over five years in President Biden’s massive infrastructure bill for roads, bridges, transit and more.

Padilla believes the funds are necessary. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2016 estimated that in the state alone, affordable housing for low-income households would require $15 billion to $30 billion to be spent annually.

“I think the level of investment is pretty darn big, but so is the need and so is the urgency,” Padilla said. “There’s not one key dynamic or one magic wand that fixes everything. If it was easy, it would be fixed already.”

But the path forward for the bill is uncertain. Its house counterpart will be introduced by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance (Los Angeles County), but Padilla does not have any Senate co-sponsors lined up yet. His proposals dwarf the amount for housing that was included in the Democrats’ Build Back Better social infrastructure package, and that legislation is on ice in the face of opposition from two moderate Democrats who have balked at the price tag.

Padilla said there were “several” possible ways to move the bill forward, either whole or in pieces, including another effort at Build Back Better, government funding bills or housing-focused legislation.

“We’re going to keep at it,” Padilla said. “This is just step one.”

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