Ensuring All Veterans Have Safe Housing Requires All Hands on Deck

In recent years, dramatic progress has been made across the nation in the effort to reduce Veteran homelessness thanks to strategic planning, bold leadership, and unprecedented community collaboration. These elements are being paired with data-driven strategies that have resulted in a nationwide decline of 33 percent since 2010. This progress is paving the way for success in other sub-groups of the homeless population.

While headway on Veteran homelessness is notable by itself, the efforts also offer insight about how city leaders can ensure all Veterans have a safe place to call home.

Members of Team Depot build a community garden in Los Angeles. Philanthropies such as The Home Depot Foundation are increasingly important partners as cities aim to address multiple challenges. (photo: Elijah Harig-Blaine)

The Anatomy of Success: Strategic Planning

Beginning in 2010, the federal government’s response to homelessness became guided by the Opening Doors strategic plan. For the first time, the plan broke the nation’s work on homelessness into specific sub-populations. The first sub-population was Veterans. Bringing focus to a specific sub-population is one approach to make progress on municipal challenges.

Another way to make progress, is by bringing focus to a specific issue. In nearly every city across the country, access to safe, affordable housing is a challenge. This year’s State of the Cities report found housing as one of the top ten issues receiving significant coverage in mayoral addresses.

Like homelessness, progress on addressing housing overall can be made with a focus on Veterans. Realizing this progress comes when cities use the dual lenses of Veterans and housing to guide how existing programs and municipal networks are utilized.

Bold Leadership & Community Collaboration

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti used his State of the Cities address to announce that in the past year, the city had decreased Veteran homelessness by 50%. Across the city and county of Los Angeles, community stakeholders have housed 6,538 Veterans since June 2014.

To continue this progress, access to housing is key. A first step taken by city leaders and federal partners is to engage property owners and managers of existing market-rate housing. In June, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald joined the Mayor and others in calling on landlords to join local efforts.

In addition to increasing access to existing market-rate housing, there is the need to increase the supply of affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing. To support these goals, the Mayor Garcetti has proposed an additional $10 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). Recognizing the need to tie the emerging sharing economy to the pragmatic needs of residents with lower-incomes, the Mayor proposed generating $5 million for the AHTF from taxes collected for the first time from Airbnb.

These resources are particularly needed in the face of past and proposed cuts to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnerships program (HOME). In addition to program cuts, the demand for affordable housing is exacerbated as the affordability restrictions on thousands of housing units are ending. In the next five years, in California alone, at least 1,380 properties will have a subsidy expire, impacting the affordability of at least 100,181 units of housing.

To meet these challenges, cities are increasingly building collaborative partnerships beyond their existing relationships with non-profits and the federal and state government. Recognizing the unique role foundations can play in bridging the gap in services, cities are turning to the philanthropic sector to help meet the housing needs of Veterans.

Using Data to Drive Decision-Making

Tragically, Veterans are over-represented among the homeless.

Nationwide, Veterans comprise 8.1 percent of the general population. However, with the homeless population, 8.6 percent are Veterans. This over-representation is particularly seen in the unsheltered homeless population, where 10 percent are Veterans. In Los Angeles city and county, these numbers are even starker. Veterans comprise only 3.6 percent of the overall population, but are 10.8 percent of the overall homeless population and 11.3 percent of the unsheltered homeless population.

In addition to being over-represented in the homeless population, the percentage of Veterans who are seniors is significantly greater than the general population. Nationwide, 47.3 percent of Veterans are over the age of 65, compared to 15.9 percent of non-Veterans. In Los Angeles city and county, the numbers are again striking. In Los Angeles city and county, 53.2 percent of Veterans are over the age of 65, compared to 13.6 percent of non-Veterans.

These facts show that by using the lenses of housing and Veterans, city officials and their partners can not only make progress in these areas, but also position the community to better address the housing needs of other sub-populations, such as seniors.

One illustration of a housing development at this intersection is the Guy Gabaldon project. Developed by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC), the 33 unit facility is operated by New Directions for Veterans and exclusively serves Veterans aged 55 and older.

Finished in September 2014, the project was fully leased in less than three months as a result of being part of Los Angeles’ coordinated entry system developed as part of the Home for Good campaign. Staff from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs work with New Directions to provide on-site supportive services to clients. Amenities include a community garden, a community room with gym equipment and on-site laundry facilities. All units are furnished and as they moved in, Veterans were provided a “move-in” kit with paper products, toiletries and other essentials.

To allow the units to be affordable for homeless senior Veterans, ELACC used Los Angeles’ AHTF, Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) as well as project-based HUD-VASH vouchers. Additional funding came from the Federal Reserve’s Affordable Housing Program (AHP) and The Home Depot Foundation. Similar support for housing developments serving Veterans from The Home Depot Foundation has helped cities build or preserve more than 17,000 units of housing. Over the past three years, the Foundation has invested more than $90 million in projects supporting Veterans and their families.

In addition, volunteer groups of Home Depot associates known as Team Depots have worked on more than 3,780 projects building or improving homes for Veterans. Just in California, The Home Depot Foundation has supported 622 projects impacting 2,520 units of housing benefitting Veterans with either financial or volunteer support.

While the role of philanthropies is critical, in the face of declining resources for affordable housing, cities are increasingly making systems changes to use the funds more efficiently. In 2013, Los Angeles began developing a “managed pipeline” to guide the distribution of LIHTCs, as well as support the coordination of allocations from the various state programs.

The “managed pipeline” has evolved to support 24 projects every 24 months. Every six months, six projects are moved forward and six new projects enter the pipeline. The result has been more certainty for developers, providing them the confidence to move forward with pre-development outlays and stronger applications for additional support from financial institutions, philanthropies, housing authorities and others. By initially focusing on the housing needs of homeless Veterans and gradually expanding the community coordination efforts to ensure all Veterans have access safe housing solutions, cities lay the groundwork for all community members to be housed.

Despite consistently encouraging news about the growth of city workforces, it is likely that support for affordable housing programs will continue to face fiscal constraints. For cities to create and grow relationships with committed philanthropic partners, local leaders must be strategic in how existing resources are used. Focusing on a specific population, such as Veterans, and a specific issue, such as housing, is one way cities can help ensure meaningful investments benefit all community members in the long-term.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.