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Ending Homelessness


Ending Homelessness

By Jenny Abramson

“What do you actually need? Food, clothing and shelter. Everything else is entertainment.”­—Aloe Blacc

The audacious and seemingly insurmountable task of ending homelessness in a decade is rooted in the oldest of human needs: A safe place to call home. Homes are where we start and raise families, rest and rejuvenate ourselves and are able to plan for tomorrow. Homes come in many forms. To permanently and safely house the 3,107 people who are homeless on any given night, homes are needed in all of Sonoma County’s communities. 

To end homelessness, we need 2,200 new housing units. This will take new funding, changes to land use policy and unrelenting political will to achieve the goal. By establishing ongoing and authentic collaboration, we can accomplish this bold effort. As presented in the County’s Building HOMES “Toolbox” Report, creating the homes we need requires $110 million in new local funding. In a time of diminished resources, where can we find the funding? The Toolbox offers a wide range of options:  

A Housing Trust Fund which could leverage public funding with private donations, grants and other philanthropic support;

A Housing Bond could be passed by the voters and infuse a large amount of capital to jump start this effort;

A new sales tax could be passed;

The Transient Occupancy Tax (or TOT) on vacation rentals could be redirected to solely focus on affordable housing;

Former redevelopment funding could be directed to creating housing dedicated for homeless persons;

Social Impact Bonds (“Pay for Success”) could incentivize innovative new means to build;

Fees could be assessed on commercial developments that bring new workers who need housing to Sonoma County.

These are just a few options, but money will not do it alone. Where to build is as crucial is how we pay for it. 

Sonoma County voters have rightfully taken actions over the years to protect the area’s breathtaking environment. The thriving economy is intertwined with the quality of life that flows from our environment. Urban Growth boundaries and community separators, along with the work of the Open Space District, protect us from sprawl development. These policies direct our efforts into existing urbanized and built areas. Higher densities and smarter growth efforts can support our goals to house people experiencing homelessness. 

Local governments have policy choices that can enable increased production of affordable housing for everyone. Fees on affordable units can be reformulated to lower the cost of development. Government surplus lands and buildings can be re-purposed, and we can focus limited housing subsidies towards people who are experiencing homelessness. This latter action has already been taken by the County, and now Section 8 housing vouchers can be directed to help end homelessness. 

Beyond reducing barriers to building, we can also review actions that prevent more people from being pushed onto the street by Sonoma County’s intense private rental market. With less than a 1% vacancy rate, rent increases are putting extreme pressure on working families. Working together across jurisdictional boundaries, tenant protections can be examined, including the possible adoption of just cause eviction and rent stabilization ordinances.

Land is the scarcest of our resources. Land use can be the greatest impediment to solving homelessness, or the strongest opportunity. The use of publicly owned land is one such opportunity: a great example is the Roseland Village Neighborhood Center, where the Community Development Commission is partnering with non-profit builders to create affordable housing and services for the neighborhood. Surplus lands owned by governments can be used for affordable housing, and governments can invest in making lands ready for housing by building the needed utility infrastructure. These actions bring down the price of building, and establish government as a true partner rather than just a regulator.

Political will need to be sustained across all of our communities. There are many obstacles to the needed housing, one of the most prevalent being neighbors who oppose new housing. Neighbors’ views are usually well intended, but are often based on fear rather than facts. Working together with all stakeholders, we can educate, show the true face of the people who have lost their homes, and support elected officials who are working to do the right thing. 

Another key to success is partnership between our many agencies and jurisdictions. Ending homelessness cannot be a top-down process. There are people living outside in all our communities. Transcending the usual political boundaries and sharing resources will create opportunities for new housing to be built.

Lastly, success requires accountability. We know how many homes we need, and only by meeting our housing goals will we end homelessness by 2025. Annual goals will keep us on task.  Some years will see greater success and some will not, but only by publicly keeping track will the public see the strength of our moral and financial investment.

On January 12th, 2016, the Board of Supervisors approved the Building HOMES: A Policy Maker’s Toolbox for Ending Homelessness Implementation Work Plan. With this approval, the Board provided resources for a countywide dialogue towards ending homelessness. The Building HOMES Toolbox is describes a range of tools that communities can use to fit their needs. As our dialogue progresses, and we keep our political will and resources focused, everyone can find what works for them. To view the Toolbox, please visit:

Using right tool for the job can bring about a more humane community, an end to the suffering on our streets, and increased safety for all.

Jenny Abramson is the Homeless and Community Services Manager for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission