The poverty list: Sacramento city, county leaders debate who should move to top of housing agency’s long waiting list

Homelessness summit puts joint powers authority in the hot seat

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the February 9, 2017, issue.

The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency came under a microscope last week, during the first duel-government meeting on homelessness in 23 years. Some officials defended it, others questioned its policies, and one wondered whether it even should still exist.

Better known as SHRA, the agency was created in 1982 as a joint-powers authority under the Sacramento City Council and county Board of Supervisors. Today, it’s the fifth-largest housing authority in California, managing 3,211 units of public housing, administering 12,000 monthly housing vouchers, and controlling the city’s and county’s housing trust funds.

SHRA puts an emphasis on housing disabled residents, yet with the deaths of three homeless people in January during harsh winter nights, Mayor Darrell Steinberg is leading the charge to reshuffle the agency’s prioritization of housing vouchers in favor of those on the streets. But on January 31, during a joint meeting of city and county politicians, the topic was repeatedly co-opted by officials pointing to systemic rot in SHRA’s underlying framework.

Councilman Steve Hansen was critical of the agency’s preference for awarding vouchers to people with a “rent burden,” meaning applicants with evidence that they are, or were, paying unaffordable rent. Hansen called that policy an “insidious” means of locking homeless people out of the system, since they, by their very circumstances, don’t qualify.

“That is shocking,” Hansen said at the meeting. “In effect, it was excluding people who were most vulnerable and at-risk. … It never should have happened in the first place.”

Steinberg agreed the preference was ill-advised. “Of the 10 largest cities in California, none of the others have this ’rent burden’ standard that we do,” the mayor noted.

SHRA Executive Director La Shelle Dozier testified that axing the “rent burden” eliminates one type of preference for the waiting list, though a new “chronically homeless” category would add to the byzantine preference-point system that few at the meeting said they understood.

City leaders voted unanimously to change SHRA’s voucher system, while their county counterparts launched a 45-day exploration of doing the same.

Supervisor Patrick Kennedy raised eyebrows by announcing it was time to take a hard look at SHRA’s future. Kennedy said he’d been asking the housing authority, for more than a year, to provide him with details about $51 million in funds it’s leveraging around federal promise zones, 22 specified areas across the city and county where poverty and mortality rates are high enough to qualify for extra federal resources.

Getting no answer, Kennedy said he’s now pressing SHRA to share data on the mortgage revenue bonds it issues to developers, as well as information on whether the agency’s exclusivity rules create conflicts of interest. Kennedy also directed staff to bring back a complete list of SHRA staff positions accounting for $24.7 million in annual salary and benefits.

“I think we owe it to ourselves and our community to look at, and really examine, the role of SHRA going forward,” Kennedy said. “For context, everyone up here sits on JPAs that meet all the time and are a lot less impactful than SHRA. … Two of us here sit on the Raley Field Finance Authority, and we meet more often than this JPA.”

Kennedy’s remarks were dismissed by Supervisor Don Nottoli and drew sharp criticism from Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

“You cannot sit up here and have a conversation about vouchers that you wouldn’t even have if you didn’t have the amazing housing department that these people have put together,” Ashby said. “I don’t think we need to play the blame game—plenty of blame to go around. And I don’t want to see us taking swings at SHRA at the same time we’re trying to build off the beautiful foundation they built for us.”

County supervisors will consider whether to repurpose their greater supply of vouchers in March. No timeline has been given for the SHRA report requested by Kennedy.

SHRA didn’t respond to SN&R’s requests for additional comment.

With 70,000 households in Sacramento County already on a waiting list for the vouchers, the strategy is being met with skepticism by experts like Grace Loescher, director of the homeless youth program Waking the Village.

“It can take months and months to find any place that will honor a voucher after you have it in your hand,” Loescher told SN&R. “It’s very hard to get landlords to accept the vouchers, because they see it as an admission that you’re poor.”

Supervisor Susan Peters was already aware of the logjam.

“During the point-in-time [homeless] count last week, someone on [SHRA’s staff] came across a grandma, grandpa and grandchild camping in a car,” Peters said at the meeting. “And everyone worked with them, and found they did have a voucher—they’d had it for six months. They couldn’t get housing.”