By Brian Schrader
2020 was a tough year. Luckily the storm caused by COVID-19 seems to be abating. That said, San Diego continues to struggle with a tragedy that has been with us since long before COVID-19 upended our lives and one that will be with us for years to come. In January of 2020 roughly 7,700 San Diegans were homeless on an average night, and that number has grown sharply over the past year.
Ideally, no one should go homeless in America’s Finest City. It’s encouraging then to see the City of San Diego committing last year to spend $106.5 million to purchase hotels and convert them into housing for those without. Recently, the County has also committed money to help house the homeless, and the state undertook a large and largely successful effort to similarly convert vacant hotels into shelters during the pandemic. With all of this time, money, and resources going to eradicating the problem of homelessness in San Diego, it’s frustrating to learn that we still haven’t solved the problem or that it’s gotten even worse.
Without a high-level view, it can be difficult for us ordinary citizens to judge the effectiveness of these programs. Is the $106 million we’re spending going to solve the problem? If not, how about $200 million? Without an upper-bound it’s impossible to know.
It’s time for a different approach. Instead of analyzing how much money we’re currently spending, let’s consider the ideal case—where everyone is housed—and try to estimate how much money we would need to spend in order to achieve it. In other words: let’s identify a goal, and work backwards to a solution.
Assuming the city paid market rate for hotel rooms to convert into housing for homeless households, and doing a bit of estimation using the numbers from the most recent report from The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the city would need to acquire roughly 6,500 hotel rooms to house everyone experiencing homelessness on an average night, which would cost a grand total of approximately $1.06 billion. Obviously, this funding wouldn’t all come from the city; some would need to come from the County and other municipalities in the area. But this figure of $1.06 billion gives us some idea of the scope of the problem we’re facing. Such a program would require a 25% increase in city spending or a 16% increase in County spending. Either way, it’s an enormous increase.
But assuming the revenue could be raised, the program could be paid for over a decade at $106 million per year, which starts to look a lot more feasible. Conveniently that number is nearly identical to the figure that the city has proposed, but only for one year, or just 10% of the funds required by our estimation.
This isn’t to say that the city’s plans are misappropriated or badly designed: they’re not. They’re just insufficient to solve the problem at hand. $100 million is nowhere near enough money to help those in need here in San Diego, but it is a sizable down payment. We should applaud the city’s efforts to go big, but we need to go bigger still.
The causes of homelessness are plentiful, but chief among them are the simple facts that housing costs remain outrageous and affordable housing is scarce. In that same report RTFH estimates, “that in 2020 a person would have had to make $30 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego.” Housing is scarce, and therefore expensive; we need more housing. Purchasing hotels, while an effective policy now, cannot solve our homelessness crisis for many reasons. As we already discussed: it’s an expensive idea, but 6,500 hotel rooms represents roughly 10% of all hotel and motel stock in the county. Purchasing that much stock would inflate the price of the hotel rooms, making the project more expensive, and cut sharply into the city’s tourist-centric tax revenue. We need bigger solutions; we need more housing.
Everyone in San Diego—and in California—deserves a place to call home, and converting unused hotels into housing is a great use of idle assets, but we cannot pretend it is an end-all solution. Once the program hits a point of diminishing returns, we will need other ideas. But now that we understand the magnitude of the problem, we can more effectively work towards a solution.
— Brian Schrader is a software developer in Normal Heights and writer at www.democracyandprogress.com.