Housing + Hope = Homekey

original article published March 29, 2022 by the Tri-City Voice

In January, the Fremont City Council voted unanimously to apply for $40.2 million in Homekey funding. If awarded, the funding will be used to convert the Motel 6 located at 46101 Research Avenue in Fremont into 156 units of affordable housing. Construction of the project would begin as soon as possible, with an anticipated completion date of March 2023. The goal would be to have all units occupied by June 2023.

“The Fremont Council unanimously supported the Homekey Project earlier this year,” stated Mayor Lily Mei.  “It’s crucial that we continue to advocate at the local level and beyond, for permanent stable affordable housing funding opportunities to help improve the homeless crisis that was declared in our City and to help provide the most basic necessity of shelter to our current unsheltered community members living in uninhabitable conditions.”

In 2019, the number of homeless people in Fremont was officially declared to be 608, as recorded by the annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count, where volunteers physically go out to homeless camps and count people. The PIT Count was not undertaken last year due to Covid concerns, and 2022 data is still being analyzed, but most experts agree that the numbers will be higher due to the pandemic and the ever-increasing cost of living.

“By virtually every measure, the Bay Area’s homeless crisis ranks among the worst in the United States.” This according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a leading think tank focused on critical issues facing the nine counties and 101 cities of our metropolitan region. They cite several factors as the cause of the current crisis, including several past recessions and a severe shortage of shelters and permanent supportive housing.

The report goes on to say, “Given existing growth rates in the inflows into homelessness and assuming the region could sustain 2017’s annual increase of permanent supportive housing units (2,500), the Bay Area will not be able to provide a bed to each of its homeless residents until 2037.”

Project Homekey is one of Governor Gavin Newsom’s strategies to try and stem the tide. It builds on the success of Project Roomkey, the state response to the Covid-19 pandemic which provided temporary, non-congregate shelter options for the homeless, funded by FEMA. The underlying strategy of Project Roomkey is to use housing that has already been built, including hotels, motels, and apartments.

“Project Roomkey was a great success, protecting thousands of lives during the pandemic,” said California Department of Social Services Director Kim Johnson in a press release. “Now, many of these individuals are transitioning to more stable and secure housing up and down the state.” Indeed, Project Roomkey helped house over 42,000 people, with approximately 20% moving on to permanent housing.

The first round of Homekey funding came in May 2020 ($800 million), with a second round in September, 2021 ($1.45 billion). The program has secured over 6,000 permanent units for over 8,000 unhoused individuals, including vulnerable seniors, at-risk youth, LGTBQ+ youth, people living with HIV, people with disabilities, families, and veterans. Bay Area sites include a Motel 6 in Pittsburg, an Extended Stay America in Milpitas, and other projects in San Jose, Oakland, and Mountain View.

Each Homekey property is converted by an experienced housing developer and managed by a service provider, who is also responsible for enforcing house rules, managing disputes, and maintaining cleanliness. In the case of Fremont’s Motel 6, the Santa Monica-based nonprofit called Step Up has been chosen. The housing developer will be Shangri-La Industries. Says Suzanne Shenfil, Human Services Director for the City of Fremont, “We vetted several outfits and talked to other jurisdictions. Everyone was very pleased with Shangri-La and Step Up. We have been very impressed with their expertise.”

Dan Schoenholz, Community Development Director for The City of Fremont, is also very excited about the potential this project represents. “These hotel conversions are so much less expensive than building housing from scratch. It really opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of who we can serve.”

New affordable housing developments built from the ground up are usually targeted to those making 30% to 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which translates to about $30,000 to $50,000 per year for an individual. Homekey projects are specifically designed to house those making 15% of AMI ($13,000/year) or less. Says Shenfil, “This will help those chronically homeless whose only source of income may be disability or social security.”

The City of Fremont learned first hand how effective the Project Roomkey program can be when 35 rooms of The Islander Motel were turned into affordable housing. “That was a very positive experience for us,” says Shenfil. “It gave us the ability to get people off the streets quickly and turn their lives around. It gave them a base of security from which they could then look for employment and integrate back into society. It’s an excellent model from a social services perspective.”

Homekey projects throughout the state have often been met with resistance by neighboring residents (Not-In-My-Backyard, or NIMBY’s), who fear that their new neighbors may be dangerous. Louis Chicoine, CEO of Abode Services, has seen this reaction time and time again over the course of his 29 years working with the unhoused. “It’s based on pure fear, hatred, and racism,“ he declares. “It’s everything that’s horrible about human beings.”

Photo Credit: David Newman

Applicants are referred to Homekey projects through various nonprofits, as well as chosen from the county’s Coordinated Entry System (CES), a master list of all the unhoused ranked according to need. Says Chicoine, “The waitlist for affordable housing projects is over 4,000 in Alameda County. They know that if they mess up, it’s unlikely they will ever get a similar opportunity in their lifetime.”

Homekey residents pay a modest rent, are screened for violent/sexual crimes, and are given access to a variety of services at no cost, including mental health counseling, medical care, life skills and job training, food programs, and substance abuse treatment. Says Chicoine, “We’re looking for people to be respectful of themselves and their neighbors. These are highly desirable places to live.”

In the case of Fremont’s Motel 6, Police Chief Sean Washington thinks a Homekey project there would be a big improvement. “We get a lot of service calls to that location. Being right near the freeway, it attracts all sorts of individuals, many involved in criminal activity. The existing low income housing projects throughout the city have not caused any public safety issues for us whatsoever, so I’m confident that turning that Motel 6 into Homekey housing will make the community safer for everyone.”

Newark has also applied for Homekey funding to convert the Townplace Suites at 39802 Cedar Boulevard into 123 low income units. And in a joint application, the four cities of Hayward, Union City, Livermore, and Piedmont are hoping to be granted  $12.5 million to buy a dozen houses scattered throughout their jurisdictions and convert them into low income units housing six people each.

To learn more, go to https://fremont.gov/4097/Homekey-Project

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