Project Homekey, eviction moratoriums are paltry short-term solutions to systemic housing crisis

STATE AFFAIRS: CA must look long-term, reshape existing housing policies to generate housing stability

Illustration of hands reaching upwards, towards a singular house key shining yellow light.
Jericho Tang/Staff

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The Bay Area’s housing crisis is an accepted yet infuriating reality. It’s too expensive for many residents to live near where they work or study, and the pandemic has only made it worse.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom acted quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of housing insecurity across the state became apparent, instigating housing projects and emergency actions. Some of these actions include allocating $150 million in March — leveraged by the California State Legislature through potential Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements — to protect and house the homeless through Project Roomkey, which launched in April. 

But as Project Roomkey’s expiration date passed and its funding was exhausted, it became apparent that the state had no concrete, long-term plan to house the unhoused community. As a result, the state must reevaluate its long-term housing strategies to combat housing insecurity, not only for the duration of the pandemic but also into the future. 

Project Roomkey was originally lauded as doubly innovative — housing 10% of California’s estimated 150,000 homeless by paying unoccupied hotels was a win-win. However, the project struggled in negotiations with local hotels — as illustrated by Berkeley’s La Quinta Inn — because of its decentralized, county-by-county approach. Some counties were more successful than others, but the five that hold 58% of California’s homeless population — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda and Sacramento — greatly undershot their targets and ended up paying for hotel rooms that stayed empty. 

As the project expired, the people it did house were often booted with no plan or way to obtain further housing. Project Homekey is the state’s $600 million follow-up to Roomkey. Money granted to Bay Area counties will convert hotels and create new structures, which has unfortunately already been met with local opposition, such as in Sacramento. Emphasis also appears to still be on creating beds that unhoused individuals will occupy temporarily. More must be done to erect shelters alongside affordable housing and to collaborate with local organizations in placing unhoused individuals in stable housing situations. 

Another important facet of pandemic-related housing insecurity involves the many renters in limbo. Newsom recently extended the ability of local governments to issue eviction moratoriums, but experts have expressed worry that the end of these moratoriums will result in a “tsunami of evictions.” Any long-term housing solution must involve protections for renters and a plan for handling the back payments of rent.

California and the country as a whole have been in crisis mode, crafting last-minute policies to fix enormous, systemic issues that the pandemic pulled back the curtain on. Project Roomkey and the eviction moratoriums are Band-Aids on the gaping wound that is California’s exacerbated housing crisis. But the state is running out of Band-Aids and must develop a longer-term solution, and fast.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2020 opinion editor, Katherine Shok.