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SF Housing Authority budget nightmare crashes promising homeless relief program

The agency spins its wheels and leaves the city’s Moving On Initiative with nowhere to move onto

A man sleeping underneath a windmill-like piece of public art, with a white domed building (SF City Hall) in the background. Via Shutterstock

An advantageous program that transitions homeless residents into permanent housing remains in limbo because of the SF Housing Authority’s budget disaster, which leaves hundreds of people who might qualify for assistance hanging.

That’s the conclusion of the Washington DC-based think tank the Urban Institute (UI), which this week released its second yearly evaluation of San Francisco’s Moving On Initiative (MOI), wherein researchers from UCSF, led by Kenneth Perez of the university’s Center For Vulnerable Populations, audit the program.

The city launched MOI in December 2016, a collaboration of SF’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the housing nonprofit Brilliant Corners, and the SF Housing Authority (SFHA).

Here’s how it works: The Department of Homelessness screens applicants, the Housing Authority grants vouchers to those deemed qualified, and then Brilliant Corners helps the qualified homeless residents find compatible homes. It’s a three-part system designed to transition San Franciscans back on their feet and, eventually, into independent housing.

How well does MOI work? Here’s what Perez et al. said in the new report:

  • By August 2019, 947 people had been referred to the program. Of those, 262 eventually ended up in housing of their own. Of those who received vouchers, 73 percent ended up renting an apartment in the Bay Area.
  • The most frequent destinations for voucher holders were in the Lake Merced neighborhood with 41 move-ins, the Polk Gulch/Russian Hill area with 25, Bayview with 18, and Outer Richmond with 15. Only 24 rented outside of San Francisco.
  • The report praises MOI’s use of staff to liaison between renters and homeowners, the relative success of the screening process, and the relationships between city staff and those seeking housing assistance as some of the program’s most successful tools.
  • Currently MOI has 239 households on its waitlist identified as qualifying and waiting for the opportunity to receive assistance, almost as many as the program has worked with in all of 2017, 2018, and 2019 combined.

Although generally positive, the report notes that MOI has a “relatively low yield,” in that 262 placements out of nearly 950 referrals is a rate of only 28 percent. But the report also claims that the reason for this low figure is that its plan is “effectively stalled” and unable to do any work with the hundreds of people on the waitlist —all on account of the startling mess at the SF Housing Authority.

In 2018, SFHA went flat broke after spending nearly $30 million over its budget, evidently on account of inept bookkeeping.

The federal government helped bail SFHA out, and City Hall took over the formerly federally managed program in 2019, somewhat under duress.

In the meantime, the UI report says that the state of the housing authority “preclude it from issuing any more vouchers,” meaning that the three-part MOI system is broken down for the time being.

In July, Mayor London Breed appointed SF’s Chief Audit Executive Tonia Lediju to the job of taking over and reforming SFHA.

According to a housing authority FAQ published in September, the federal government “is requiring program operations be outsourced to third party experts,” leaving the immediate future of the authority in limbo while the city retains those partners.

The Urban Institute report notes that when MOI was running the process was “long and complicated” and left a bad taste in the mouths of some participants who weren’t ultimately able to secure long-term housing.

However, the team still recommends that the city expand MOI in the future—whenever said future arrives in this case.