By Samantha Goldberg, Associate Editor
With 2016 in full swing, several items are on the country’s legislative agenda, including one at the forefront for quite some time: ending veteran homelessness. This issue came into the national spotlight in 2010 when the Obama administration announced Opening Doors, the first-ever federal strategic plan to end veteran homelessness.
The number of homeless veterans declined by 36 percent between 2010 and January 2015, but there are still about 48,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) November 2015 Point-In-Time (PIT) count.
Veteran homelessness is part of the broader affordable housing shortage in the U.S. “When you look at need, we need millions of additional units of affordable housing in this country in order to not have a lot of people paying half of what they make on rent,” said Jennifer Ho, senior advisor for housing and services at HUD. Though the number of households paying more than half their income on rent or living in substandard housing has declined by 800,000 since peaking in 2011, 7.7 million households still face this problem, according to HUD’s February 2015 “Worst Case Housing Needs” report.
MHN spoke to government agencies, nonprofit organizations and multifamily developers, and many said collaboration is key to bring more affordable housing, including for veterans, to the market, especially in cities with limited space and higher renter activity.
“In communities big and small, we’re seeing that where leadership is getting everybody around the table, collaborating…that’s where we’re making progress,” Ho said.
Setting the bar
As with other affordable housing issues, cities are typically the ones taking the lead, and many cities across the country have pledged to add affordable housing units in the upcoming years. However, this can be harder to accomplish in some cities than in others.
A showcase example is New York City. Despite its housing challenges—a lack of affordable housing stock, a small turnover rate, expensive land and tough competition for large sites—New York City was able to coordinate and become the largest city to effectively end chronic veteran homelessness, which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December 2015. This signifies that all chronically homeless veterans have either been housed or are on a path to permanent housing, except for those who refuse assistance.
“We’re looking to reach our goal of what we call ‘functional zero.’ Not that there won’t ever be any homeless veterans, but that we can reach a low number and are able to sustain that,” said Tori Lyon, executive director of The Jericho Project, a nonprofit providing 500 supportive housing units and two veteran-dedicated developments.
Other cities that have also reached this goal include Philadelphia, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Houston and even the state of Virginia.
This “functional zero” goal was one of the three main aims of the NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (CoC)’s Veterans Task Force, which has taken the lead on addressing veterans homelessness. “The Task Force was created to be kind of like a home for all the work around ending veteran homelessness that was going on in New York City,” Julie Irwin, co-chair of the task force, said. The task force consists of government agencies, such as the New York City offices of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, nonprofits and homelessness service providers.
George Nashak, executive vice president of HELP USA and a member of the task force, agreed that New York City has a coordinated process for addressing homelessness. HELP is a leading provider of housing for the homeless, including its current project as the developer and operator of 75 units for formerly homeless veterans at the former Walter Reed Medical Center campus in Washington, D.C.
Coordination also comes into play for creating veterans housing, for which project costs include capital and development as well as operation and services, Nashak explained.
For HELP, capital usually calls for funding from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which provides upfront capital and equity, and other federal funding, while the operation and services funding typically involves support from HUD and the VA’s Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program.
Under HUD-VASH, veterans receive a rental assistance voucher combined with intensive case management services from the VA. This type of affordable housing is considered supportive housing because of the attached long-term support services, which many of the older and/or chronically homeless veterans need to sustain housing, Ho explained. The VA refers veterans to HUD-VASH and notifies local housing authorities to issue a voucher, which then help veterans find housing. Ineligible veterans can use other homeless assistance such as from the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program, which offers “short-term, light-touch case management,” Irwin said.
Lyon describes the process of securing funding as “kind of like one-stop shopping.” She said that New York City is unique in that supportive housing financing is fairly coordinated. In addition to finding funding, these public-private partnerships collaborate to create new housing. For example, HUD ran two competitions, in 2010 and 2014, to award more than 2,000 project-based HUD-VASH vouchers, which “help those developers creating more supportive housing units specifically for veterans or with a set-aside for veterans inside a larger building have that rent subsidy tied to the unit,” Ho said. This way, developers reserve some or all units for veterans and in return the government pays the difference between the veteran’s contribution and the rent in its contract with the developer.
Ho added that she anticipates “sometime in 2016 with the 2016 money [from Congress], we’ll probably be doing [a competition] again.” The Jericho Project also secured project-based HUD-VASH funding for its newest project in the Bronx, a 90-unit building on Walton Avenue with 56 apartments for homeless veterans and 34 for at-risk youths. This model of having veterans live in a development alongside the general community is most effective, Lyon said.
“We continue to look at this model because we find the number of homeless veterans has gone down dramatically. What we see is more just straight affordable housing needed for veterans.” She added that a whole building doesn’t need to be veteran-dedicated, but if there are some units for veterans, “Jericho provides services to them onsite and it’s a real peer-support model that has been very effective for us.”
Aside from conventional housing models, some companies are using innovative ways to create veterans housing. Veterans Housing Development (VHD), a Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based nonprofit, wants to use shipping containers. While this concept isn’t new, the application as a low-cost solution for veterans housing is, according to Brad Jordan, a service-disabled veteran who’s the executive director of VHD and president of Accord Architects & Engineers (aa+e), an architecture and engineering firm in Myrtle Beach.
“Using shipping containers is actually cheaper than buying mobile homes and sturdier, and also more green,” Jordan said. VHD is a relatively new organization but is gaining support from government agencies, nonprofits and others to reach its goal of creating a Veterans Village—a safe housing community for veterans with case management services provided.
Jordan and his team have developed several design concepts, including one- and two-bedroom floor plans as well as the option for a stacked, two-story residence. VHD also created a student housing concept with containers stacked three or four stories high, which Jordan said can be applied to creating multifamily housing. He added that the company is in talks to bring this idea to other parts of the country, including Portland and New York City.
Another strategic approach for developers of veterans housing is to pursue projects in areas in which they’re already present. “It’s difficult to run one building isolated in a location. So if there’s an area where we’ve got two or three projects, we’re interested in expanding our portfolio because it’s cost-effective and easier to operate,” Nashak said.
No matter what the approach, it’s clear collaboration from all sides is needed to get veterans off the street and into safe housing, and the country seems to be heading in the right direction in 2016.
While the number of veterans housing units in the pipeline is virtually impossible to track, an additional $60 million in HUD-VASH has been added for this year, which will go into creating new units and tenant-based rental assistance. “We know enough now to know what it is that needs to get done. We’re at this perfect moment in time where the resources, best practices and political sentiment are all lined up in the same direction,” Ho said. “There’s a real commitment not to repeat the mistakes of the past, make great progress on this issue and have it bubble up again.”
Originally appearing in the March 2016 issue