Boise & Garden City

Boise has never tried to solve homelessness this way before

David Bieter, Deanna Watson on Housing First Initiative

The Boise mayor and executive director of the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority talk about their organizations' partnership to address homelessness.
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The Boise mayor and executive director of the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority talk about their organizations' partnership to address homelessness.

The goal of Boise’s Housing First initiative is as simple as can be: homes for people who have none.

The process for achieving this goal will make your head swim. The people straining to make the Housing First project happen can be forgiven if they’ve torn out some hair. They’ve spent years navigating the federal government’s maze of allocations, vouchers, tax credits and checklists. Over the past six months, they’ve had to learn a whole new process.

No one in the Treasure Valley has done this before.

“It’s really hard,” said Diana Lachiondo, director of community partnerships in Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s office. “It’s a complicated puzzle to figure out. But we’re committed. And when I say ‘we,’ you know, I mean the mayor. He’s been a major, major champion.”

The good news is a lot of agencies are throwing their weight behind the project. At least seven government and private groups have tentatively set aside money to either get the initiative up and running or keep it going. Contributors include the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority, the city of Boise, Ada County, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and St. Luke’s Health System.

Private developers have come forward with ideas for a building that would house around 25 homeless people. At least two treatment organizations, in addition to the hospitals, have shown interest in providing supportive services, such as mental health treatment, to help those people improve their lives.

We’re not only going to save lives, but we’re going to save money down the road.

Boise city spokesman Mike Journee

But there’s a lot of work left to do and not much time. The partners need to lock down money for ongoing costs, including maintenance of the building and treatment services. They need to identify who provides what treatment.

The developers have to submit their applications — including extensive descriptions of project concepts, budgets, architectural renderings and statements of community support — by Sept. 2, said Julie Mitchell, executive vice president for Idaho Housing and Finance. If that deadline is missed, the building would have to wait until February, when the federal government disburses another round of the tax credits that would pay for the bulk of the construction cost.

GENESIS

Bieter was among a handful of local government and nonprofit representatives who stood in front of reporters in early February to announce an early-stage agreement aimed at providing free homes for around 40 of Boise’s chronically homeless people. The initiative would follow the Housing First model that has found success in cities such as Philadelphia, Houston and Salt Lake City.

Homelessness in Boise has come to the forefront in recent years. With the population soaring at a homeless camp near shelters on the edge of Downtown, Bieter convened a series of invitation-only meetings for government, business and nonprofit representatives to discuss the causes of and possible solutions for homelessness here.

Those meetings resulted in a consensus on three needs: Housing First or other types of permanent supportive housing; rapid re-housing, which focuses on quickly moving families who’ve lost their homes into new homes of their own; and a bigger inventory of affordable homes across the Treasure Valley.

As the name says, putting homeless people in homes is Housing First’s priority. Treatment providers offer help — often in the same building — for physical and mental ailments, addiction and other problems that contribute to homelessness, but tenants don’t have to accept it.

Besides the human good of helping society’s least fortunate, Housing First advocates point to the model’s success in reducing costs — such as ambulance rides, emergency health care and jail stays — that the public shoulders because the people who generate them have little or no money.

BARN-RAISING

In the Housing First world, you have to spend money to save money. The city, housing authority, and Housing and Finance Association jumped in first.

Idaho Housing and Finance pledged more than $5 million, which it would derive from selling federal low-income housing tax credits, toward construction of a building in or near Boise where 25 Housing First apartments, as well as space to provide treatment, would be located. The city has included an additional $1 million in next year’s budget for the same building.

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association raises upfront money for housing projects by selling 10-year chunks of low-income housing tax credits to investors who use the credits to protect their income from taxation.

For the first time in its history, the housing authority’s board authorized the use of vouchers to pay for project-based housing. In this case, that means the money will go to the Housing First building.

Recently, the groups who spend the most money responding to the problems homelessness generates have gotten on board.

Ada County absorbs huge legal costs and covers unpaid medical bills, both of which disproportionately come from homeless people. The county’s tentative budget for 2017 includes a $250,000 item labeled “Housing First Initiative.”

Similarly, Saint Al’s and St. Luke’s, which lose a lot of money treating people who can’t pay, have pledged $100,000 apiece.

The general thinking is that county and hospital money will help pay to operate and maintain the entire Housing First initiative.

“Without them being part of this, it’s not going to be successful,” city spokesman Mike Journee said. “You can’t have a facility without the services. And all along, we said that we wanted this. We need community partners. We need the county. We need the hospitals to be part of this.”

United Way has pledged $25,000 to the initiative. The partners hope to involve more private foundations, charities and other groups.

THE PROJECT

For decades, Idaho Housing and Finance, the city, housing authority and charitable organizations have provided housing and services such as health care and food to Boise’s homeless and low-income population.

Since February, the people leading those organizations have worked toward a new objective: turning their Housing First proposal into a functioning project. The initiative has two components. The first is a “single-site” building that would house roughly 25 of Boise’s most expensive, shelter-resistant homeless people.

Once Idaho Housing and Finance awards tax credits for the building, the developer doesn’t have to pay the money back, Executive Vice President Julie Mitchell said. Instead, the project must live up to its billing. Housing and Finance’s compliance department will monitor the project on behalf of the IRS, where the tax credits originate, conducting annual reviews of things such as safety and sanitation, tenant eligibility and the nature of services being performed on-site.

108The rough percentage of face value that Idaho Housing and Finance Association tax credits sell for in today’s market

The partners haven’t yet determined how much voucher money the housing authority will dedicate to the Housing First project. Likely, some of it will offset maintenance and operations costs at the single-site building.

There’s a possible Catch-22 here, housing authority executive director Deanna Watson said. Watson is worried that investors, who would produce the money to build the project by buying up the tax credits Idaho Housing and Finance offers, won’t be very enthusiastic about Boise’s Housing First project if voucher money isn’t lined up to pay for long-term maintenance and operations. On the other hand, Watson said, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development won’t let the housing authority apply voucher money to the project unless the money to build it is in place.

Watson said she’s not sure how the partners will overcome that obstacle.

“If we’d already had a project-based voucher program in place, this wouldn’t be the challenge, the dilemma that it is,” she said. “But because we didn’t have that, we have our own hoops to jump through.”

‘FEELING OUR WAY’

The second Housing First component is what’s known as a “scattered-site” facility. It would be a collection of apartments around Boise where another 15 or so homeless people would live. The city of Boise would dedicate several of the 300 affordable housing units it owns, and the housing authority would use some of its apartments for the scattered-site facility.

The Housing First partners hope private landlords make additional apartments available to house homeless tenants. Vouchers that the housing authority administers would help cover rent.

Before tenants can move into the scattered-site homes, the partners need to identify the tenants, line up treatment providers and find money to pay for that treatment, which will focus on improving life skills and transitioning to normal life, in addition to addressing physical, mental and emotional problems.

Lachiondo said the partners probably will issue separate requests for treatment providers’ proposals for the scattered-site and single-site facilities.

If this Housing First initiative works, it’s possible the partners could scale it up to include more single- or scattered-site homes for the area’s homeless. For right now, though, the partners are just trying to get through the first phase.

“This being a pilot project, we’re all kind of feeling our way around,” Mitchell said.

Cost vs. revenue

Here’s how local partners are proposing to cover the cost of starting and operating a Housing First initiative in Boise:

Single-site (one building for 25 tenants, plus supportive services)

REVENUE

Idaho Housing and Finance (through low-income housing tax credits): $5.75 million

City of Boise general fund contribution: $1 million

Total revenue for construction: $6.75 million (same as cost estimate)

Supportive services and other ongoing costs

REVENUE

Ada County FY17 budget: $250,000

St. Luke’s Health System: $100,000

Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center: $100,000

United Way: $25,000

Total revenue for supportive services, etc.: $475,000

Total cost for supportive services, etc.: $740,000

Cost left to cover: $265,000

Note: The Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority anticipates using some of the voucher money it administers to cover costs associated with the Housing First initiative, but that amount has not been determined.

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