Marin County is on the brink of acquiring two commercial buildings to house the homeless, but its plan for winter sheltering remains a work in progress.
“We’re working right now on making a COVID-based plan to keep people safe during cold weather,” said Ashley Hart-McIntyre, the county’s homelessness policy coordinator. “The looming winter is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider issuing notices of intent to purchase the two buildings. The supervisors might consummate the purchases at their meeting on Nov. 10.
According to a county staff report, the Community Development Agency has negotiated to purchase the Americas Best Value Inn hotel at 1591 Casa Buena Drive in Corte Madera for $4.1 million and an office building at 3301 Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael for $7.2 million.
Leelee Thomas, a Marin County planning manager, said, “We’re fairly confident, but it’s not a done deal yet. We have some additional due diligence and requirements to meet for the state.”
The county has already been awarded $9.6 million through the state-funded Homekey program to help cover the costs. That includes a $6.4 million allocation for the San Rafael building and $3.2 million for the Corte Madera hotel.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity that the state is investing this much money into housing for some of our most vulnerable folks,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the remaining $1.7 million would come from a variety of sources. She said San Rafael’s inclusionary housing fund will supply the money to complete the purchase of the Kerner Boulevard building.
Developers sometimes pay into the fund to avoid San Rafael’s inclusionary housing requirement, which mandates that 20% of homes in large developments be sold or rented at below-market rates.
State money allocated to Marin through the “Whole Person Care” pilot program and money from the county’s affordable housing trust fund will supply most of the additional $900,000 needed to complete the purchase of the Corte Madera hotel.
Hart-McIntyre said Homeward Bound of Marin, the nonprofit that operates the county’s homeless shelters, plans to use the San Rafael building to temporarily house people displaced from its Mill Street shelter, which is being renovated.
She said that won’t be a problem, however, since Homekey projects may be used for interim housing as long as they eventually transition into permanent housing.
The state’s Homekey program is a spinoff of its Project Roomkey, which paid for counties to lease hotel rooms to temporarily shelter the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county used three motels in Marin for this purpose. Now, as the program winds down, Homeward Bound of Marin is working with the county to find permanent housing for the people who were sheltered in the motels.
“Two of the three hotels still have residents,” Hart-McIntyre said, “and we’re working on an offramp for all of those residents currently.”
Hart-McIntyre said 65 people are living in the two hotels that remain open. Prior to the pandemic, between October 2017 and February 2020, the county had placed about 200 people in permanent supportive housing through its “coordinated entry” program.
Under the program, clients grant permission for various agencies to share information about them to help find them housing.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, the county has placed an additional 91 people plus 12 families in permanent supportive housing.
Most of the housing was supplied through use of the federal government’s Section 811 housing vouchers. The Section 811 vouchers are similar to the more well-known Section 8 vouchers except they are limited to people under age 62 who have disabilities and are allocated on a competitive basis.
Hart-McIntyre said that while availability of Section 8 vouchers has been limited, “we’ve been able to make that up with new allocations of Section 811 vouchers.”
Marin has already received 100 of the Section 811 vouchers and is applying for 75 more.
“We’ve received quite a number of them because we’re more successful in using them than many other communities,” Hart-McIntyre said, “largely because of the Housing Authority’s work with coordinated entry.”
Hart-McIntyre said no decision has been made yet about how the county will provide for emergency shelter for the homeless this winter if the weather turns especially cold or rainy.
“Our goal is to get people into permanent housing,” she said. “Too much focus on shelter can really impair our ability to do that, but we also need to make sure people are safe when it is cold and wet.”
“We are working really closely now with our public health officer on how we can best do that,” she said. “We’ve got it on warp-speed.”