Redwood City mayor focuses on housing, homelessness in State of the City

Redwood City mayor focuses on housing and homelessness in State of the City

in Community

The problem of homelessness in Redwood City is the “result of years of underinvesting in new housing, leading to rising housing costs, both of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lack of human resources,” Mayor Giselle Hale said in the 2022 State of the City address on Monday.

But the mayor added that much is being done to increase access to affordable housing, connect the unhoused with stable housing and resources and to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Hale was joined by Vice Mayor Diana Reddy in delivering a State of the City report that was unique in that it focused on the issues of housing and homelessness rather than the typical broad spectrum of issues facing the city. The report cited a long history of red-lining and gentrification as contributing to making Redwood City the fifth most segregated city in the nine-county Bay Area. With job growth far outpacing housing growth, low-income neighbors who endure exorbitant housing costs have struggled to afford basic needs. The poverty contributes to myriad problems of public health and homelessness and the rise of unsafe, unsanctioned encampments, the report added.

The address echoed concern over a lack of extremely-low income housing to support these individuals, an issue that took center stage at a joint study session on housing held last month by the Redwood City Planning Commission and the Housing and Human Concerns Committee.

“This is not about assigning blame, pointing fingers or casting shame,” Hale said. “But after the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and what we’ve seen related to these issues, we can no longer dance around the edges of our housing and homelessness crisis in Redwood City.”

Hale and Reddy urged residents to join the city in a wide-ranging campaign to address the problems, from participating in budgeting for strategies to support struggling residents so they can remain in their homes, to support with the development of the 2023-2031 Housing Element that will determine where and how to build new housing units in Redwood City. The state is mandating that the city construct 4,500 new units between 2023 and 2031.

But more is needed to solve the problem of lack of affordability and homelessness in the city and throughout the Bay Area. The Bay Area has underbuilt housing for extremely low-income households by more than 37,000 units over the last 10 years, Reddy stated during the State of the City address. The problem is exemplified in San Mateo County, where nearly 70 percent of land is preserved for open space and agriculture, and over two-thirds of the housing stock on developed land are single-family homes.

The scarcity in supply has spiked the cost to buy or rent a home to the point where lower-income families cannot afford basic necessities such as food and childcare, according to the mayor and vice mayor.

Reddy said that, “more than any other time, there is a lack of housing for low-income neighbors.”

“Without options, people face instability, eviction and homelessness,” she said.

Rise in homelessness precedes pandemic

Housing costs began soaring long before the pandemic. Prior to the virus reaching the U.S., the city dealt with a rise in RV dwellers in the city, which posed safety and environmental problems including litter, human waste, illegal dumping, traffic safety, theft and more. In response, Hale and Reddy were part of a council subcommittee that worked with community stakeholders to establish a Safe Parking Program for 120 individuals living in RVs. The program, which provides resources to RV dwellers with the aim of connecting them to stable housing, also restricted parking access for RVs in city neighborhoods.

“When we met with RV residents, we learned most lived in Redwood City prior to moving to the RV or motorhome they currently live in, and most were housed previously but could no longer afford to live here,” Hale said. “Most were adults, but there were also families with children. Most were working…some were on fixed incomes, while some lived in their motorhome during the week and they returned to their homes elsewhere during the weekend.”

The city worked with Assemblymember Phil Ting to pass state legislation allowing for safe parking programs. Over half of participants at Redwood City’s Safe Parking Site have been matched to a housing subsidy and are on the path to permanent housing, Hale said.

David Trupiano, who began living in a motorhome after the death of his wife and a number of disabling health problems, spoke during the State of the City address about his successful move to Shores Landing, one of three hotels in Redwood City that have recently transitioned into housing and resource centers for the homeless.

Pandemic exacerbates problem

While affluent residents were able to work from their homes during the shelter-in-place period, many extremely low-income residents were either out of work, or were going to work with the risk of catching COVID-19 and bringing it home to their families, Hale said. The mayor highlighted the City Council’s efforts to support these residents with initiatives including eviction protections, rental relief and financial support for small businesses and childcare providers. Grocery stores and pharmacies were required to provide $5 per hour in additional hazard pay as part of council intitiatives. Hale also highlighted the work of the Fair Oaks Community Center, which coordinated food distribution, transportation assistance, emergency rental and utilities application support and offered shower and laundry services to those in need.

Despite the efforts, the problem of homelessness and encampments persist. Mayor Hale says the issues are common concerns she hears from residents. The State of the City highlighted ongoing efforts to support those who have ended up on the street. Along with converting hotels into shelters and permanent housing, the city recently swapped land with the County to make way for a 240-unit homeless navigation center. The center will provide individualized units that aim to better incentivize unhoused community members to accept housing and supportive services.

“We are contacting residents in encampments regularly to try to convince them to accept shelter and services,” said Reddy, noting the city was recently awarded $1.8 million in state funding to “bolster our efforts to help us transition people to housing.”

As part of a pilot program with the County, the city has employed a licensed mental health clinician, Patricia Baker, to work in tandem with Redwood City police officers in responding to emergency calls involving people who may be suffering from mental health crises. Baker also teams with the nonprofit LifeMoves in visiting homeless encampments to support the city’s efforts to transition individuals to housing and services.

Reddy additionally highlighted the work of the Downtown Street Team, which employs unhoused or formerly unhoused individuals on projects to clean up Redwood City. Members of the team are also provided with case management including employment services. Their work not only provides hope for people experiencing hopelessness, but also to local businesses in the downtown area, said Matty Shirer, senior project manager for the Downtown Street Team.

“A lot of people really struggle with having a reachable future in their mind, and so what we say is, this is accomplishable, and these are the steps that it takes to get there,” Shirer said.

In the last few years, the city has invested an “unprecedented” $4.8 million on homeless initiatives,” said Reddy. Additional efforts are on the way, she adds.

“We will consider additional funding recommendations with the upcoming city budget this June,” she said.

Homeless Prevention via Housing

Preventing homelessness is key to the city’s strategy, said Hale.

“What we have learned from our partner AllHome, is that the best stage to house someone who is experiencing homelessness, is their first day on the streets,” Hale said. “After that, the probability of them becoming housed goes down with each day.”

The mayor added that “low-income housing availability and anti-displacement strategies are the biggest contributors to homeless prevention.”

Strategies in Redwood City include affordable housing production on city property, implementation of the affordable housing ordinance, and allocation of city housing funds, Hale said.

Currently, 1,200 affordable units across 22 projects are either under construction, approved, or proposed, Hale said. Of them, 50 percent are low income, 31 percent are very low income and 8 percent are extremely low income.

Looking ahead, “we need to plan for homes for all in our community,” Hale said, referencing the state-required Housing Element for 4,500 new units between 2023 and 2031.

“To create the Housing Element, we will project housing needs for all income levels, build strategies for preserving and improving existing housing, and update city regulations, policies and standards that might limit the improvement and development of housing,” Hale said.

In the last two years, Hale added, the city has worked with a group of stakeholders to produce an anti-displacement strategy. Expected to be adopted by City Council in June, the strategy includes tenant protections and mobile home park preservation, according to Reddy.

Both Hale and Reddy called for ample community engagement to move these strategies forward and stressed the need for all levels of government to play a role.

“It’s a complex set of problems with a long and difficult history, and the pandemic has added to the challenges,” Hale said. “But we are up to the task.”