This June’s primary ballot is a short one, with only two statewide propositions. Advocates for veterans hope Proposition 41 will catch the attention of California voters. It would allow the state to sell $600 million in bonds to fund housing for low-income and homeless veterans.
One of the goals is to create more places like Veterans Commons at 150 Otis St. in San Francisco. It opened less than two years ago and is now home to 75 veterans who once lived on the street or teetered on the edge of homelessness. That includes veterans like Dav Pate, who had a bumpy housing history.
“For 10 years I lived up in the Castro, taking care of people and getting room at their place, couch surfing,” says Pate. “That’s a way of life in San Francisco — for those of us who are lucky enough to have friends who allow that.” Pate has multiple sclerosis and now uses a motorized wheelchair. Veterans Commons at 150 Otis gives him a permanent home and the support of a social worker, who helps him get the care and services he needs.
“Most of our veterans have, in addition to possible mental health, substance abuse issues, physical disabilities, some with HIV and AIDS,” says Tramecia Garner, director of residential programs for Swords to Plowshares, the nonprofit that runs the place. “The hope was veterans could live out the rest of their lives in a quality place, and not be homeless for the rest of their lives.”
Pate says getting his own apartment was a godsend. “I thought I was one of the chosen,” Pate says. “We need in San Francisco a dozen more like this.”
But housing like 150 Otis doesn’t come cheap. It cost $30 million to renovate. That’s why veterans’ advocates are pushing for Proposition 41. It would allow California to sell $600 million in bonds. That money would act as a catalyst to developers and nonprofits to create affordable rental housing for low-income vets and their families. “Whatever we can do to create a broader base of housing options is the key. And this will do that,” says Michael Blecker, director of Swords to Plowshares.
A Big Change: Renting Instead of Buying
Some of the housing created under Prop. 41 would include social services to help vets get back on their feet. And it would be available for rent. That’s a real change from how it’s been done in California.
For over 100 years, the state has helped vets to buy houses, farms and mobile homes through the CalVet Home Loans program. But demand for those loans has fallen significantly since 2000. Observers give many reasons. Some vets can’t afford to buy a home because they lack a stable income or they’ve been priced out of California’s real estate market. And those who can buy may find better mortgages on the open market. Blecker says the loan program is a relic. “A lot of these state veteran loan programs were a legacy of World War II, when there was a tremendous push for home ownership when the World War II veterans came back,” says Blecker. “How many veterans are coming back wanting to purchase a farm in the state of California? Not too many.”
As a result, veterans housing bonds that voters approved in 2008 have never been sold. So, earlier this year, the Legislature voted to de-authorize $600 million in bonds — more than half of what’s sitting in the CalVet loan pot. Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), who led the effort, says Prop. 41 would redirect the money where it’s needed most. “This allows us to have a much more responsive approach to the real day-to-day needs of veterans,” he says.
Prop. 41 has no vocal critics. But voters may want to consider what it will cost the state to pay back those bonds — $50 million a year for 15 years — from the general fund.
Pérez says it’s well worth it. “In San Diego, to deal with the issues of someone who is homeless on average costs the county $2,800 a month,” says Pérez. “Housing a vet through something like this costs us $685 a month. When you balance out the number of people who you can house through Prop 41, and the savings in housing them, it more than balances out the differences of the finance costs that the state will incur.”
Will Voters Go For It?
The measure’s fate will depend on who turns out to vote and their appetite for state debt. Only one in three registered voters is likely to show up to this primary election, says Mark Baldassare, of the Public Policy Institute of California.
“These will be voters who are frequent voters who tend to be older and more conservative. Bond measures are going to be looked at with some skepticism,” says Baldassare. He says public support for veterans may help Prop. 41 pass. And advocates say that if it does, it could help meet the national goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.