Humboldt County weighs short-term solutions in face of housing shortage

Portable buildings sit on Hilfiker Lane property in Eureka mostly used by Humboldt Bay Fire for training on Tuesday. The portables are likely to be used for a future affordable housing project.
Portable buildings sit on Hilfiker Lane property in Eureka mostly used by Humboldt Bay Fire for training on Tuesday. The portables are likely to be used for a future affordable housing project. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard

Humboldt County’s Housing First efforts to rapidly house homeless individuals have helped more than 160 people find housing. But there are still hundreds more waiting on the same opportunity because of the local housing shortage, according to local officials.

County Department of Health and Human Services Senior Program Manager Sally Hewitt said the county and other organizations have hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding each year that can be used to assist homeless or very low-income individuals to pay for rent and security deposits. However, Hewitt said there is not enough housing available for these funds to even to be used.

“There’s at least 300 people who are ready to go if housing could be made available to them,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said part of the difficulty of finding housing for subsidized renters is that the housing must comply with federal quality standards, which Hewitt said many properties do not meet.

“We have been aggressively working to house a lot of folks and we aim at housing that is less than $700 a month,” Hewitt said. “Pretty much every affordable house that meets that we have rented.”

In the meantime, local homeless advocates are calling for the Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter crisis on Tuesday to allow for emergency shelter construction to begin.

The board had delayed making a declaration at its Jan. 9 meeting, though some supervisors acknowledged that a crisis does exist. The board instead voted to form an ad hoc committee to review potential options and make a final recommendation at the upcoming Tuesday meeting.

Other stopgap measures are being considered in the meantime, such as the county Board of Supervisors investing $100,000 to the city of Eureka to find a location for donated Pacific Gas and Electric Company trailers that can be used as temporary housing.

The county and other local groups are also working to create a 40-bed winter shelter that would be open 24/7 and would provide access to services such as housing assistance, health care and employment assistance. Hewitt said the search for a suitable location is still ongoing.

But in terms of developing new housing, Humboldt County and the state as a whole are well behind, according to local officials.

County Planning and Building Department Senior Planner Michael Richardson said the county’s latest state-mandated Housing Element approved in 2014 required the county to identify property that can accommodate about 860 new housing units in the unincorporated area by 2019, about half of which must be low-income affordable housing.

Richardson said that the state projected 172 units of new housing must be built in the county each year, but only 74 were built in 2016, of which about 20 were for low-income and very low-income units.

At this point, Richardson said there is “no way” the county will be able to meet the required 859 new housing units by mid-2019.

“There is not enough housing being constructed to meet what our projected demands were supposed to be,” Richardson said.

Richardson said that the county doesn’t construct the housing units itself, but it has a role in encouraging development.

“Part of the responsibility lies with the county to make sure there are sites that are available that are properly zoned with the appropriate infrastructure to accommodate these units,” Richardson said. “Beyond that the county’s role is to just wait for a project to come into our door and run like hell to try to permit that project in a timely manner and hope they get developed.”

California would need to build about 3.5 million more units by 2025 to keep pace with population growth, but only one million homes were expected to be built by 2025, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report from October 2016.

Local housing development projects are in the works, including two Danco Communities projects in the city, according to Eureka Community Development Director Rob Holmlund.

Holmlund said the City Council has provided funding for a 40-unit senior affordable housing at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Seventh Street. Another Danco Communities project would build 50 units for homeless veterans at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, which would include full-time staff for post-traumatic stress disorder counseling, life skills courses, job training and on-site security, Holmlund said.

“If it comes through it will be one of the largest buildings constructed in Eureka in decades,” Holmlund said. “More importantly I think it would provide much needed housing for homeless veterans. What’s really special about that project is it goes beyond providing housing.”

Holmlund said they are still assessing how much housing the city would need to build to meet demand, which he said would be completed in about six months.

Holmlund said that there is not much room to build in Eureka compared to other areas of the county.

“Eureka’s strategy is going to have to be different,” Holmlund said. “Our strategy is going to be based on infill, utilizing the infrastructure we already have and finding vacant and underutilized parcels.”

Holmlund said at least half of new housing units in the city would be built in the next 20 years would be in the city’s commercial districts. Holmlund said this would be achieved by having mixed uses, such as business on the street level and residences in upper floors.

Holmlund said that the state’s housing shortage as a whole will a greater affect on the county’s shortage, with potentially more people from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area looking north.

“Even if 0.1 percent of people would start looking outside of those areas that’s a large number of people,” Holmlund said.

Richardson there is also a project in the works to build 66 multifamily units in the Myrtletown area.

Hewitt said that even if there are willing developers ready to invest in new housing projects, it would take at least a year before people could occupy it. There other options available, Hewitt said, such as renovating existing apartments to allow for subsidized renters, which take less time.

“There are alternatives to help,” she said. “Then there is what do we do with homeless folks in the meantime.”

Hewitt added she’s excited to see what the Board of Supervisors chooses to do on Tuesday.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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