The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Feb. 6 to advance plans to declare a shelter crisis and to form a nine-person homeless and affordable housing committee.
Both items are set to come back before the board Feb. 27 for final approval.
To what extent the county can carry out a shelter crisis declaration — which allows a local government to use a public area or building as an emergency shelter and to suspend certain laws or restrictions to allow that — could be limited by a 2016 agreement between the county and the U.S. Department of Justice, county officials said.
The agreement requires the county to correct its Americans with Disabilities Act violations at its facilities and property within three-and-a-half years after failing to comply with a similar agreement from 2008.
California law allows local governments to declare shelter crises, but county administrative officer Amy Nilsen said federal law trumps state law in this case.
“We still have to comply with federal law, especially ADA,” Nilsen said.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said the costs that would go along with creating an ADA-compliant emergency shelter space might make it more cost effective for the county to support the efforts of other organizations that are not as restricted.
“I understand the passion behind the shelter crisis, but I’m not there yet because I’m afraid we’re going to get saddled with more,” Bohn said. “… I’ve got to make sure we can implement it and do it soundly.”
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell also noted the Eureka City Council declared a shelter crisis in 2016. She said most of the county’s homeless population resides in the Eureka area.
Fickle Hill resident Uri Driscoll said the county then has to consider other roadblocks that go along with setting up a shelter in a public space, especially how community residents respond.
“And I think that roadblock is spelled N-I-M-B-Y,” Driscoll said, referring to the acronym for the phrase “not in my backyard.”
The board’s discussion was an extension of its Jan. 9 meeting in which several members of the public urged the county to declare a crisis based on the lack of available housing.
The board then appointed Bohn and Fennell to an ad hoc committee and asked them to bring back recommendations for the crisis declaration as well as for forming a new committee tasked with tackling housing and homelessness issues.
Many public speakers like McKinleyville resident Winchell Dillenbeck expressed frustration at the initial draft of the shelter crisis declaration, which had an ending date of June 1.
Speakers were also concerned that the new committee would focus on affordable housing funding and construction.
Humboldt County and the city of Eureka have each adopted a Housing First model that aims to rapidly house chronically homeless individuals and provide them with services to keep them housed.
Dillenbeck said this strategy is limited without the input of other organizations that are working on homelessness issues.
“There is nothing in Housing First that will solve this problem until you open up a strategy committee. … There is no money for the villages, there is no money for sanctuary camps and we cannot get there fast enough,” Dillenbeck said. “… I’m the father of a homeless child who has struggled with every last issue in this county. And it’s breaking my heart that people aren’t doing anything.”
After taking public comments, the board nixed the end date for the shelter crisis declaration and instead made it so the declaration would come back before the board for review in a year. The board also voted to expand the committee’s duties to include providing recommendations to the board of supervisors about homeless policies, housing efforts as well as providing input on affordable housing funding should be spent.
“For my part, I don’t care what it’s called, I don’t care if you declare one thing or do a committee,” board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said. “Whatever gets us to a place where we can actually start making progress on this, progress the quickest and get the best minds in Humboldt County thinking about this and giving us solid input — that’s what I want.”
The nine-person committee is proposed to be made up of five members chosen by the individual supervisors and the other four seats selected by the county Department of Health and Human Services, the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition, the county Planning and Building Department and the board of supervisors as a whole.
At the board’s Jan. 9 meeting, county Department of Health and Human Services Senior Program Manager Sally Hewitt said while the county has hundreds of thousands of dollars available to help homeless individuals afford rent and cover security deposits, there are virtually no properties available for people to move into.
She said the lack of available housing is partially due to properties not meeting federal quality standards, which means the county subsidies can’t be used at those properties.
In an effort to address this issue, the board voted on Jan. 23 to create an affordable housing trust fund that would incentivize local developers to build affordable housing or to potentially renovate properties to meet federal standards. The board directed staff to sell a county-owned parcel on Lucas Street in Myrtletown to begin funding it.
Several board members also said the affordable housing committee could discuss the idea of using revenue from the county transient occupancy tax collected from short-term rentals like those listed by websites such as AirBnb to fund the trust fund.
Nilsen said other funding sources could come from recently approved housing legislation by the state Legislature. Nilsen said one of these bills is Senate Bill 2, which would create a permanent $75 fee on real estate transaction documents to raise about $250 million that will be split between the state and competitive grants for local governments. The funds are meant to be used for streamlining housing production.
Senate Bill 35 also allows local governments that are not meeting their state-mandated housing goals to streamline the construction of housing and affordable housing. Humboldt County is likely to fall under this bill.
Planning and Building Department Michael Richardson said last week the county will in “no way” be able to meet its housing construction goal of 859 new units by mid-2019.
Other local shelter efforts are underway. The board voted on Jan. 23 to allocate $100,000 to the city of Eureka to help fund a permanent site for a 42-unit homeless housing project by the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation.
The county and other local partners are also working to find a location for a 40-bed, 24/7 winter shelter for the homeless which would also provide services such as health care, housing assistance and employment assistance.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.