Category Archives: Housing

Don’t trip over the homeless on your way to the LA Proposition HHH Homeless Facilities Bidders Conference

Although we rarely go to RFP bidders conferences, last week I was in Downtown LA during the Prop HHH Homeless Facilities RFP, so I stopped by—and noticed the interaction between the homeless services professionals and the homeless.

The conference was held on the 15th floor of City Hall South, a faceless 60s concrete monolith between the iconic City Hall and somewhat infamous Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters.* City Hall South is surrounded by the kind of lifeless concrete plaza Jane Jacobs railed against.

As I walked across the plaza, I noticed a fairly elaborate homeless encampment (e.g., tents, tarps, shopping carts, etc.); real homeless are hanging out around the public fortress, and inside the fortress City slugs and nonprofit reps are discussing how to hand out $1.2 billion to help the homeless. I was tempted to invite a couple of real homeless folks to come up to the conference with me, just to gauge the reaction, but I demurred.

I sat in the plaza for about 15 minutes after the conference and not a single attendee—they were marked by their visitor badges—even looked at the homeless. Consider this another small but notable dispatch from the real world to the proposal world.


* When I worked for Mayor Tom Bradley in the mid-70s, my office was on the 23rd floor of City Hall; I parked next to Parker Center and walked through City Hall South every morning and afternoon for about 18 months. It’s a strange, slightly melancholic feeling to be back after all these years. There were no homeless around City Hall or City Hall South back then. I’m not sure what this means, but it doesn’t feel much like progress to me.

Los Angeles’s Prop HHH Funding for homeless facilities meets NIMBYs

The NYT has learned that “For Homeless Advocates, a Discouraging Lesson in Los Angeles: Money is Not Enough.” The story describes how an LA nonprofit is struggling to build a 49-unit housing development for the homeless in Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the main funding source is a Proposition HHH grant—a program we first wrote about back in August.

As we wrote then, Prop HHH authorizes $1.2 billion for homeless facilities. Although the NYT reporter doesn’t seem to know it, Prop HHH funding is not limited to housing; it can be used for any facility—including medical clinics or supportive services—that can be construed to “benefit persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness.” The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” since, given LA’s astronomical rents and relatively low incomes, Prop HHH grants could be used for almost anything. Remember that, adjusted for the cost of living, California has the highest poverty rate in the country. Overall, the proposed Lorena Plaza illustrates how how challenging it is for nonprofits to get facility grants—and then actually get the facility built.

LA and California as a whole are progressive Democratic Party strongholds that superficially care about affordable housing. While most politicians and voters support expanded human services initiatives like Prop HHH (which is great news for grant writers), the Democratic LA City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, killed Lorena Plaza.

In other words, the City that giveth with one hand taketh away with the other. Councilman Huizar would probably support a homeless housing development in the distant, white and affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood, but he’s not so much interested in one in his low-income and Latino district. We’re seeing a specific instance of the long-standing NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon.

Even though the City is trying to give away huge Prop HHH grants and Boyle Heights residents likely voted overwhelmingly for Prop HHH, they voted in the abstract for “more funding,” which feels different than looking at concrete plans to build a facility down the street from their home, business, school, church, whatever. As anyone who’s worked in affordable housing development, and especially housing for potentially less than angelic residents, knows that, no matter the income level or ethnicity of the neighborhood, residents with metaphoric pitchforks and torches will oppose a project like Lorena Plaza. In Lorena Plaza, 50% of the units are or were to be for homeless folks with severe mental illness. All politics is local and apparently Councilman Huizar opted for re-election over a place for the most vulnerable people in our society to sleep at night.

At Jake’s recommendation, I’m currently reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s excellent Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. The author uses Google searches and other big data sources to illustrate that much common wisdom is wrong. It turns out that people often lie about things in the abstract (e.g., “I support housing for the homeless” to a pollster), while at the same time googling “how to stop a housing project,” when one is proposed down the street.

All this doesn’t mean that some version of Plaza Lorena won’t get built or that the City won’t eventually award the $1.2 billion in Prop HHH grants. It just means that nonprofits have to be prepared for the struggle. Legal struggles also increase costs, and, in the aggregate, those legal costs help explain why California has the highest poverty rate and affordable housing crisis in the nation. Legal and political struggles also mean at that much of Prop HHH funding will actually be used for non-housing projects, like primary care clinics, which are much easier to “sell” to NIMBYs who have been legally empowered to block any change, anywhere.

Whether an LA nonprofit is proposing a project like Lorena Plaza or a clinic, it’s important for the nonprofit seeking a Prop HHH or any other facility grant to understand that the proposed site can usually be easily changed after the grant award. The funder doesn’t want the grant to be returned. The leverage shifts from the funder to the grantee after funding.

We advise our clients seeking facility grants to pick a site that can be made to seem easy to build for purposes of the proposal but also to be ready to swap the original site for a new site if something goes wrong with the original site, including an attack of the NIMBY Zombies. We see this site-swap frequently in facility grants from HUD, HRSA, etc. YouthBuild projects, for example, often feature site switching. In grant writing, it’s always critical to remember the difference between the proposal world and the real world. In the proposal world everything with the site will work out perfectly and smoothly. In the real world… well, as you can see from the Plaza Lorena example, things rarely works out smoothly.

And, in other LA housing news, “Up to 600,000 expected to apply when L.A. reopens Section 8 housing list this month after 13 years.” Section 8 is a fine program, but it cannot overcome parochial zoning that restricts the supply of housing. Until LA overcomes zoning that limits livable space by mandating height limits, lot setbacks, and parking minimums, it won’t and can’t achieve anything like affordable housing goals.

The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications

The LA Times’s story “County’s homeless population difficult to quantify” tells us that there are 54,000 homeless people in L.A.—or are there? Apparently “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it lost confidence in the survey methodology” used by our friends LAHSA—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—and consequently HUD knocked 18,000 homeless people out of L.A. county. So there are 54,000 homeless in L.A. County, or 36,000, or any other number you care to make up.

It’s almost impossible to accurately define the number of homeless because the definition of homelessness is itself fluid. Does one night on the streets count? Does two? A week? What if someone has a home but runs away for a period of time. For grant writing purposes, homeless counts are a facet of issues we’ve described before, in posts about finding and using phantom data and the difficulty of performing a significant evaluation. Fortunately, funders are like journalists in that they often care less about the epistemological and statistical questions meaning of the number than they care about having a number.

Despite the debate, the numbers may not actually matter: the reporter, Gale Holland, doesn’t mention this, but HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds—otherwise known as “Continuum of Care” grants—allocates money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas. Consequently, the estimated number of homeless derived from the annual homeless count required by HUD isn’t real important.

HUD also requires that urban cities, counties and states draft “Continuum of Care Plans,” or something similar, to end homelessness as part of the Consolidated Plan process. We know because we read and analyze Continuum of Care and Consolidated Plans whenever we write a HUD proposal, which is pretty often. We’ve been reading these plans for 20 years and they all say more or less the same thing. No Consolidated Plan says, “Our goal is to increase homelessness.”

Instead, there is inevitably a vague plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and to end homelessness, usually in about twenty years. Ending homelessness is the cold fusion of grant writing, always on the horizon and never actually here.

Twenty years is just soon enough to be plausible but long enough that the officials who are currently in office are likely to be elsewhere, which leaves space for the next crop of officials to make the same promises. Homelessness is probably not amenable to being cured. Leaving aside the fact that most major coastal cities like L.A. are actually becoming less affordable, not more, a lot of long-term homeless also don’t necessarily want to live in conventional housing, because conventional housing tends to come with lots of rules: no booze, no (illegal) drugs, anyone with a mental illness must take meds, low noise requirements, and so on. For a lot of the long-term homeless, the street doesn’t impose those rules and can actually seem preferable, despite its well-known hazards.

Worcester Massachusetts, where I went to college, has a famous, controversial “wet” homeless shelter. That shelter’s philosophy is simple: the homeless are better off in a relatively safe place, even if they want to drink, rather being forced onto the street by sobriety rules. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood NIMBYs are not fond of the shelter. This schism between wet and dry shelters demonstrate the way real homeless programs run right into all sorts of progressive ideal problems. Those problems can be ignored in the grant world, but they remain stubbornly entrenched in the real world. Gravity opposes the best intentions of rocket engineers.

To return to our previous point, in neither real world or the grant world does the size of the homeless population really matter. In the real world, there is nothing at stake in whether L.A. has 54,000 or 36,000 homeless. Neither number is going to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds. In the proposal world, homelessness is always a crisis that needs just a few more grant dollars to fix—within, say, the next 20 years.

Why Do the Feds Keep RFP Issuance Dates a Secret? The Upcoming FY ’14 GEAR UP and YouthBuild RFP Illustrate the Obvious

An oddity of the Federal grant making process is that projected RFP issuance dates are usually kept secret.* Two cases in point illustrate how this works: the FY ’14 Department of Education GEAR-UP and Department of Labor YouthBuild competitions.

Last week, former clients contacted us about both programs. Both clients are well-connected with the respective funders and strongly believe that the RFPs will be soon issued, likely by the end of the month. We believe them, as both were seeking fee quotes to write their GEAR-UP or YouthBuild proposal. The challenge both face, however, is that the Department of Labor and Department of Education typically only provide about a 30-day period between RFP publication and the deadline. So, if you’re an average nonprofit not connected to the funding source, you can easily be blindsided by a sudden RFP announcement.

I’ve never understood why the Feds do this. Hollywood studios announce film premieres weeks and sometimes months in advance to build buzz. You know that when Apple holds an event at the Moscone Center, new products will be launched. Unlike most humans, though, the Feds think it’s a good idea to keep the exact timing of new funding opportunities a secret. This is beyond stupid, but they have been this way since I looked at my first Federal Register about 40 years ago. I don’t expect anything to change soon.

When we learn about likely upcoming RFPs, we usually note them in our free weekly Email Grant Alerts and, for particularly interesting announcements, at this blog. The best advice I can give you comes from that intrepid reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott at the end of Howard Hawks’s great 1951 SF film, The Thing from Another World:** “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”


* There are many oddities; this is just one.

** This movie has it all: monster loving scientist who spouts lots of stentorian Dr. Frankenstein bon mots about the importance of science, a rakish and fearless hero, a hot babe in a pointy bra, weird SF music, a claustrophobic setting that’s a precursor to “Alien” and many other movies, and James Arness (yes, that James Arness) as “The Thing.”

HUD’s Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program (LBPHC) Program Explained

HUD’s FY 2010 NOFA for the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program (LBPHC) confuses many applicants. We’ve written at least six funded LBPHC grants, so we’re familiar with it. The program is actually simple: it funds the remediation (not necessarily removal) of lead-based paint in privately owned housing occupied by low-income folks.

Applicants, however, often have trouble figuring out how to efficiently spend the grant funds. Lead-based paint remediation usually costs about $15,000 per unit remediated. To make a LBPHC program work, applicants should propose using the LBPHC funds in conjunction with their housing rehabilitation program.

That’s the real secret of the program. Virtually every city has had some form of housing rehab program since the Nixon administration, using a combination of HUD HOME formula grants, CDBG entitlements, state funds, or who knows what. The rehab programs usually entice homeowners and landlords to fix up the housing units by offering small grants for the very low-income (below 50% of area median income or “AMI”) and subsidized loans for low-income and moderate-income (50% to 120% of AMI, depending on the jurisdiction).

The real problem for lead-based paint programs is invariably that the City of Owatonna wants Mrs. Smith the homeowner to fix code violations, remediate lead paint, etc., while Mrs. Jones wants granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and maybe faster Internet access. The city has trouble spending its rehab funds because Mrs. Smith doesn’t want to borrow money to do things that won’t impress her friends and neighbors.

What to do? The City (or other applicant) gets a LBPHC grant and bungie cords it to their existing rehab program. Now Mrs. Smith can get $15,000 or so in LBPHC sub-grant funds to remediate the lead hazards that the city inspector wants her to do and can use the rehab loan to buy her granite countertops.

The lead remediation grant can be used to entice Mrs. Smith to take the rehab loan. Now everyone is happy, including the local contractors who have some work while waiting around for the economy to improve. As long as a city doesn’t try to run LBPHC as a standalone program, but instead combines it with their rehab effort, HUD will love it. So will everyone in town. It’s remarkable to me how many calls I’ve had over the years from city officials who do not get this idea until I explain it. The ones who follow our direction usually get funded and have great success with the program.