Our commitment to helping house homeless and at-risk veterans won’t let up until there are no more ex-military men and women living on the streets. It’s hard work, especially in hot, high-cost markets. In honor of Veteran's Day, we're highlighting the creative solutions and partnerships that build supportive housing communities and make it possible for us reach our collective goal.
Developing high-quality supportive housing for homeless veterans is always complex. In hot housing markets, it can often seem impossible.
As we celebrate the service of military veterans this month, that challenge is one of the many facing nonprofits, veteran service organizations, and government agencies working to end homelessness among former service men and women. I’ve been involved in supportive housing development for more than three decades, and have been gratified by the tremendous progress of recent years, as thousands of new affordable apartments have come on line with specialized services for homeless and at-risk veterans. Nonetheless, on any given night, nearly 39,000 veterans still find themselves sleeping on the street. That’s simply unacceptable.
Many of those veterans are concentrated in areas where development can be difficult—places where land is scare or building costs are sky-high and/or tens of thousands of people are struggling to find housing within their means. Think, for instance, about California, where an estimated 25 percent of all homeless veterans live but where affordable housing development is often cost-prohibitive--especially when the goal is to target chronically homeless veterans. These projects simply can’t generate sufficient cash flow to repay the debt needed to buy and build in many of these areas.
How do we get around difficult economics to meet the ongoing need? Not easily, certainly, but we have a few ideas. First, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is in a good position to expand its already-proven Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) policy—leveraging underutilized federal land for supportive housing developments, especially on sprawling VA medical campuses. The new housing not only offers residents proximity to a range of medical services, but developers often upgrade the campus infrastructure as part of the process, making it possible to plan for additional housing development in the future phases.
EULs can be successfully adapted to densely populated, high-cost areas. For instance, in northern California’s Menlo Park—one of the most expensive rental markets in the country—a development named The Willows is now home to 60 formerly homeless veterans, built on the Menlo Park VA medical campus.
Beyond VA sites, former military land also offers opportunities, even without EUL. In the San Pedro area of Los Angeles, Blue Butterfly Village sits on terrain once used for naval housing—now 73 townhomes for veterans with children, with a clear focus on the needs of women veterans. Further north, on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, two nonprofits are working on a plan to build a continuum of transitional housing and permanent supportive housing at a former naval station. They hope to begin construction in early 2020.
There are also encouraging new possibilities with veterans’ service organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion. Many own land and are expanding their reach to a new generation of veterans. Underutilized land could be redeveloped into multifaceted service centers that integrate affordable housing with a range of other activities.
Finally, we have seen a great deal of creativity from local nonprofit partners who have learned over the years how to move affordable projects forward in tough markets and to layer on vital services. Skid Row Housing Trust, for instance, has been developing supportive housing in Los Angeles for decades, and expanded its focus to veterans with The Six, in the city’s Mac Arthur neighborhood, an area where gentrification threatens to displace long-time residents. In North Philadelphia, near Center City, a long-shuttered school was renovated by HELP USA and reopened as 37 units of supportive housing with services for veterans—a project that both addressed a significant housing need and eliminated a source of blight.
These projects are models for the future, and part of a trend that has helped slash homelessness among veterans by nearly 50 percent over the last decade. We’re grateful to the funders of LISC’s Bring Them HOMES veterans initiative, including Citi Community Development, MetLife Foundation and Northrop Grumman, which have helped seed these efforts, and to the investors who put their capital to work every year in ways that benefit at-risk veterans.
As the nation grapples with an escalating affordable housing crisis, LISC is committed to making sure housing for veterans is part of the solution. We owe at least that much to the men and women who have given so much of themselves to our country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Burkart, National Vice President, Supportive Housing, NEF
Since 1992, Deborah Burkart has underwritten supportive housing and, starting in 1998, affordable assisted living investments for NEF's funds. Deborah has assisted in the acquisition and/or underwriting of over $1 Billion in tax credit equity for special needs projects during her over 25-year tenure at NEF, including more than 4,000 units of housing for homeless veterans in 15 states. In 2012 she founded and directs LISC-NEF’s Bring Them HOMES homeless veterans initiative and has raised $5 million in predevelopment grant funding for veterans supportive housing projects. She is a nationally recognized expert on affordable seniors housing and supportive housing financing and policy, and speaks frequently at conferences. Deborah is based out of California.