Robust Partnerships Helped San Diego Deliver Effective Pandemic Relief
The San Diego Housing Commission uses the COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance program to provide rental support to households financially impacted by the pandemic. Credit: istockphoto.com/Scharvik
When the coronavirus pandemic emerged in spring 2020, agencies devoted to providing housing resources and homelessness services scrambled to build and adapt programs to keep people safe and sheltered. In the years preceding the pandemic, the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), which oversees the city’s rental assistance programs as well as its shelters and services for people experiencing homelessness, had engaged in an indepth effort to improve institutional partnerships and streamline processes to improve people’s equitable access to needed resources. That work laid important groundwork for the quick pivoting that the pandemic required. Two programs for which SDHC relies on partner organizations to deliver services — the COVID-19 Housing Stability Assistance program, which provided rental support to households affected financially by the pandemic, and the Operation Shelter to Home program, which provided safe and socially distant shelter while connecting shelter residents to permanent housing and services — demonstrate how mobilizing organizational relationships for change can “break what needs to be broken” and reimagine what these systems can accomplish.
Overcoming Challenges To Delivering Rental Assistance
San Diego received funding early in the pandemic from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included funding for its emergency rental assistance program. A combination of federal funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) — including CDBG funds specifically designed to fill gaps resulting from the coronavirus pandemic (CDBG-CV) — gave the city just over $15 million to fund emergency rental assistance. Per federal guidelines, assistance was available for 80 percent of past-due rent for households earning at or below 80 percent of the area median income who were experiencing financial hardship because of COVID-19. Azucena Valladolid, senior vice president of rental assistance and workforce development at SDHC, reports that SDHC partnered with eight community organizations whose deep connections to historically marginalized communities would help ensure that assistance reached the most vulnerable. These organizations, says Valladolid, were helpful in reaching out to residents hesitant to seek assistance because of their immigration status, which is not a factor in program eligibility.
In the second round of SDHC’s rental assistance efforts, the number of partner organizations increased to 10. The Housing Stability Assistance Program combined $42 million in federal funding authorized by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 with $45 million in state funding to assist low-income households experiencing housing instability or financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic. To address barriers observed during the program’s first year, SDHC now allows partners greater access to application materials to better assist applicants in assembling needed documentation. In addition, the second round of rental relief will allow landlords to apply on behalf of tenants rather than requiring tenants to apply themselves. This strategy of working directly with landlords builds on previous relationship-building activity at SDHC; one such effort, the landlord advisory committee, consisted of major area landlords who were able to get information out to tenants in arrears. The American Rescue Plan Act will continue to support rental assistance programs in San Diego once that funding is implemented.
Changing the Game in Addressing Homelessness
Many people experiencing homelessness in San Diego were unsheltered as of the 2020 Point-in-Time count, which occurred just before the pandemic began. Nevertheless, San Diego had already begun to see improvement, according to Lisa Jones, SDHC’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, as the department’s systemwide efforts to reduce the prevalence of people living unsheltered, initiated before the start of the pandemic, began to bear fruit. Furthermore, SDHC’s focus on improving the homelessness crisis response system gave the agency a strong foundation from which to respond to the pandemic. The 2018–19 effort at reform broke the logjam of “plan fatigue,” which Jones describes as the result of having too many diagnostic reports and not enough action plans. One result of the recent reform was the creation of an implementation team and a leadership council, which helped San Diego move quickly.
The primary challenge in spring 2020 was navigating the tension between two imperatives: connecting unsheltered individuals with shelter and services (thereby increasing the number of people the system serves) and reducing shelter density to facilitate social distancing. SDHC brought food, sanitary products, and protective equipment to unsheltered individuals and employed outreach staff to bring people into shelter. The city converted its convention center for this purpose, housing more than 4,000 individuals in a socially distanced environment under its Operation Shelter to Home program and providing space for staff to work with residents to develop exit strategies to appropriate housing, case management, and service plans. Over 1,400 program participants were successfully exited into permanent or long-term housing.
Lessons for a Postpandemic New Normal
While Operation Shelter to Home was being rolled out, Jones reports that SDHC developed six objectives for the program’s lasting impact on the homelessness system, including becoming more client focused and removing barriers and redundant processes that impede service delivery. According to Jones, successes in these areas are now being scaled up and integrated into the homelessness response center on a permanent basis. Currently, SDHC is developing an after-action report to formally analyze and recommend practices from Operation Shelter to Home.
Valladolid describes how the pandemic has underscored the importance of accurate data in ensuring that programs are delivering needed resources equitably. Applications for rental assistance included questions about racial self-identity; this information, along with locational data that maps applicants to areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, allowed SDHC to assess whether funds were being disbursed equitably according to historic and present need. However, the magnitude of existing need, rather than reported need, is not well captured in existing data, says Valladolid. Before the pandemic, SDHC used eviction data as a proxy for the real-time prevalence of rent burden; however, says Valladolid, eviction moratoria are obscuring the agencies’ insight into potential need as the pandemic wanes in the United States.
Valladolid reports a discrepancy between the expected need and demand for the rental assistance program and cites stories about people choosing to leave their units after falling behind on rent, essentially self-evicting. Under existing rules, those who leave a unit with rent still owed are ineligible for emergency rental assistance for that unit. Valladolid also reports anecdotal evidence of families dipping into savings or acquiring debt, including credit card debt, to keep themselves housed, further highlighting the need for rigorous data. This need is leading SDHC to increase its outreach efforts to tenants and landlords to raise awareness of their rights relating to eviction and rental assistance as well as available resources. During the pandemic, outreach efforts attempted to fill any information gaps that may have presented barriers to accessing assistance, and SDHC monitored how people learned of the rental assistance program and redirected resources into strategies that proved particularly effective. Overall, Jones reports that the pandemic has resulted in a more streamlined, client-focused agency with stronger connections to partner organizations, accelerating the change envisioned by its foundational efforts at reform.
Interview with Azucena Valladolid, senior vice president of rental assistance and workforce development, San Diego Housing Commission, 5 May 2020; San Diego Housing Commission, n.d. “Help with Your Rent,” Accessed 25 May 2021; Interview with Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives, San Diego Housing Commission, 11 May 2021; San Diego Housing Commission, n.d. “Homelessness Solutions,” Accessed 25 May 2021; San Diego Housing Commission, n.d. “Housing Stability Assistance Program,” Accessed 25 May 2021; San Diego Housing Commission, n.d. “City of San Diego’s Homeless Shelters and Services Programs,” Accessed 25 May 2021.×
Interview with Azucena Valladolid, 5 May 2020; National Low Income Housing Coalition. 21 December 2020. “Housing Provisions in Emergency COVID-19 Relief Package.” Accessed 25 May 2021; San Diego Housing Commission, n.d. “City of San Diego’s Homeless Shelters and Services Programs,” Accessed 25 May 2021.×
Interview with Azucena Valladolid, 5 May 2020; Correspondence with Lisa Jones, 24 May 2021; City of San Diego. 22 March 2021. “Mayor Gloria Urges Workers to Apply for Rent Relief,” press release, Accessed 25 May 2021.×
San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless. 2020. “2020 We All Count Report.” Accessed 25 May 2021; Interview with Lisa Jones, 11 May 2021.×
Interview with Lisa Jones, 11 May 2021; City of San Diego. 7 April 2020. “Over 800 Moved to San Diego Convention Center as More Homeless Individuals Relocate.” Press release. Accessed 25 May 2021; Correspondence with Lisa Jones, 24 May 2021.×
Interview with Lisa Jones, 11 May 2021.×
Interview with Azucena Valladolid, 5 May 2020.×
Interview with Azucena Valladolid, 5 May 2020; Interview with Lisa Jones, 11 May 2021.×