Lane County Advances 'Housing First' idea

SWV News,

With construction costs of $8.8 million and other up-front expenses of $3.1 million, Lane County’s planned “housing first” project works out to $238,000 for each of its 50 tenants. With annual operating costs of $400,000 plus $545,000 for support services, it will cost close to $19,000 a year to keep each resident in an apartment.

It’s a bargain.

Not providing housing for these people costs nearly twice as much, according to figures compiled by ShelterCare. Currently, the future residents of the housing first project routinely end up in hospital emergency rooms and the county jail, while also requiring other costly public services, at an aggregate yearly cost of more than $30,000 per person.

In this instance, the public’s economic and humanitarian interests align. That explains why Trillium, the company that runs Lane County’s Medicaid program, has given the project a $500,000 grant: Most or all residents will be enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan, and their medical expenses will decline sharply once they gain stable, supported housing.

The housing first project took a big step forward last week, when the Lane County Board of Commissioners agreed to transfer the land on which it will be built to Homes for Good, the local low-income housing agency, for $1. The property is next to the county’s behavioral health services building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Eugene.

Like most low-income housing projects, this one will rely on funding from a variety of sources, including the sale of federal tax credits, a $3 million state grant and other grants such as the one from Trillium. Most residents will have or can obtain income from disability payments, employment or other sources, part of which will be used to cover operating costs. Behavioral health services are already being provided by the county; the housing first project will make their delivery more efficient and effective.

The logic of the housing first approach is compelling. But because the expenses that are avoided by applying this approach are diffuse, while the costs of providing housing and services are concentrated in a single project, putting the housing first concept into practice is difficult. For that reason, it’s highly encouraging to see Lane County’s project moving forward. The momentum must be maintained — otherwise, an opportunity to save money by helping some of Lane County’s neediest people will be lost.

This lesson has already been learned in connection to a subset of the homeless population: veterans. Lane County and its partner agencies have found housing for 860 homeless veterans since 2014, building on the success of Project 365, which exceeded its goal of housing 365 homeless vets in a one-year period.

Federal and other programs are available to help veterans, which makes tackling this aspect of the problem of homelessness a matter of matching resources with those who need them. Harvesting low-hanging fruit is a sensible and rewarding way to begin making real progress toward addressing homelessness.

Opinon article published in The Register Guard on July 17, 2017