The climate crisis and pandemic are prompting local governments to take action and finally start tackling chronic homelessness.
The climate crisis is already worsening the housing crisis. Last year, wildfires burned and damaged approximately 17,700 structures in the United States. It was one of the most destructive seasons on record and, frighteningly, part of an uptrend. Forest fires are already contributing to housing shortages in California and Oregon. Texas, Washington and Colorado have also lost significant numbers of buildings to fires in recent years. Over the past decade, natural disasters caused by climate change have caused internal displacement around the world and forced 20 million people from their homes each year, according to the UN.
That’s why some wildfire prone areas are reworking pandemic emergency housing initiatives to shelter residents affected by extreme weather conditions. Oregon and California are renting and buying hotels to house residents who have lost their homes to a wildfire, as well as homeless people living in fire-prone areas. They are also converting some of the units into affordable transitional and permanent housing, depending on the needs of the community.
âWith just one investment, you can add emergency shelter and also tackle the root cause of the long-term lack of affordable housing,â says Megan Loeb, program manager at the Oregon Community Foundation. The foundation is overseeing the state’s turnkey project, launched in October 2020 to convert hotels into different types of housing. She adds that hotels and motels can almost immediately house people – plus they are more welcoming to families and LGBTQ people, and safer during a pandemic, than collective housing.
As the pandemic initiatives have shown, hotels and motels are much easier to adapt than, say, office buildings, and modernization is a faster and cheaper solution than building from scratch. . In addition, the reallocation of existing structures such as hotels is more respectful of the environment. Even people living in settlements who are reluctant to go to shelters tend to be more open to staying in hotels, advocates say. Many hotel owners are open to selling, given how COVID-19 has decimated the tourism industry, and owners are generally well reimbursed, according to Bloomberg.
California’s Homekey Project was launched in June with $ 846 million in state and federal emergency funds to purchase hotels and establish permanent housing for people who are homeless. In six months, it created 6,029 new permanent housing units. On July 12, Governor Gavin Newsom expanded the program with $ 12 billion over two years to create an additional 42,000 units, the largest such investment in state history.
Seeing California’s success, Oregon launched a turnkey project following the Labor Day fires of 2020, the most destructive blaze on record in the state. In one weekend, 4,500 homes were lost, many at affordable prices. The devastation of the wildfires and the ongoing pandemic meant the shelters were full and equally dangerous. The state was already considering a program like Turnkey, and the fire created a new emergency. As part of a larger wildfire relief program, Oregon has allocated $ 65 million to nonprofit partners to purchase and renovate 18-20 hotels, with the goal of accommodating 1,000 people for up to one year, to provide them with tailor-made support services and to channel them to other permanent housing. Of that, $ 30 million went to the six rural counties hardest hit by the fires, and the remaining $ 35 million went to statewide shelters for anyone who is homeless.
âThe Turnkey Project really represents the state’s largest investment in direct services to the homeless,â says Representative Pam Marsh (D-Ashland), a key Turnkey Champion whose district has been hard hit by fires. âI think it can be a game-changer because we are able to give communities real assets that will be centers of activity for homeless services. Once you have a foothold, more is possible.
In its first phase, Turnkey added nearly 900 beds at 19 properties in 13 counties in less than eight months, an approximately 20% increase in the supply of year-round emergency accommodation beds in the ‘Oregon. Program partners are gradually adapting hotel units to affordable housing on an ongoing basis, adding amenities such as kitchenettes to bring them up to standard, Loeb said. At the end of April 2021, Oregon passed a bill that makes it easier to convert hotels into shelters and lodgings. In June 2021, Oregon approved an additional $ 9.7 million for Turnkey to fully fund approved projects and create 132 additional emergency housing units.
“[Project Turnkey] meets about a tenth of Oregon’s needs. It’s a very important piece of the puzzle, but it’s only one piece, âsays Gina Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, which has been involved with the Turnkey project since its inception. She says many turnkey clients have experienced trauma and stresses the importance of wrap-around services in helping the project succeed. âPeople displaced by COVID may need food, those affected by forest fires may need services to help them rebuild their homes or find permanent affordable housing, and those with mental health or addiction also need specialized help. “
Temporarily housing people in hotels is not a new idea, but the practice accelerated during the pandemic as cities rented hotels to shelter the homeless and give hotels a boost. Converting them to permanent shelters is newer, but King County, near Seattle, where the coronavirus has started to spread in the United States, is one that is making a big investment. The county has had a successful experiment of hotels to house that it is reworking to tackle chronic homelessness, with $ 350 million to buy and convert hotels into long-term housing. She has just bought her fourth hotel.
Adding to the urgency of the moment, the moratorium on CDC evictions is set to expire in late July. (Editor’s note: the moratorium was renewed, then canceled by the United States Supreme Court on August 26, 2021.) Housing advocates have sounded the alarm bells about a potential wave of evictions, and black and Latin tenants and small homeowners will likely be the hardest hit. Forest fires and other natural disasters tend to affect marginalized communities the most, including people of color, people on low incomes and people with disabilities, who tend to be more exposed to dangerous conditions and have fewer lives. resources to turn to next. Essentially, extreme weather conditions multiply existing housing shortages and inequalities, according to a 2019 study from the Center for American Progress (CAP).
It’s important to consider affordable housing and climate change together, according to Guillermo Ortiz, a former housing and climate researcher with CAP who worked on the report. After a natural disaster, typically âthis accommodation is not replaced on a case-by-case basis. Often the little affordable housing you have is destroyed by these extreme weather events. “
âPolitical issues are discussed in silos, but the problem with climate change is that it affects everything,â Ortiz says. âWhen we think of climate resiliency plans, housing absolutely has to be part of the discussion. “
Santa Barbara, California is trying to do just that. It recently approved a pilot initiative to rent a hotel and provide full services to homeless residents living in “fire-prone settlements” for 120 days. In May, the city experienced a series of 18 small fires in densely vegetated homeless settlements. In the midst of that was the Loma fire, which was allegedly started intentionally by someone using methamphetamine. He forced the evacuation of a neighborhood, ultimately consuming 9 acres and causing panic among residents that a similar fire under different conditions could burn the city down.
âThe Loma fire has really provided the impetus to make things happen now,â said Jeff Shaffer, a housing advocate in Santa Barbara with SB Alliance for Community Transformation who is involved with the project. He says two weeks later, the county has already housed 39 people at the Rose Garden Inn and put them on the path to permanent housing – and no neighbors have complained. He attributes this to establishing many relationships.
âYou have to get the community to support it, so that they don’t oppose it, and you have to get the people on the streets to participate so that they support it. Those are the two key elements, âShaffer said. He says it’s important to ask homeless people what they want and to make sure business owners and other community members feel heard and understand the program. According to his audience, he emphasizes the economic benefit of housing the homeless or the ethical mandate to do so. âThis balance ultimately helps us move our solutions forward when we need them. “
This story originally appeared in Next city and is republished here as part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s SoJo Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues.
is a DC-based multimedia journalist committed to producing solution-oriented public service reporting. She has previously written on housing, transportation, climate, LGBTQ + issues and more for publications like Greater Greater Washington, DCist / WAMU, Streetsblog, Washingtonian Magazine and others.