Affordable housing is a well-known challenge in our fast-growing city. While one person’s definition of affordability may not match with yours, a recent report by HousingWorks Austin, a local affordable housing advocacy organization, takes a closer look at how Austin’s recent general obligation (GO) bond vote can contribute to developing Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for Austin’s chronically homeless.
According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), there are an estimated 1,987 homeless individuals in Austin on any given night. Of those, 384 are considered chronically homeless, which means that the individual has a disability and has been homeless for a year or longer, or has experienced episodic homelessness over a three-year period. As a group, chronically homeless individuals face unique barriers to housing that are best addressed through a Housing First, Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) model.
In a Housing First approach, access to housing is considered to be the cornerstone of addressing homelessness. Housing is offered to prospective tenants regardless of the barriers to entry, such as chemical dependency, mental health status, financial history, credit issues and some criminal history barriers. Permanent Supportive Housing is unique in that tenants have access to case management and other supportive services they need to fulfill the terms of their tenancy as well as access to a safe, secure, private unit as long as they meet the obligations of tenancy (such as paying rent). Unlike other housing models, PSH leases do not have any terms that wouldn’t be seen in a lease held by someone not seeking this type of housing; in addition, the services associated with a tenant’s occupancy may change with that individual’s needs. With stable housing through PSH, tenants realize benefits such as increased income and access to services; greater community-wide benefits include decreased reliance on public services, such as hospital visits.
In 2012, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said, "Because, at the end of the day, between shelters and emergency rooms and jails, it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets. According to the Ending Community Homelessness (ECHO) 2014 Permanent Supportive Housing Evaluation, the cost (per encounter) of the chronically homeless to taxpayers in Austin can be estimated as follows:
Service Frequently Used
Cost per encounter
Cost per year if all 384 chronically homeless used these services only once a year*
Daily Jail Bed
Cost of Booking
1 person into jail
Emergency Room Visit
Out Patient Visit
In Patient Visit
Night In Shelter
*-this is not data contained in the ECHO report.
These numbers were calculated by City Shaping News staff.
It’s important to understand that many the individuals experiencing chronic homelessness are frequent users of these services, meaning it is more likely that they use the services more than once, in fact several times a year. While it is difficult to estimate the impact that PSH has on the cost of these services, ECHO estimates that for the 796 individuals in their study, a reduction of $901,695 in public service costs was observed in the year after they entered PSH. In cities like New York, each unit of permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers $16,282 in public service costs each year, while the cost of one housing unit is $17,277, a near complete cost offset. In Seattle it is estimated that the savings of PSH is nearly $30,000 per individual per year. For more information on the number of reductions in each of these services in Austin, download ECHO’s report.
In the HousingWorks report, Housing the Hardest to Serve: Strategies for Addressing Chronic Homelessness, two types of PSH are recommended in Austin: single site PSH and scattered-site. Each of these types has associated benefits and drawbacks. In single site PSH, housing units and the associated supportive services are located at the same site. This facilitates community among the PSH tenants, avoids reliance on outside landlords, and is seen as a long-term solution to chronic homelessness. With this option, however, comes a reliance on one organization to be responsible for all aspects of managing and operating the PSH units and services, and as a result programs can be somewhat restrictive. In scattered-site PSH, units and services are located throughout the city rather than co-located in the same facility. While this option offers tenants flexibility in terms of location, a quicker start-up timeline, and greater community integration, scattered-site PSH is highly reliant on landlord participation and can result in unreliable permanence with regard to housing and inefficient access to services for tenants.
In Austin, some of the major barriers to solving chronic homelessness include credit, rental, and criminal histories of the prospective tenants, market conditions that result in few available housing units, community opposition to PSH, and regulatory barriers at both the state and local level. To address this, HousingWorks developed several recommendations, including working with ECHO to establish a clear definition for PSH and Housing First PSH to be used by all CoC (Continuum of Care) funded agencies, which would facilitate funding priority for this type of housing, identifying the 100 or so chronically homeless who are the highest users of public services as potential PSH clients, dedicating a percentage of the 2013 GO bonds for PSH, and developing programs supportive of PSH landlords in a scattered-site situation.
If you would like more information on how you can get involved in the issue of homelessness or housing affordability in Austin, visit HousingWorks or ECHO webpages, volunteer with a local organization, or strike up a conversation with that homeless person you see on the street. What you learn may surprise you.
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