Counties’ Housing Ballot Measures Important to Mental Health

As we look toward the November election, all eyes seem to be on the presidential race, but some are focused on the high profile state initiatives – such as Proposition 64, which legalizes marijuana and provides funding for substance abuse treatment.

Four Bay Area Counties’ Housing Ballot Measures Very Important to Mental Health

However, four bay area housing bond measures may turn out to be the most important issues impacting mental health service funding and housing. They would free up mental health funds that might otherwise have been needed for housing and, even more importantly, act as a catalyst for more similar measures. Any new funding to support people who are homeless will help the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA or Prop 63) in achieving its primary goal of serving everyone with a severe and disabling mental illness – by reducing the pressure to use MHSA funds for housing.

Most of us in the mental health community are well aware of this year’s No Place Like Home (AB 1618) legislation. That program will have several rounds of housing funding that will eventually set aside up to $140 million annually of MHSA funding for the debt service to dedicate $2 billion for supportive housing for people with severe mental illnesses who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Many in the mental health community were concerned that it would divert funds from services.

While that is technically true, it really depends upon how much MHSA funding would have otherwise been used for housing without it. Since a primary purpose of the MHSA is to reach those who are homeless due to the neglect of their severe mental illness, a portion of MHSA funds has to be used for housing.

The No Place Like Home funding is expected to be leveraged with other federal state and local funds so that the number of people who will be housed will be many more than if MHSA funds were simply spent annually to pay for housing as can be done without a bond. The extent to which that happens will determine whether No Place Like Home will actually free up funds that otherwise would have had to be spent on housing through annual rent subsidies.

Depending on the extent of leveraging, experts say the No Place Like Home bond measure could provide anywhere from 8,000 to 30,000 housing units. Eight thousand units would represent a cost per unit of $250,000 from the $2 billion bond, an annual cost of $17,500 per unit or a monthly cost of $1,458. On the other hand, if the leveraging leads to making 30,000 units permanently available to house people with severe mental illnesses then the cost per unit is lowered to $67,000 per unit or $4,667 per year per unit or $389 per month.

What will determine whether the total is closer to 8,000 or 30,000 is the amount of other local, state and federally-funded programs that could be combined with this funding to be dedicated for people with severe mental illnesses.

As the measure was debated in the legislature, there were HUD programs and a few state programs, but virtually no local government programs to supplement the MHSA funds.

Surge in Local Government Interest in Housing and Services for Homeless

During the past six months, local government interest in addressing homelessness has exploded throughout the state, with both the City and County of Los Angeles and the City of Anaheim announcing major new initiatives.

But the biggest initiatives currently being proposed are in the San Francisco Bay Area where four counties (Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara) have placed measures on the November ballot to expand housing and services for the homeless. Together these measures would bring in more than $3 billion in new funding during the next 25 years in an area that is less than 20% of the state.

If they are successful, they will significantly improve the leveraging for the MHSA program in those counties. But even more important is that their success would signal to other cities and counties that voters now support housing and services to reduce homelessness.

That would almost certainly lead to other cities and counties proposing similar measures in 2018 or 2020. Historically, voter support for housing has been limited. But if these measures succeed, it is even conceivable that there could be a statewide tax of millionaires like Prop 63 dedicated to housing and services for the homeless. Such a statewide measure could produce more than $30 billion of housing during the next 15 years.

Other funding for housing and services to homeless supplements and frees up MHSA dollars.

That would make the MHSA program much more efficient in reaching more people with the same funding. It also would take the pressure off of the MHSA to have even more funding dedicated to housing and free up MHSA funds that would otherwise have to be used for housing. That also would answer the fears of many mental health advocates concerned that the MHSA was being expected to be the prime source to solve the problem of homelessness, which is of course, much bigger than just housing those with severe mental illness – always part of its purpose.

These four local measures are tax increases and require a 2/3 vote to be enacted whereas a statewide tax increase only requires a majority of voter approval. In that regard, even if these measures are not enacted, but come close, they could signal enough voter support to lead to a successful statewide tax proposal for 2018 or (more likely) 2020.

While not many of us are in the directly impacted counties, all of us in the mental health community should be watching these measures from the Bay Area and hope that they pass – or at least come close.

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