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Oct 25, 2021


A comprehensive plan to provide shelter and services

By Ed Goldman

Spoiler Alert: Today’s column, which is lengthier than usual, will not conclude with a cure for homelessness. Neither will this decade, for that matter. Homelessness has become a seemingly eternal, often tragic dilemma.

But it may alert many of you, in the cities this column has been privileged to reach in the past 23+ months, to a more-than-stop-gap solution staring at least one local government straight in its red-taped, non-expert, slow-to-act face.

Edgy Cartoon

Bob Chase

John Hodgson and Bob Chase, a developer and architect, respectively, have created, by gathering an A-team of Urban Land Institute (ULI) and American Institute of Architects (AIA) activists a detailed plan to build modular housing throughout California’s capital. I hasten to add that all are working for free—and apparently, not even in the hope of their efforts being monetized at some point. 

Their plan could provide temporary homes for a maximum of 18 months for the estimated 6,000 homeless people throughout the city. The plan doesn’t pretend to be a panacea for a problem that may be equal parts mental, emotional and even attitudinal—that last part as in the sometimes-expressed opinion, “Some of the homeless actually like being homeless.”

Edgy Cartoon

John Hodgson

Yeah, that’s true. Every so often (but not really that often), a homeless person gets interviewed and offers his or her version of Walt Whitman’s classic poem “Song of the Open Road.” Or the colorful notion of being footloose and fancy-free makes its way into a hit song, like the late Roger Miller’s wonderful tune, “King of the Road.”

But by and large, if you speak with people camping alongside rivers and under bridges, sleeping on park benches, in abandoned cars and vans or on the cold ground, they don’t praise their lives or circumstances. They’re suspicious of saviors—even well-meaning doctors and mental health counselors have trouble establishing trust—and they cherish the pets that loyally accompany them on their journey to nowhere.

In my view, the federal government’s highly self-touted HousingFirst program simply adds a layer of skin to a foundation of bologna. It’s all about the optics, as in: If we get these people off the streets so their omnipresence can’t impact home values or business, the problem will be solved. There’s no need to provide, before we give them shelter, psychiatric, evaluative services or legal help. And life counseling—the real kind, not the nonsense that the cottage industry of “life counselors” peddles to disgruntled professionals (“Maybe it’s time to hang up the ol’ stethoscope for a while and learn origami from a master”).

Hodgson, Chase and company have created a “concept design” that coincides with Sacramento’s having designated 21 sites within the city limits to build (or modify existing) structures. Most significant to me is that the design takes into account the need for in-house and collaborative services—such as medical, behavioral, employment training, child care, and employment training programs, as well as support for victims of domestic violence.

Green Bean Kitchen Cleaners
At a recent al fresco fast-food lunch, near one of the freeways beneath which some of the housing could be created, Hodgson and Chase—who are both in their 70s, look at least a decade younger and speak with enthusiasm-fueled energy for the project—make clear that they’re not service providers. They’ll have nothing to do with the programs provided.

But in the arena of building and development, they’re gladiators. Hodgson has been a land use attorney and helped with the development of thousands of mixed-use master-planned projects throughout Northern California. Chase is a consultant to the California Architects Board, sits on the Planning and Design Commission for the City of Sacramento—which he’d served as the city’s chief building official—and retired as the deputy state architect.

As to the prospect of the plan becoming reality, “The financing is already in place with the city,” says Chase. “The mayor has roughly $100 million available, with more from the county to provide support services.”

“The City Council unanimously adopted the Mayor’s comprehensive housing plan for the homeless on August 10 of this year,” Hodgson says. “That plan specifically identified 21 sites throughout the City that…could have homeless housing built on those sites.

“Included in this adopted plan,” he continues, “was a provision that specifically directed city staff to incorporate the design principles presented by our group.” The first portion of Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s presentation to the City Council consisted of Chase and Hodgson’s presentation of design plans created by the local chapters of ULI and AIA. The adopted housing plan specifically directed the city manager, Howard Chan, to implement it by building on these 21 sites.

“Immediately after the Council meeting we were contacted by several representatives of city council members asking us to design a building on one of the sites in their district,” Hodgson says. “We declined, saying we would work with the city manager’s office. Unfortunately, we’ve heard nothing from the city staff—although we’ve had some conversations with representatives of the mayor’s office.”

Ironically, Chase and Hodgson say they continue to be contacted by other groups “as a well as a couple other cities and counties about what we’re doing,” Hodgson says. “But for now, we really want to focus on the City of Sacramento because that’s where we live and work.” He says “a number of major business and neighborhood organizations are now getting involved and will be communicating to the city their support of using our design plans for some of the 21 sites.”

“Our group believes if a site is ready to go—no physical issues, utilities are readily available, land is tied up, no issues with CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act)—then a 50- to 100-unit housing unit could be up in six months or less, Hodgson says. “The city is supposed to be building up to 4000 or more units of this type of supportive housing but at their current rate that will never happen.”

“The Mayor says he wants this housing up today,” Chase says.

So, I imagine do businesses, residents, visitors, elected officials and—lest we continue to forget, ignore or simply hide them—the homeless.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).