It Doesn’t Take Rocket Science to Solve California’s Housing Crisis, Just Vacant Lots

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September 6, 2023

DignityMoves works to end unsheltered homelessness by building Interim Supportive Housing as a rapid, cost-effective, and thus scalable solution. DignityMoves, led by industry disruptors, serial entrepreneurs and militant optimists, are challenging the skepticism that homelessness can’t be solved.

Our nation has spent astonishing amounts trying impotently to end homelessness, but the problem just keeps getting worse. California, for example, spent a stunning $17.5 billion trying to combat homelessness from 2018 to 2022, yet the State’s homeless population grew. Half of all Americans living on the streets are in California. This unconscionable systemic failure is devastating our society and burdening our taxes.

Silicon Valley, known for its entrepreneurial spirit, in particular, is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis due to a lack of innovative housing solutions. DignityMoves leaders agree more affordable and Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is the utopian long-term solution to solving the State’s homelessness crisis. However, topping $1M per unit and often taking more than five years to build, that goal is by far unattainable for the 115,000 people living on California’s streets today. This crisis demands an immediate solution that can quickly make a visible impact using cost-effective, rapid-deployed state-of-the-art prefabricated modular units.

The streets cannot continue to be the “waiting room”. When people first fall into homelessness, the vast majority don’t yet have a debilitating mental or behavioral health issue.  However, after only 30 days enduring the streets, that percentage skyrockets. In San Francisco, the wait for a coveted ‘PSH’ unit is on average 14 years; so, is it any wonder there’s a public health crisis on our streets? Interim Supportive Housing works by bringing people indoors FAST.

“It was becoming increasingly obvious; we need to offer people a private space, with a door that locks.  And we need to find ways to build them fast, and cost-effectively to build at scale” said Elizabeth Funk, CEO for DignityMoves. “We need to get people indoors immediately to effectively deliver services and where people have a chance to rebuild their lives, find purpose and become an integral part of their local community.” Success rates reflect this trend with up to 86% of site-based clients attaining stable housing outcomes, versus a paltry 6% of those directly coming off the streets.

The design model by Gensler, one of the most reputable architectural firms in the US, uses brand new construction that meets today’s stringent building codes; seismically sound, life-safety features, fully accessible, environmentally friendly, and sustainable; and built with longevity in mind. Innovative green building best practices, such as reusable and sustainable energy production and water management, help reduce energy and water consumption, thus offering a buffer against future rate hikes. Another prime example is the team’s involvement in evaluating structural foundation systems that have minimal impact on the ground. Close analysis between the geotechnical engineer (ENGEO) and structural engineer (Degenkolb) is critical to identifying innovative, cost-efficient outcomes. “We are honored to be partnered up with DignityMoves on their instrumental projects,” said Leroy Chan, GE, ENGEO’s principal from the Oakland office. “The work that ENGEO does with DignityMoves is especially meaningful for our staff who were able to experience how their engineering skillset can benefit the community they live in. As the team leader, I witness the passion from our staff when they dug deep into their engineering tool kits to come up with some out-of-the-box geotechnical solutions, which helped address the engineering and the economics challenges of affordable housing projects” added Chan.

For the DignityMoves project in Alameda, CA the site was underlain by highly compressible Young Bay Mud deposits prone to settlement that would normally be mitigated with ground improvement or deep foundations. ENGEO worked with the team to design the site grading and structural loading to minimize the impact on the Young Bay Mud, and were able to eliminate the need for cost prohibitive geotechnical mitigation.

These units, while cost-effective, are new construction designed to meet today’s stringent building codes, creating highly flexible configurations with a lifespan of 20+ years, providing municipalities with an asset that will visibly and measurably impact the number of individuals experiencing homelessness for many years to come. Furthermore, providing a space that is purpose-built to support a service model that is inclusive, safe, non-stigmatizing, and welcoming has a broader impact on the vicinity and greater community by creating a more resilient neighborhood. Projects like these lessen the need for makeshift encampments, thereby lessening detrimental effects to our local environment including fire danger, build-up of trash, and nonpoint source pollution (fecal contamination and other pollutants) entering our watershed. These impacts all have severe public health risks and the spread of bacterial and viral disease vectors.

Delivering brand-new housing units in under six months, and as low as $50k per door, is simply without precedent. It requires a formidable, high-performing team with mindset. The more their model is honed it demonstrates a cost-effective, replicable, and thus scalable solution. Urban Land Institute agreed and in 2022 bestowed the Americas Award for Excellence on the initial model, which has become the catalyst for hundreds of more similar projects around the country.

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