Permanent Supportive Housing

8 min read

Safe, Long-Term Housing with Wraparound Supportive Services

As the homeless crisis deepens throughout the United States—particularly on the West Coast—affordable housing developers are increasingly partnering with social service providers to offer permanent supportive housing to homeless people and other vulnerable populations.

Securing stable housing for people who live on the streets or in unstable environments requires more than simply providing them with a space to live and eat. Many unhoused people face mental and physical health challenges, as well as extreme poverty. In addition to offering the unhoused and the housing insecure a place to live, permanent supportive housing communities bring case workers to residents to arrange for services to meet their medical, psychological and other needs. Other services and trainings are also offered directly at the site.

“Homelessness is a multi-pronged issue,” says Welton Jordan, vice president of real estate development at EAH Housing, a West Coast-based company that develops affordable and permanent supportive housing. “Housing is one piece of the issue, but there are other physical and mental issues that need to be dealt with and the need is huge. We can’t build this housing fast enough.”

Jim Silverwood, CEO of Affirmed Housing, says homeless shelters are just a band-aid approach to getting people off the streets. Permanent supportive housing seeks to provide long-term services in addition to housing – and the housing is designed to be permanent.

“There is a big movement right now for building shelters,” says Silverwood, whose San Diego-based company builds both affordable and permanent supportive housing projects. “However, shelters are not long-term solutions, permanent supportive housing is a long-term solution to resolving the homelessness crisis.”

Meeting a Huge Need
Silverwood and Jordan say their companies shifted towards developing permanent supportive housing because they saw the immense need. The issue of homelessness is at crisis levels, they say, and is front and center in people’s minds, especially on the West Coast where their companies operate. Homelessness is often identified among the top three concerns of Californians in recent polls.

“This is an issue everybody sees growing. It was a big issue 15 years ago when I went into this business and it is a bigger issue now,” says Jordan. “The homeless encampments used to be out of the way and not seen. Now you see them everywhere, in parks, along highways, near businesses and downtown. It’s more in people’s faces.”

“We saw the need,” Silverwood says of the reason his company added permanent supportive housing to its portfolio. “In 2012, when we built our first (permanent supportive housing project), there was already a housing affordability crisis and homelessness was already on the rise, but now, homelessness has become a crisis.”

Silverwood says permanent supportive housing is about 20 percent of his company’s portfolio. Jordan says when EAH Housing started focusing more on supportive housing three or four years ago, it was about 15 percent of the company’s portfolio. Now, it is about 25 percent of the portfolio.

“We are a mission-based nonprofit. (Homelessness) is a big issue in our communities and we need to tackle it,” explains Jordan.

In 2021, Affirmed Housing provided permanent supportive housing to a total of 804 people, 204 of whom were veterans. By 2023, the company expects that number to increase to 1,000.

Affirmed Housing’s first permanent supportive housing project was built in 2012 in downtown San Diego in a circa 1928 building that was converted from offices to supportive housing. Dubbed Connections Housing, the project has 14 floors. The lowest two levels house administration offices, a kitchen and cafeteria. Other floors have what is called the Depot where services from various agencies are provided. The project contains two floors of transitional housing—one each for men and women—then permanent housing above that.

“That was our first venture into supportive housing, and it was viewed as a great success by city officials and folks across the state,” says Silverwood. “People from LA and San Jose toured the property.”

Partnering with Social Services Agencies
Silverwood and Jordan stress that their companies are not in the business of providing social services to residents. Instead, they partner with established social service agencies or nonprofit companies that provide the services. Caseworkers have offices in the housing communities.

“The service providers we partner with offer wraparound services right on site,” says Silverwood. “That’s what leads to the greatest success for our residents to gain housing stability.”

Silverwood says Affirmed Housing partners with ten different agencies throughout the state to provide caseworkers and other support to their residents. EAH also partners with nonprofit groups offering supportive services. Jordan says they look for local leaders in the communities in which they build.

“It is regionalized,” explains Jordan. “In Santa Clara County, we built the housing, and the county provided the money for the services, and they contracted those services out to a third-party vendor a lot of the time.”

EAH and Affirmed Housing have both partnered with PATH, a California nonprofit that provides supportive services and builds affordable housing. Other service providers include The People Concern, a Community of Friends, New Directions, St. Joseph Center, HomeFirst and the Veterans Administration.

Medical and psychological services are not offered directly at the site, but a caseworker arranges the appointments and transportation. Services at supportive communities include benefits enrollment, housing stability supports, health care provider coordination, transportation assistance, job training, substance abuse support groups, as well as classes in English as a second language, financial wellness, yoga, cooking and cleaning.

Funding Streams for Services and Housing
Silverwood and Jordan say the projects are funded through a mix of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and federal, state, city and county grants. Silverwood says many of his company’s projects are also funded through project-based housing vouchers. Voters also have approved various funding streams in some communities.

“The most important financing feature for us is project-based vouchers,” says Silverwood. “Without those, supportive housing is very difficult to finance and develop.

The rest of the funding is local, city, county or state. And on all of our projects, we still use LIHTC as a primary source of funding.”

“When we are building affordable housing, we still rely on LIHTC whether supportive or not, across the board,” says Jordan

Communities Designed to Meet the Needs of the Residents and Service Providers
Permanent supportive housing communities require some specific design elements to meet the needs of the populations they serve and the workers who toil there. The safety of residents and staff and the durability of the units is critical.

Silverwood says his company’s supportive housing communities are outfitted with many more security cameras than are installed in their other projects.

“We install three to four times the number of cameras to ensure our residents who often have experienced trauma, feel safe and secure in their homes,” says Silverwood, adding that in designing the communities, “We make sure we take the well-being of our residents and staff into consideration.”

Often, offices for caseworkers are built into the projects, as are spaces for meetings and classes. Living units are built with durable materials.

“With the units, you want to make sure you are using more durable material,” says Jordan. “This population is very hard on the units.”

Jordan says vinyl floors are installed instead of carpet and countertops are not made of granite, which can chip, but other durable products. Drains are installed in the kitchen and bathroom floors in case a faucet is left running.

“You want things that are easier to wipe down, clean and stand the test of time,” says Jordan.

The units are furnished because residents are often moving in from off the streets. Chairs with fewer seams are purchased to reduce the risk of bed bug infestation.

“We have people who come in and they don’t sleep in the beds, they sleep on the floor,” says Silverwood. “They are coming off the streets and it takes months for them to transition from that.”

Designated parking spots for staff and caseworkers also are important, says Silverwood.

Silverwood adds that running the properties comes with unique challenges. For instance, discussions of whether a person should be evicted due to disruptive behavior can be extremely sensitive, since many residents have mental health challenges, and their behavior can reflect those challenges. Affirmed Housing employs a director of supportive housing to help maneuver through trouble spots experienced by property managers and service providers.

“These projects are not for the faint of heart,” says Silverwood. “Housing a population that has established habits after years of living on the streets comes with its own set of challenges, however the model of Housing First and pairing housing with on-site services is what ultimately leads to successful outcomes for our residents in stabilizing and moving towards achieving their goals.”

But the projects are now more important to develop than ever before, both men report. Getting people off the street is a huge societal need.

“Why build them?” Jordan asks rhetorically. “Because we have to.”

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.