Redlands' Homekey project is an “important model” for other cities, says former federal homelessness czar
Project Homekey has become a cornerstone of the state’s efforts to prevent and reduce homelessness. In theory, Homekey is simple. Using state money, public agencies can quickly convert underutilized hotels and motels into studio apartments by adding kitchenettes and other amenities. This allows public agencies to secure federal housing vouchers, which moves people into housing at an accelerated rate.
In many cases, cities lack the staff capacity needed to pursue competitive grant funding, coordinate service providers, and sustain supportive services. For others, getting the necessary buy-in can be equally insurmountable.
A project in Redlands shows one way local officials can overcome these challenges quickly and efficiently. The small city converted a motel into 100 units of permanent supportive housing in just four months. Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Philip Mangano, a former federal homelessness czar, publicly praised the project.
“Overcoming the kinds of concerns, the kind of fears, the kind of risk averseness that other communities have — that’s the beauty of the Redlands model,” said Mangano in an interview with Cal Cities. “Redlands demonstrated how more communities can get involved.”
Doing due diligence
Until 2021, Redlands provided some basic assistance for unhoused residents through emergency services. However, this rarely addressed the long-term chronic causes of homelessness. Firefighters and police officers can connect people with supportive services, but their primary focus is usually on immediate public safety needs, not case management.
That changed in 2020. According to that year’s Point in Time Count, 186 people were experiencing homelessness in Redlands — the third-highest total in the county. In 2021, the city council enthusiastically directed a small team to research possible solutions, such as a tiny homes village for 40 people, and return to the council with a recommendation.
The team included officials from throughout the city, including representatives from the city manager's office, the fire chief, and the police chief.
“The Redlands model is a brilliant one because it didn’t react hastily to its homeless numbers,” said Mangano, who currently advises the California Interagency Council on Homelessness. “It didn’t react simply with an emergency response. Instead, it was a more deliberate strategic response with the council and the mayor assigning officials they trusted … that are most impacted by homelessness.”
The team visited projects in the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino. The sites were promising, but expensive — even with funding from a recent tax measure. A motel conversion project in San Bernardino was encouraging, but Redlands Assistant City Manager Chris Boatman was initially skeptical of the idea. He was worried about the costs of a large development and its potential impact on the surrounding businesses.
Those fears were quickly allayed after visiting the project. The motel conversion project is closed to walk-ins, has on-site security, lots of capacity, and comprehensive supportive services. The project was converted by an experienced developer and run by an equally experienced nonprofit. The conversion also made sense from a land-use perspective.
“You are taking a facility that is already constructed to house a lot of people,” said Boatman, a former urban planner. “Not only are you buying a facility that has all of the infrastructure in place, but you have the opportunity to take a facility that might be blighted and might be somewhat of a nuisance and convert it into something that can be put to good use.”
When the team looked at Redlands, one property came to mind: Good Nite Inn. The motel had been a known issue and generated a relatively high volume of service calls.
“I think one of the clinchers — and I found this to be incredibly unique among what's going on in hotel and motel conversions — it was the police chief who became a strong advocate,” Mangano said.
Funding to completion in less than a year
In Sept. 2021, the team presented a list of possible projects to the Redlands city council, which unanimously approved the Good Nite Inn project. A Homekey application was submitted shortly after, funding was received in March 2022, and by December 2022, elected representatives from all levels of government were attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The first residents moved in shortly after.
Instead of providing housing for 40 people, the city is providing housing for approximately 120 people. The units are fully furnished — from forks to fire alarms.
“The process moving into the … Redlands project was great,” said Elizabeth Rensin, one of the project’s residents. “When I moved in, I received a welcome home package with pots, pans, and little items to make me feel welcome in my new place.”
Residents can receive a range of services, such as workforce readiness training and behavioral health care. “This isn’t just housing,” Boatman said. “The goal is to permanently keep people off the streets.”
Both Mangano and Boatman attribute the project’s success to strong public-private partnerships. Shangri La Industries remodeled the motel and manages the property; Step Up provides supportive services and helped with application outreach. The two organizations provide similar services throughout the state, including in San Bernardino.
“Step Up was great in staying connected with me and bringing paperwork to my encampment,” Rensin said. “My case manager is very understanding of the transition process from the street to my new apartment. Other programs wanted to separate my boyfriend and myself but here we were able to stay together. Keeping me in my community of Redlands and being housed with others that were part of my street family provides me [with] support and empathy.”
Redlands also partners with local nonprofits to provide services and conduct outreach. In the six months leading up to the project’s completion, workers screened nearly 200 people and prepped qualified residents ready for the application process.
“[Local nonprofits] are a critical component to making this a success because they have the local knowledge and relationships,” Boatman said.
City officials themselves were involved in a different kind of outreach in the early months of the project. Boatman and others went door-to-door introducing the project to local businesses.
“It’s important to the city to make sure this project is a positive influence for the city,” Boatman said. That’s not just making sure 100 Redlanders are off the streets. It’s making sure this project is a good neighbor to its surrounding areas.”
Redlands also hired its first homeless solutions coordinator, who proactively strengthened the city’s relationships with neighboring agencies and local service providers.
Thanks to extensive outreach efforts, every unit in the Redlands Homekey project is occupied by a Redlands resident. Although the project will significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, Boatman noted that there is still work that needs to be done. He pointed to several potential next steps, including warming shelters, prevention measures, and increased outreach.
Long-term funding concerns aside, the Redlands Homekey project is a model for success in other communities. Homekey grants can fund the units for several years and federal funding like the American Rescue Plan Act can buy cities some additional — albeit temporary — financial breathing room. A four-month conversion process will not be possible in every community, but the Redlands Homekey project demonstrates that a quick turnaround is possible with the right partners and stakeholder buy-in.
“For a community the size of Redlands, the size of the homeless problem in Redlands is as weighty as the size of the homeless problem in the big cities,” Mangano said. “Redlands has provided a template for how to get this done. For smaller communities, Redlands is an important model.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness in Redlands, or is in danger of experiencing homelessness, call (909) 798-7655 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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