Legislators push O.C. homeless bill forward

A bill to create a regional Orange County agency to finance 2,700 homes for homeless people recently cleared the state Legislature — on the same day one of the leading advocates who helped get the bill passed suddenly left her job.

Heather Stratman, who officials and advocates say led the effort to get the bill passed, stepped down from her job as the chief executive of O.C. cities on Aug. 23 — the same day the bill had its final, unanimous vote on the floor of the state Assembly.

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“I’ve greatly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunities I’ve had to tackle complex regional issues like housing, sober living reform and pension stabilization,” Stratman, who was CEO of the Assn. of California Cities — Orange County, said in a statement released by the association. “I have learned a great deal and created deep relationships, all of which I will take with me throughout my career.”

“The passage of AB 448 represents a real opportunity for regional collaboration, bringing the cities to the table with the county to build out the 2,700 units of [permanent supportive housing], as well as the opportunity to bring home Orange County’s fair share of state funding to support the build-out of the units, alleviating the financial pressures for the cities. I am honored to have been a part of the effort,” Stratman added in a follow-up statement.

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“This is a monumental time for Orange County,” she said.

The bill has been closely watched in O.C. as the community grapples with an ever-worsening homelessness crisis. It would create the Orange County Housing Finance Trust, a joint agency among city and county officials to coordinate and speed up funding to build permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

Since its language was introduced at the end of May by a bipartisan group of legislators, the bill has sailed through the legislature as Stratman and others worked to rally support. The legislation received back-to-back unanimous votes in committees and the full state Senate and Assembly over the span of three months.

No arguments were submitted in opposition to the bill, according to a committee staff analysis for the final floor vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown who will decide whether to sign it into law.

In the city association’s statement, its president, Jennifer Fitzgerald, said Stratman was leaving to “pursue other endeavors.”

“The board of directors is grateful for Heather’s service to this organization and wishes her every future success,” Fitzgerald said in the statement.

Dave Kiff, the longtime Newport Beach city manager, was chosen serve as the city association’s interim executive director for three months, starting Sept. 5. Kiff retired from Newport Friday.

Kiff worked as an aide to Marian Bergeson, the late state senator and county supervisor, from 1988 to 1996, when he was in his 20s and early 30s. More recently, Kiff has been closely involved in the homelessness issue among Orange County city managers.

Officials and advocates close to efforts to address homelessness in OC said Stratman has been instrumental in building support for housing homeless people and the 2,700 units plan. Her departure was a significant loss for the effort, they said.

A local government official in Orange County closely involved in homelessness policy, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Stratman demonstrated “incredible leadership” on the homelessness issue along with other staff at the association.

“Their consensus-building was incredible,” the official said. “We’re devastated” about Stratman’s departure, the official added.

For years, “blaming and finger pointing” among city and county officials has been one of the main “roadblocks” to alleviating homelessness in Orange County, according to a May report by the county grand jury. The grand jury supported the city’s association’s regional plan to build housing, and called on county and city officials to form a regional body to implement it.

The Legislature’s final staff analysis of the housing trust bill, quoting the bill’s author, said “a recent UC Irvine study found that Orange County government and cities, plus non-governmental organizations, could save $42 million a year on healthcare and law enforcement, among other expenses, by moving [unsheltered] homeless from the streets into permanent supportive housing.”

“Currently, the county has a total of 2,546 units of permanent supportive housing, all of which are at full capacity. In order to ensure that sufficient numbers of permanent supportive housing units are built, the Orange County government and the 34 cities need a single purpose joint powers authority that will serve as a convener of all stakeholders and collaborators,” the analysis states.

Under the bill, the housing trust can receive public and private money and issue bonds to raise upfront money to build housing for homeless people and people with very low incomes.

The entire homeless housing effort’s price-tag is estimated at $900 million, said Dan Young, a former Santa Ana mayor and Irvine Co. homebuilding executive who has been closely involved in the housing trust effort.

“This is a bill that puts the cities at the table,” for cities who choose to join the regional agency, Young said at a federal court hearing in June.

“You have a seat at the table for $900 million-worth of money.”

Nick Gerda writes for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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