By Jessica Ripper, Senior Associate

In 2014, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS) selected Brilliant Corners to operate its Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool with the goal of accelerating access to supportive housing for 10,000 individuals with complex physical and behavioral health conditions who were experiencing homelessness. LDC Senior Associate Jessica Ripper recently spoke with Brilliant Corners’ Chief Executive Officer Bill Pickel to discuss how flexible subsides work, why they’re critical to resolving the housing and homelessness crisis, and how new policies and funding are impacting their work.

Some of our readers may not be familiar with the origins of the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool (FHSP). Would you start by sharing how the concept for the FHSP originated?

To understand the origins of the FHSP, you have to understand the problem it was designed to solve.  How do you access housing with supportive services fast when it takes years to build even one supportive housing project? When federal Section 8 rental subsidies are in short supply and difficult to use? When overwhelmed social workers compete with one another to secure housing for clients in an overheated market? 

The FHSP combines rent subsidies, dedicated landlord engagement and tenancy support staff, and case management in a coherent yet flexible way to address all of these system-level barriers to housing.  It’s a collaborative infrastructure for accessing market-rate and affordable housing resources that’s available across multiple systems serving vulnerable people– such as public health, mental health, managed care, and criminal justice systems.        

Another way to tell the origin story is to imagine the Dodgers and Giants merging to win the World Series.  When Dr. Mitch Katz was hired as the Director of the Department of Health Services (DHS) in 2011, he knew from his work leading San Francisco’s Department of Public Health that some patients couldn’t achieve health and wellness without supportive housing.  He also knew that for some of these patients, the cost of supportive housing would be offset by a reduction in health service expenditures. 

But Dr. Katz and his team didn’t envision the FHSP as yet another ‘proprietary’ program serving that government agency’s ‘target’ population.  Instead, they tapped into Los Angeles County’s extraordinary collaborative mindset and focus on systems change.  The FHSP launched in 2014 with $14 million from DHS, $4 million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and $1 million from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.  Today, the FHSP includes resources to support participants referred from Probation, Mental Health, the Office of Diversion and Reentry, and L.A. Care, among others.   

How did Brilliant Corners become the FHSP’s coordinating partner?

In 2008, shortly after I joined what was then West Bay Housing, the San Francisco Department of Public Health requested proposals to implement a Scattered-Site Supportive Housing and Rent Subsidy Administration Program.  The goal was to transition people from San Francisco hospitals into community-based housing.  As we thought about how we could do that, we had an ‘A-HA’ moment:  You wouldn’t ask a real estate agent to do social work, so why would you ask a social worker to do housing?  We decided to hire team members focused on housing – in addition to client-oriented tenancy support staff.  From that moment on, we’ve continually focused on the staff skills and mindsets, the financial resources, and the strategies and processes needed to rapidly open up the housing market for extremely low-income people who face endless barriers to housing.

I don’t think we did anything that thousands of other nonprofits aren’t doing.  But we had an unusual opportunity to sustain an intensive focus as we replicated and – with the FHSP – scaled these housing strategies.  As our Chief Program Officer likes to say, people imagine Brilliant Corners is a ‘landlord whisperer’ with magical powers to secure apartments, but the truth is the FHSP is an example of what happens when government fully resources a proven model – in this case, the mix of personnel, rent subsidies, and other client assistance we knew would successfully accelerate and scale supportive housing outcomes. 

How has your organization grown and changed since helping to launch the FHSP?

Well, for one, we’re no longer carpet baggers from San Francisco!  We always felt welcomed, but our center of gravity was in San Francisco, and our initial focus was on the twin challenge of securing units at an unprecedented pace and volume while building the administrative systems needed to support a program designed to rapidly grow to 10,000 units. 

Today, we’ve got amazing leaders and front-line staff who live and breathe Los Angeles, and increasingly robust and nimble business systems, and this capacity enables us to live up to the vision of the FHSP as a service-oriented infrastructure.  We’re fast approaching 200 FHSP team members who bring a customer service mindset not only to our program participants and government and philanthropic partners, but to over 80 intensive case management service partners and literally hundreds of affordable housing and market-rate landlord partners.  I really believe this collaborative spirit is what enables us, together, to provide service-enriched housing to nearly 5,000 FHSP participants while securing about 200 new units each month.

What do you think has enabled Brilliant Corners to be successful in housing so many people?

First, from day one our niche has been ‘where housing and services come together.’ According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, California has a shortage of over a million housing units affordable to extremely low-income people.  The housing market simply doesn’t work for increasingly large segments of our communities, and that’s left the homeless response, health care, child welfare, criminal justice, and other systems with a housing challenge that impedes their mission but that they weren’t built to address. 

Second, we leaned in to strategies born of the unfortunate truth that traditional affordable housing resources – LIHTC development, federal subsidies – simply aren’t available within the timeline or scale to meet the needs of people transitioning from institutional settings or from shelters or the streets.  While we always aim to maximize LIHTC affordable housing and federal rent subsidy resources, we work with government and philanthropy to deploy the additional landlord engagement and tenancy support personnel and the financial resources, such as flexible subsidies, needed to scale rapid access to a broader array of existing and planned private housing market resources.   

Finally, there’s something intangible without which none of these wonky ‘solutions to complex social problems’ would amount to anything.  Our partners at DHS called it “whatever it takes,” but lately I’ve been moved by discussions of a shift from a scarcity to an abundance mindset.  That’s a spiritual shift, and I’ve witnessed the power of people like Dr. Katz and so many others inside and around Brilliant Corners who act from the faith that we do have the resources to create a more humane and vibrant society.  But it’s also a set of pragmatic public policy shifts, a recognition that our social safety net investments or disinvestments, our government-nonprofit contracting terms, our social service pay scales all reflect our values in a society that is, after all, the most abundant in history.     

How has the focus on state and local housing policies and funding impacted your work?

In California, it’s great to see the housing affordability and homelessness crises move to the front burner, but the new state and local resources—though tremendous—are still not enough. At the local level, Measures H and HHH have infused critical new resources into supportive housing development, supportive services, and rent subsidies and we’ll need to build on those investments. 

At the state level, there are nearly 200 proposed housing bills, and tremendous focus on supportive housing in particular.  We’re excited about AB 816, the California Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool, which is modeled to a large extent on LA’s FHSP.  It’s particularly important at a time when many local decision-makers are focusing on shelters or navigation centers because they don’t see the resources available to fund the landlord engagement, rent subsidies, and tenancy supports that can get people off the streets and into their own homes quickly.   

We’re also very excited about bridge-building that’s resulted in increasing investments in supportive housing from the managed care, criminal justice, and child welfare systems.  And we are very actively promoting a shift in California’s developmental services sector toward supportive housing models. 

What other trends are you watching?

The continued evolution of housing as health care and the recognition that health and wellbeing are largely determined by ZIP code is leading not only to more health system investments in supportive housing, but to promising conversations where health, human services, supportive housing and community development intersect.  I’m hoping the recent uptick in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion will further catalyze these conversations. 

We’re also seeing continued forward-thinking from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation permitting states to fund housing access services and supports using health system dollars eligible for federal matching funds. Communities have been creative combining housing services with rent subsidies.  Wouldn’t it be great if CMS said states could use waivers to fund rent subsidies in addition to supports, or if one day it was politically feasible to radically scale Section 8 for people who need a combination of affordability and supportive services, along the lines of HUD-VASH?

Additional Reading:

Jessica Ripper covers organizational development and systems change, with an emphasis on health and human services. She specializes in partnering with multidisciplinary teams to advance policies and programs to improve the quality of life for children and families, and has extensive experience translating complex social issues into compelling stories, reports, and tools that influence the media, policymakers, donors, and community leaders to take action.