Alameda County is pursuing a half-cent sales tax measure for November to fight homelessness

The number of homeless individuals in Alameda County has nearly doubled in the last four years, according to point-in-time counts. PHOTO/HRSA.

Alameda County officials are in the early stages of proposing a ballot measure for November to increase its sales tax by a half-cent in order to fund solutions for reducing the region’s growing homelessness crisis.

Alameda County beatThe issue of homelessness in Alameda County and across the Bay Area, is unequivocally viewed as the region’s most vexing and growing problem, and it may still be, even taking into account the economic downturn created by covid-19.

In just the past four years, homelessness in Alameda County has doubled, officials said. County point-in-time counts reported 4,040 unsheltered individuals in the county in 2015. The number has sharply risen to 8,022 in 2019.

In addition, 80 percent of homeless individuals are living on the streets, said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of Everyone Home, a non-profit  whose mission is to end homelessness in Alameda County.

The main driver for homelessness in Alameda County is growing economic inequality, de Coligny said. “There’s a gap between housing costs and what people have coming into their households,” she said. “This measure helps us close that gap.”

The proposed ballot measure is estimated to raise between $150 million and $160 million annually in new revenues to fight homelessness. But Alameda County supervisors acknowledge the projection was made prior to the covid-19 pandemic and resulting shelter in place order.

“With the corona crisis, we’re not going to see $150 million,” Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley said during a virtual town hall about the proposed measure on Wednesday. “That’s what we projected before this crisis. The sales tax is going to be down, but any additional resources will be beneficial in our efforts to try to work to resolve some of the crisis of homelessness.”

A countywide half-cent sales tax increase will likely be a tough sell during the time of covid-19, despite the need to help the poorest among us. Over the next two months, county officials will decide whether a region racked by unemployment, a reduction in local sales tax revenues that could reach 10 percent this year, and general despair over the state of the local economy, will be interested in raising taxes come November.

“Working on Measure A a few years ago, I know it’s going to take a huge effort,” Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan said of the proposed measure, while referencing a previous countywide half-cent sales tax measure for child care and early education that was narrowly defeated by voters in June 2018.

“Unfortunately we have to raise all this money locally,” Chan said. “Alameda County in the last three years, has put in about $320 million into homelessness, but it’s nowhere near enough and we just don’t have the resources.”

“Miley added, “We’re not going out to ask people to tax themselves with this sales tax so we can have additional money just to twiddle our thumbs. This money will be used for prevention and intervention. We have strategies that we can pursue.”

“The corona crisis has actually demonstrated to us that we can do things that we have been talking about doing for years. I really feel we need to seize this moment. We need to come up with these additional resources,” Miley said.

The deadline for ballot measures to be included on the November ballot is in early August. For the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to green-light a sales tax measure for the November ballot, they would have to do so sometime in late June and July in order to give enough time for the ballot measure’s language to be crafted and approved by the board.

Following Wednesday’s town hall, two others are scheduled for Thursday evening and next Monday. [Click here for more information on dates and times, along with links to the Zoom meetings.]