By Stephen Harper and Margo Warnecke Merck.

We applaud The Press Democrat for hosting the Feb. 12 “Lost in Paradise” forum on homelessness. Advocacy groups including our Housing Advocacy Group have been working to get cities to provide more shelters and permanent housing for homeless persons for years. Much has been accomplished but sadly the numbers of homeless persons in Sonoma County have more than tripled.

In 2001, the county’s homeless count found about 1,500 persons. By 2013, that number had increased to 4,280. The 2001 count found 10 homeless minors under 18 years old; the 2013 count found 277.

Experience in other parts of the country shows that, “Housing First” — getting homeless persons into permanent housing with supportive services where needed — is the fastest, most effective and least costly way to reduce homelessness. Providing housing costs money, but maintaining homeless people in shelters, hospitals and jails and on the streets costs just as much or even more.

Here’s what has to be done now to address this crisis.

First, local governments must help provide financing to build more affordable housing. Every dollar of local financing for affordable housing leverages $10 to $20 in state and federal affordable housing funding. Before the state abolished redevelopment agencies, cities were legally required to allocate at least 20 percent of the increased property taxes they received from redevelopment activities to build new affordable housing.

While redevelopment agencies are no longer operating, cities are receiving the increased taxes generated by redevelopment projects and should continue to allocate at least 20 percent and preferably more to support affordable housing development.

Second, housing developers should be required to include a percentage of affordable units in all development projects. The county now requires most developers to set aside 20 percent of homes in new subdivisions for lower-income families. Every city in the county should do the same.

Third, new commercial projects including big box stores should be required to pay fees to provide affordable housing and to help offset the impacts of larger commercial developments on the area’s housing supply. Most jurisdictions in Sonoma County other than Santa Rosa assess these commercial development fees. It’s long overdue for Santa Rosa to adopt a schedule of fees.

Fourth, we need to encourage new innovative housing targeted for individuals with special needs, many of whom are currently homeless. Housing should be coupled with appropriate supportive services where needed to help those with special needs succeed. The proposed Dream Center by Social Advocates for Youth utilizing vacant buildings at the former Warrack Hospital to provide housing and services for at-risk young people is an excellent example.

We hope the county-owned land that will soon be vacated by Sutter Hospital on Chanate Road can be transformed into an innovative housing development with a mix of housing for all income levels and units set aside for persons with special needs.

These are concrete steps which our local governments can take now to help address the crisis of homelessness and provide decent affordable housing to all of our residents.

What we most need right now is more than words, we need actions.

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Stephen Harper of Santa Rosa and Margo Warnecke Merck of Healdsburg are co-chairs of the Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group.

Originally published in The Press Democrat.