Last Friday, HUD released its annual estimate of homelessness and that figure shows that people living on the streets increased by 2.7 percent this year nationally – almost exclusively because California experienced a whopping 16.4 percent increase in homelessness in 2019.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement we saw great progress across the country, except for the West Coast where soaring housing costs are being blamed.
Mr. Carson said, “In fact, homelessness in California is at a crisis level and needs to be addressed by local and state leaders with crisis-like urgency.”
The HUD estimate finds California’s increase was “higher than all other states combined.”
The homeless and housing problems have persisted despite efforts by lawmakers and voters to provide more in the way of affordable housing. Statewide voters approved a $4 billion affordable housing bond last November. Los Angeles passed its own $1.2 billion housing bond in 2016. San Francisco voters approved $600 million in bonds for affordable housing.
And yet reports continue to show that cities are slow to spend money on shelters due to neighborhood opposition – something Davis recently experienced with the proposed respite center, and Davis is not alone.
A big need in California – simply more housing.
“Broadly speaking, there is no solution to the California housing crisis without the construction of millions of new houses,” said David Garcia, policy director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.
That group estimates that California needs about 3.5 million more homes by the 2025. That is the figure often cited by Governor Newsom, who has made it a central part of his administration’s goals.
The bad news: we are unlikely to get there.
A report this past summer, commissioned by California Forward, concluded that California is not prepared to meet that goal.
They summarize their findings, saying “there is currently not enough available, urban-served land identified for the state’s current and future housing needs…” Moreover, “the research concludes the biggest barriers to housing production are a host of planning and regulatory restrictions and market constraints which limit housing development.”
“We can’t accommodate all our growth in high-transit areas,” report author Walter Kieser, senior principal of Economic & Planning Systems said in October. “To accommodate growth and produce housing, we have to expand the areas that are transit-served or figure out other kinds of transit service that will connect us to meet GHG targets.”
(“The 3.5 million home target derives from work conducted in 2016 by McKinsey Global Institute, in association with California Forward’s Economic Summit,” the California Forward report notes).
The report concludes that “it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that such a target can be met by 2025 given the state’s current rates of production and existing market and regulatory barriers.” They suggest “a longer time frame is in order over the next 30 years (coincident with the time horizon for most regional planning efforts in the state) so that population and household demand forecasts can be linked to increases in available, urban-served land.”
It is perhaps easy to blame California, but one report from this fall found “the rest of the country is becoming more—not less—like California.” That report found that despite the longest economic expansion on record, “the U.S. has been building far fewer houses than it usually does, pushing prices further out of reach for a vast portion of the population that has barely seen incomes rise.”
“California is not alone,” said Chris Herbert, the managing director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “It’s just more extreme.”
The White House recently made headlines targeting California and homelessness. President Trump suggested in November that federal intervention may be needed.
“The people of San Francisco are fed up and the people of Los Angeles are fed up, and we’re looking at it, and we will be doing something about it at the appropriate time,” President Trump said in September.
California would welcome a cooperative effort that focuses federal resources on federal funds, reduction of regulations for new buildings, and increasing shelter space.
But most are leery of the president’s intentions. Indeed, White House spokesman Judd Deere blamed “over regulation, excessive taxation, and poor public service delivery” for a dramatic increase in homelessness.
“The federal government has enormous power, obviously, and you always want to believe that there might be the opportunity for a real partnership on a life and death set of issues,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “But you can’t help but be cynical when it involves this president and his consistent pattern of behavior.”
But if California is simply reflecting growing trends in the nation, California may simply be the leading indicator of a national housing and homelessness problem.
“The folks crying about California’s failure here are correct,” said Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Los Angeles’ Union Rescue Mission. “We leave more human beings on the streets than anyone. We are not treating it with the urgency we need.”
The question is – will the federal government and other critics simply point fingers or will they launch action?
Simply using the police to clear people off the streets is not likely to be effective. Recently the Supreme Court failed to take up a 9th District ruling from last year that limits and restricts the ability of cities and counties to use law enforcement to clear encampments without available shelters.
Most experts believe that simply putting homeless people into the criminal justice system is not a solution.
“It’s politicizing some of the most vulnerable people in our country, which is really shameful and atrocious,” said Diane Yentel, who heads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.
So far it appears easy to point fingers and propose draconian solutions, and hard to provide actual funding to create shelters and services that could make a difference in reducing the homeless population.
—David M. Greenwald reporting