Monday Morning Thoughts: Cost of Housing Is Part of the Equation in Housing Insecurity and Homelessness, but Not the Full Picture

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – Are “liberals” to be blamed for California’s homelessness crisis?  That’s the portion of the Atlantic article that longtime columnist Dan Walters, now of CalMatters, has latched onto.

We earlier chronicled Jerusalem Demsas’ excellent piece in the Atlantic and for the most part I agree with her analysis.

She blames the homelessness crisis at least in large part on progressive politics.

She wrote the progressive politics of California and other states are “largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue.

“Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups … But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.

“The small-c conservative belief that people who already live in a community should have veto power over changes to it has wormed its way into liberal ideology,” Demsas writes. “This pervasive localism is the key to understanding why officials who seem genuinely shaken by the homelessness crisis too rarely take serious action to address it.”

As Dan Walters notes: “The syndrome that Demsas details is well known in California political circles and Newsom and the Legislature have taken some steps to reduce — or bypass — the procedural hurdles to increasing construction of new housing, particularly projects to serve the working class families most in danger of being priced out of the market and therefore becoming homeless.”

He continues: “The state is finally enforcing the quotas it sets on regional and local governments for zoning enough land for needed housing. It has also exempted some forms of housing from local zoning rules, and has talked about cracking down on cities that impose impossible land use or design criteria on developers.

“However, the state’s mostly Democratic politicians have largely been unwilling to put their ideological brethren and allies, such as environmental groups, on the hot seat.”

That’s partly true, but it’s not completely true.  For one thing, what we have seen is an inter-left divide between those who see the need to relax local land use policies to allow for more housing and those who believe that by so doing we are going to end up enriching corporate and developer interests without really getting at the core of the problem.

We have seen the Governor and others prioritize housing policies.  We have seen leaders like Senator Scott Wiener trying to preserve the core of CEQA while attacking its abuses.

Housing unaffordability is at the core of the homelessness problem because it puts people who otherwise are living on the margins, struggling with substance use disorder and mental health affiliations onto the street rather than able to remain housed.

But it is not just on housing that California has fallen down.  We need services and permanent supportive housing in order to give people who are struggling a chance to get on their feet.  Without housing—that task is much more difficult.

California is suffering because it lacks the housing supply, but it is also suffering because, while the Governor is looking at things like CARE Court to compel treatment, it lacks the resources to provide the actual services that people suffering from housing insecurity need to stay in their homes.

Moreover, as a recent VOX article points out, the housing-first model is now under attack.

Houston has been held up as a model for successful implementation of housing-first policies.

As VOX notes, it has earned “positive national media coverage this year in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Smart Cities Dive, among others.”

Furthermore, “the housing advocacy group California YIMBY published a report heralding Houston’s housing-first experiment, arguing California has not been able to replicate it primarily because Houston has more abundant housing. The group praised Houston’s land use policies — including its lack of a traditional zoning code — for substantially increasing Houston’s housing supply and lowering its costs.”

But again, it’s more complicated.

“Leaders in Houston agree their housing supply has helped them over the last decade, but cautioned against seeing their city as some housing utopia. Much of the credit, they say, goes to the slow, dogged work of earning trust from private-sector landlords, having a strong mayor system that remained all-in on housing first, and strategically leveraging federal dollars, including from the seven federally declared disasters the city has had in the last seven years,” VOX reports.

“The theory that Houston’s success at reducing homelessness is because of its lack of zoning is a red herring,” Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor for homeless initiatives, told VOX.

He added, “The reality is while we might not have the typical zoning that many cities have, we do zone through ordinance and the hardest piece is still siting a location. We still have to deal with NIMBYism.”

Further Ana Rausch, the vice president of program operations at Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, warned, “Even without zoning there can be a lot of backlash, and the neighborhoods can still prevent new housing.”

The bottom line here is this: we need housing.  But we also need services and that requires money.  Want to blame some on the left for these problems?  You should.  But it’s not just the left that’s at fault—a lot of these services are difficult to fund because, over the decades, the right has made it harder to fund local government.

So, while I agree with Walters in the main, I think he has only half the picture.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    “’The small-c conservative belief that people who already live in a community should have veto power over changes to it has wormed its way into liberal ideology,’ Demsas writes”

    That describes you and many others in Davis perfectly. The Peoples Republic of Davis, home of the small-c conservatives who call themselves Progressives.

    I described this over a decade ago while posting as Black Bart. What is sad is how dogmatically people have stuck to this paradigm despite all the evidence of its failure to help lift up so many.

    1. Richard_McCann

      I saw this 25 years ago in the vote on whether to widen the Richards Blvd underpass. Too many of those who call themselves “progressives” here are simply acting out of self interest while doing nothing to help others who are less well off beyond lip service and marches.

      1. Ron Oertel

        ” . . . widen the Richards Blvd underpass”.

        I take it (that as an “environmentalist”), you were in favor of encouraging more lanes/traffic.

        Have you considered seeking an appointment on the city’s Natural Resources Commission?  (Never mind.)

        Apparently, the voters have rejected the expansion multiple times, demonstrating (as usual) how poorly you represent them.

        You probably do, however, do a much-better job of “representing” the council. And naybe even more so – the local Chamber of Commerce.

        And therein lies the problem – especially for someone who has a business as an “environmental consultant”.

        1. David Greenwald

          “I take it (that as an “environmentalist”), you were in favor of encouraging more lanes/traffic.”

          I see this as a silly point by you. There are legitimate concerns that widening the underpass will simply shift the chokepoint for the traffic from the underpass to the intersection. But the notion that somehow limiting the width of it is going to reduce the amount of traffic or convince people to get out of their cars is ludicrous. If anything, creating traffic backups or forcing people to drive around to Pole Line could actually increase GHG and VMT rather than reduce it.

        2. Ron Oertel

          But the notion that somehow limiting the width of it is going to reduce the amount of traffic or convince people to get out of their cars is ludicrous. 

          How is this any “sillier” than the notion that eliminating onsite parking requirements for new development “eliminates cars” and resulting parking? The same “notion” that you and other development activists (no doubt, including Richard) subscribe to?

          In other words, doesn’t “accommodating” cars encourage driving? (Not to mention sprawl and development, in most cases.)

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t think eliminating parking spaces does eliminate cars, it eliminates the need for space for parking and strategically takes advantage of populations who are no longer using motor vehicles.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I don’t think eliminating parking spaces does eliminate cars, it eliminates the need for space for parking

          Those two thoughts do not make sense when combined.

          and strategically takes advantage of populations who are no longer using motor vehicles.

          Everyone “uses” (relies upon) motor vehicles, whether they own cars or not.

          In places like San Francisco, taking steps such as eliminating or increasing costs to park, creating barriers to drive, and increased congestion likely does encourage people to give up their own cars to some degree. And discourages visitors (who can avoid making such visits if they simply stay-away), whether it’s to visit residents or businesses.

          When new developments come in (without providing sufficient parking), traffic and resulting parking needs will spill-out into existing neighborhoods. (Actually, traffic will increase regardless of whether or not parking is accommodated). When the situation ultimately becomes unbearable, it likely does encourage folks to abandon private car ownership.  (Davis is nowhere near the latter outcome.  The situation has to be quite extreme, for that to occur.)

          In any case, Richard has (as usual) demonstrated how “out-of-touch” he is with his Davis neighbors, in regard to his apparent support of a redesign of the tunnel to accommodate more cars.  And also demonstrates his lack of understanding regarding the point you noted, in regard to “shifting” the problem to downtown (if the tunnel was widened to accommodate more traffic).

          The guy is a development activist, not an environmentalist. And is certainly no traffic engineer.

          1. David Greenwald

            A sizable percentage of people do not own a vehicle so they don’t have to have a parking spot.

            “In any case, Richard has (as usual) demonstrated how “out-of-touch” he is with his Davis neighbors, in regard to his apparent support of a redesign of the tunnel to accommodate more cars. ”

            Everyone has their own perspective and how best to deal with various issues.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Furthermore, “the housing advocacy group California YIMBY published a report heralding Houston’s housing-first experiment, arguing California has not been able to replicate it primarily because Houston has more abundant housing. The group praised Houston’s land use policies — including its lack of a traditional zoning code — for substantially increasing Houston’s housing supply and lowering its costs.”

    If this was actually true, Houston wouldn’t have had an enormous “homeless” problem to solve in the first place. It’s not as if the homeless are paying for their housing in Houston, themselves. It’s subsidized by the government.

    The citation above shows more about California YIMBY, than anything else.

    These people are not your friends, they are not a “grass roots” organization, they are not “progressive” (whatever that means), and they are not friends of the homeless.

    They’re developer lackeys, funded directly by development/business interests.  Cut off that funding, and they wouldn’t even exist. The only reason that they even have a “spot at the head of the table” is because folks like Scott Wiener get their funding from those same sources.

    https://www.housinghumanright.org/selling-out-california-scott-wiener-money-ties-to-big-real-estate/

  3. Richard_McCann

    Dan Walters is good at finding significant issues and identifying the interpersonal politics, but his articles are largely a rehash of a well known news item, and then some misplaced analysis. Broad social and economic assessment is not his strength. Dissecting complexity isn’t his forte, he’s better when he focuses on his core beat, the Legislature. Pulling up that Vox article was a good counterview. (Is Joe Mathews reading?)

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