By David M. Greenwald
A local official keeps wanting to link homelessness to drugs and mental illness—but all the data points to the chief cause of California’s large homeless population being the high cost of housing.
How vulnerable are these marginal populations? A study conducted by the real estate firm Zillow a few years ago found that a five percent rent hike would push more than 2000 residents into homelessness.
That should give us an idea of just how vulnerable these populations are. For a $1000 a month rent, we are talking about a $50 increase being enough to push 2000 people into homelessness.
The LA Times noted “the study found that rent increases are closely tied to burgeoning homelessness in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City, where there is little low-income housing for people priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods to retreat to.”
A report from the LAO earlier this year, found, “While homelessness is a complex problem with many causes, the high costs of housing is a significant factor in the state’s homelessness crisis. More people experience homelessness in California than any other state.”
Housing affordability, the LAO found, is a “serious and widespread challenge in California.”
They note, “Households with the lowest income face the highest cost pressures. In California, around 2.5 million low-income households are cost burdened (spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing). Over 1.5 million low-income renters face even more dire cost pressures—spending more than half of their income on housing.”
Additionally, “an average California home costs 2.2 times the national average. California’s average monthly rent is about 50 percent higher than the rest of the country.”
While issues such as substance use and mental illness might exacerbate chronic homelessness, researchers last year found that it was cost of housing that was driving the homelessness problem.
In their University of California Press book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” authors Clayton Page Aldern and Gregg Colburn analyze the data.
In examining the rate of homeless per 1000 people, “they found communities with the highest housing costs had some of the highest rates of homelessness.”
In an article that appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, the researchers noted they “are not suggesting that mental illness, addictions and other issues are not contributing factors to homelessness.
“That’s certainly not the point of the book,” Colburn said. “But I firmly believe that we can’t treat our way out of this problem. You could fix all the addiction in San Diego right now and you’d still have a problem with homelessness because there just aren’t places for people to go who have lower levels of income.”
Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at the San Diego Housing Commission, agreed on a connection between housing and homelessness.
“High-cost rental markets that far outstrip area median incomes — and push renters into paying more than 50% of their income toward rent — certainly are a significant contributing factor to making households at high risk of experiencing homelessness,” she wrote in an email.
“When households do experience homelessness, those factors make it even harder for them to exit homelessness by renting in the private rental market,” Jones continued. “We also know that the longer a household experiences homelessness, the more likely other key quality-of-life factors will be affected, such as physical and mental well-being.
“We need to continue to strive to build a homelessness response system that has a diverse spectrum of resources to meet a household’s unique needs,” she concluded. “At the same time, we need to continue to support the efforts of policy makers at local, state and national levels to increase affordable housing development and rental assistance opportunities, streamline application processes, and reduce construction costs to increase production.”
In November, Housing California noted, “Recent historic investments in homelessness, affordable housing, and tenant protections are ending homelessness for tens of thousands of Californians. In fact, local homeless response systems are housing more people than ever before. Yet, given the decades of disinvestment that preceded, these recent one-time investments are only a down payment on what must be ongoing and more significant funding for the solutions we know work to end homelessness: deeply affordable housing, supportive services, and targeted homelessness prevention to curb the tide of people entering our shelters and living on our sidewalks.”
They add, “Homelessness is increasing, not because State funding isn’t working, but because it’s just not enough to meet the scale of our need, especially in the face of systemic drivers like unprecedented rent increases, housing discrimination, and chronic workforce shortages largely driven by a long legacy of inconsistent public funding.”
They argue that “we cannot expect local homeless response systems to make long-term, ambitious plans with only one-time state investments, and without addressing affordable housing, healthcare, tenants’ rights, re-entry from the criminal justice and other systems, and glaring gaps in existing safety net systems.”
They add, “People experiencing homelessness have been failed by multiple systems and deserve thoughtful, strategic, and inclusive policy solutions.”
In their view, the solution is simple: “permanent housing.”
This is the view we keep hearing over and over again—housing. And permanent supportive housing for those with substance use and mental health needs.