Commentary: Homelessness Is a Housing Problem

Photo by Fredrick Lee on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

This week, the Orange County Register ran a piece “The Real Reason Behind California’s Homelessness Crisis.”  The author, Stewart Dompe, captures the essence of the report out of UCSF on homelessness.  Importantly, from California, he lives in Virginia, has a PhD in Economics, and has written for the Washington Times, the Foundation for Economic Education, and US News & World Report.

His piece does an important job of highlighting why there is a huge homelessness problem in California.  And in case you missed the memo—the answer is housing.

The first key point that Dompe makes is the remarkable statistic on unsheltered populations.  California has 12 percent of the nation’s population, 30 percent of the unhoused population, and 50 percent of the unsheltered population.

“A single state containing half the nation’s unsheltered individuals is a shocking statistic,” he writes. “Having 12% of the nation’s population while having 30% of the nation’s homeless population suggests that there is something unique about California that is driving the magnitude of the difference.”

He goes a step further and dispels the NONSENSE that this is due to good weather.

“While it would seem trivially easy to handwave this away as a function of California’s legendary good weather” he notes that “it does not explain the following: 9 out of 10 survey participants lost their homes while living in California and 75% still resided in the same county as their last residence.”

He notes, “This result is significant because it belies the belief that an area has a large homeless population because those individuals traveled there from across the state or country.”

In short, this data backs up what many of us have said for years and been scoffed at, “What this study shows is that when people experience homelessness, they are usually current residents of the state and don’t move very far. This suggests that people are not opportunistically moving to areas with greater welfare and programs.”

Indeed, “California has spent billions of dollars attempting to solve homelessness and the homeless population has only increased,” but it’s not because it is spending those billions – or at least not because those billions are luring people from outside the state to access the programs.

The problem is not merely a supply issue.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported for example that the city has 1000 empty units for the homeless.

That has led Supervisor Dean Preston to demand that San Francisco “fill 500 vacant units for formerly homeless people within 90 days and to pledge to keep its vacancy rate below 5% to deal with the epidemic of unhoused people on city streets. “

If it’s not a supply issue what’s the problem?  “In 2022, the Chronicle found that out of the 10% of vacant units, the majority — about 60% — were empty due to a slow and convoluted referral process and because approved tenants were still gathering paperwork to move in or had declined a placement offered by the agency. “

Meanwhile, Mayor Breed and others have been fighting a court injunction that keeps officials from sweeping homeless encampments.

Yesterday they lost another battle as the Ninth Circuit denied the city’s motion to modify the injunction, ruling, “The City’s motion to modify the preliminary injunction raises the sole issue of the definition of ‘involuntarily homeless.’”

The court writes in a one-page order, “Because the parties agree that a person is not involuntarily homeless if they have declined a specific offer of available shelter or otherwise have access to such shelter or the means to obtain it, and because the district court has denied the plaintiffs’ motion to enforce the injunction, the City’s motion to modify the preliminary injunction is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.”

They add, “The court will address all the other issues raised by the appeal in due course.”

But it seems like instead of fighting court battles to sweep encampments, the city and county should be prioritizing getting those units filled.

As Assemblymember Matt Haney, a former Supervisor in San Francisco, tweeted on Tuesday, “Fill the damn units. 1000 vacant supportive housing units is unconscionable with so many folks on the streets. I worked on this issue as Supervisor and we did cut the vacancies in half, to under 3%. Now they’re back up again. Way up.”

But unsheltered homeless is only part of the problem—the other problem is that the housing market puts far too many people on the edge of homelessness.

This is what the report did a great job of demonstrating—people don’t suddenly fall into homelessness as in one day they are stably housed and the next day they are living on the street.  It is a slow descent.  They are living on the margins, they are not making enough money, and then someone or something pushes them over the top.

As Dompe points out, “One characteristic that makes California different is that housing is extremely expensive and there are relatively few units of housing available to those with low incomes.”

He notes, “The nationwide average is 33 units for every 100 extremely low income individuals. California has 24 units per 100 individuals. California also has some of the highest rents in the United States.”

He likens it to a game of musical chairs, where there is a “lack of chairs” that is a “structural limit imposed by the game.”

He writes, “In real life, more people want to live indoors in California than there are affordable housing units. In real life, the structural limit on housing is imposed at the state and local level.”

“The population has grown faster than new housing has been constructed,” he continues.

Quoting from PPIC, “The state added 3.2 times more people than housing units over the last 10 years.”

We’ve long devolved into the debate over declining population, those who understand data projections can easily discern that a key force in driving down the in-migration and driving up the out-migration is housing costs.

Dompe concludes: “Restricting the supply of new housing is a policy choice and its impact is to increase the competition for housing and to increase the tragedy when it isn’t found. The structural problem of homelessness can only be addressed by building new housing.”

I like the way he phrased that—the “structural” problem.  There are other problems of course, but most of those are not unique to California.  What is driving the problem in California is that the high cost of housing removes the cushion for other problems.

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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