Influencers Opinion

How can California solve its homeless crisis? Zero in on what’s causing it

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the question: As the number of homeless in California continues to grow, what else can we be doing to address this worsening crisis? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

“Build safe and affordable housing, even if the neighbors protest”

Jim Boren - Executive Director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State

Government leaders like to convene meetings on homelessness, write reports and wring their hands at news conferences. But what they don’t want to do is upset well-connected neighbors who fight affordable housing projects that could put homeless into safe housing. What they don’t want to do is adequately fund mental health and substance abuse services, which could help reduce homelessness. What they don’t want to do is address the chronic poverty that leaves too many residents too close to homelessness.

We have the government resources to make major strides against homelessness, but we don’t have the political will. Build safe and affordable housing, even if the neighbors protest. Build transitional housing and emergency shelters at a scale that actually has an immediate impact. Build into these housing solutions an array of health and related services that treat all aspects of the homeless problem in a coordinated manner. We know what to do.

“Homelessness is a complex issue decades in the making”

Lisa Hershey - Executive Director of Housing California

Homes solve homelessness. Sounds straightforward, but homelessness is a complex issue decades in the making that requires political will to end it. The homeless count in LA County is up 12 percent but would have gone up 28 percent were it not for policies and investment into permanent housing. More Californians are homeless because we don’t have necessary supports, like eviction protection, stable rents, and a focus on building permanent rental housing for lower incomes. Meanwhile, more low-income Californians’ wages remain stagnant as rents skyrocket. The Governor and legislature rightfully budgeted over $1 billion in 2019 for housing and homelessness. This Investment must be prioritized to provide permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, and address structural racism that has perpetuated homelessness for decades. The state should also pass policies like housing for people on parole with mental illness (SB 282); housing investment for lower income Californians (AB 10); rent control and eviction protection; and ending discrimination of rental applicants based on source of income (SB 329). These solutions help people who are homeless and keep people from falling into homelessness in the first place. A multipronged, sustained plan to provide homes to people most in need will end this decades-long crisis.

“The priority must be to expand the supply of ALL housing type”

Jennifer Svec - Legislative Advocate for the California Association of Realtors

The simple answer: SUPPLY, SUPPLY, SUPPLY!! Local governments play the lead role in determining the location and amount of housing within their jurisdictions. For decades, developers have been prevented from constructing enough units to keep up with job and population growth in California. Every day we delay addressing the root cause of the housing crisis denies millions of Californians the opportunity to obtain housing stability. Until the state’s leaders address our persistent lack of supply, Californians will continue to cycle in and out of homelessness. The priority must be to expand the supply of ALL housing types. Policies, like SB 50 by Sen. Scott Wiener and SB 330 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, which seek to speed up the development process, stimulate housing construction, and limit unnecessary regulatory costs will benefit the state’s working families, the economy and eventually reduce the incidents of homelessness.

“It is important that we look closely at the diverse population we are serving”

Tia Boatman Patterson - Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Senior Housing Adviser

When advocates, the mental health community, lawmakers and other housing leaders continue to look at ways to help the growing number of Californians experiencing homelessness, it is important that we look closely at the diverse population we are serving.

As our housing affordability crisis has grown, more of our state’s residents are homeless because of a temporary hardship that has forced them into couch surfing or living in their car. These are people that recently had housing, may still hold a decent job, and simply require more affordable housing opportunities.

Meanwhile, there are the folks who are chronically homeless and may be suffering from mental illness. The distinction is important to make so that we can have productive discussions about the differing needs of each group and the most effective solutions, from short-term fixes to permanent supportive housing to the combination of resources, increased planning and zoning reforms needed to address our state’s massive housing supply issue

It is this all of the above approach that Governor Gavin Newsom is pushing in his budget framework, which includes $1 billion in funding for homelessness programs, along with another $1.8 billion in funding and tax credits to jumpstart housing production.

“It’s unconscionable that it costs an average of $330,000 to build a unit of affordable housing in California”

Jon Coupal - President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

It’s unconscionable that it costs an average of $330,000 to build a unit of affordable housing in California. Throwing housing bonds and other revenue solutions at the problem will be ineffective until we address this root cause. That can be done if we work to lower impact and other development fees, craft common-sense CEQA reforms that protect the environment without prohibiting construction, end expensive mandates like solar panels on new home development; and continue to keep rent control limited to as few communities as possible.

“California must prioritize results over process”

Perry Pound - Managing Director of Development for Los Angeles County for Greystar

California must prioritize results over process. One solution to the homeless crisis is to build a lot more new housing, from affordable to luxury. As city planners know, when new luxury housing options are not offered, you incentivize the tear-down or renovation of middle class housing stock, which is converted into higher priced housing. This in turn encourages the middle class to seek more affordable housing options, which ultimately puts some people on the street, adding to the homeless crisis. We must make it easier and faster to build more housing. CEQA is often expedited for sports stadiums. Why is it not always expedited for affordable and supportive housing?

“Homelessness is growing in California because economic pressures and the high cost of housing”

Richard Bloom - California State Assemblyman (D-Santa Monica)

Record numbers of homeless individuals are being housed and provided with services. Yet, perversely, homelessness is growing in California because economic pressures and the high cost of housing are forcing people out of their homes. The worst of the crisis is in LA, where nearly half of all residents are rent-burdened, meaning over a third of their income goes to rent. The city is over 500,000 units short of affordable housing. Our response to the crisis must reflect a number of features:

  • Fair Share - Every city needs to do their fair share and build more affordable and market rate housing.

  • Faster - We must accelerate and lower the cost of housing construction, including using innovative methods such as modular housing and co-living spaces.

  • Preserve - We must preserve existing affordable housing so that we don’t lose affordable units as we build expensive new ones.

  • Protect - We must protect tenants by updating rent control, preventing rent gouging, and providing legal assistance.

  • Treatment and Care – For those homeless individuals who face mental health and substance abuse challenges, we must bolster access to treatment and care, emphasizing community-based best practices.”

“The solution is going to be difficult, but the difference lies in where the money goes”

Shannon Grove - California State Senator (R-Bakersfield)

Sacramento Democrats’ solution to the homelessness crisis is to throw more money at it. As Legislative Republicans, we understand the solution is going to be difficult, but the difference lies in where the money goes.

Californians already know what drives some people to homelessness – mental illness, drugs and alcohol. Building more affordable housing and shelters is good, but if you don’t deal with underlying pathologies and help get people jobs, you’re not solving the problem, you’re just enabling it.

Then there’s affordability. According to one survey, 53% of Californians are considering moving out of state due to the high cost of living. For the past two decades, Sacramento Democrats have created programs to help low-income people and have funded those programs by raising taxes on the middle-class and imposing costly regulations on business. These actions drive up prices and increased the cost of living for everyone.

Unraveling the homelessness crisis is not simple, but we should start by making it easier for the home building sector by:

1) Reducing state fees and excessive regulations that make it more expensive to build.

2) Giving homebuilders the same assurance against lawsuits by NIMBYs that are given when building stadiums and sports arenas.

This is a good step in helping all Californians afford to live, work, and raise a family in the state.

“We *must* end this severe housing shortage to end homelessness”

Scott Wiener - California State Senator (D-San Francisco)

To reduce homelessness, we need to address California’s huge housing shortage, shore up our mental health and addiction safety net, and utilize conservatorships for the small percentage of homeless people who need them.

About 70% of homeless people have neither a mental health nor an addiction problem. They simply can’t afford housing. They’re living in shelters, cars, motels, tents, or couches, often going to work and bringing their kids to school each day. They are in this predicament because of California’s failure to build enough housing at any income level. California has a 3.5 million home deficit, ranks 49 out of 50 states in homes per capita, and has systematically under-funded subsidized housing for our lowest income residents. Our housing shortage puts extraordinary downward pressure on everyone, and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are at significant risk of being pushed onto the streets. We *must* end this severe housing shortage to end homelessness.

A minority of homeless people have mental health and/or addiction problems. We need to rebuild California’s safety net so people can access critical services to stay housed or become housed. It’s way too hard for people to access these life-saving services, and homelessness increases as a result.

A tiny percentage of homeless people are so debilitated from severe mental health and addiction problems that they’re incapable of accepting services. They need extra help. We need to improve our conservatorship laws to ensure our most debilitated residents can get the help they need and turn their lives around.

“All of the sectors ... must be committed to a community driven response”

Ashley Swearengin - President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

Like other parts of California, the number of people who are on the streets in Fresno has grown the last few years. The factors driving the increase are varied and complex – the difficult real estate market and dramatically low rental vacancy rates; a failure to address disabling conditions among the existing homeless population; and increases in domestic violence that disproportionately affect women and children are just a few. Our mantra in Fresno is, ‘Don’t be discouraged – double down on what’s working.’

Our community is embracing a “Framework for Action” that centers on four tried and true strategies: engage the broader community and align local public and private resources; reduce inflow to homelessness by adequately resourcing for homelessness prevention; improve crisis response; and increase the availability of permanent housing.

All of the sectors – private, public, faith-based, health, philanthropic – must be committed to a community driven response. The additional state dollars coming to each community should be allocated across the spectrum of homeless responses – diversion, shelter, permanent supportive housing – to create a system that keeps people in their housing, addresses the crisis if they become homeless, and provides permanent housing for those who need it.

“Legislation is needed to make it easier to provide charity housing”

Dan Dunmoyer - President and CEO of the California Building Industry Association

Does Charity Really Start at Home?

You would expect the CEO of the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) to say that building more homes will address the homeless problem. But that is only part of the solution. Building more homes will address the problem for most Californians that suffer from “economic homelessness”. These are the folks working their tails off but are amazingly calling their cars “home”. Building more market rate housing at lower costs (think lower fees and a faster approval process) will help homeless people head on. But for the homeless people of our state that are confronting serious mental health challenges there is also another solution needed – make it easy to build pure charity housing (not legally defined “affordable housing” but free housing). Land formerly held within redevelopment areas are too often tangled in a costly web of regulation. This needs to be fixed. Legislation is needed to make it easier to provide charity housing when a willing community comes together to offer their skills and resources to build housing – for free. Amazingly enough, builders are finding this difficult to accomplish in California. This too needs to change.

“Many of those experiencing homeless need assistance finding and keeping a job”

Janice Rutherford - San Bernardino County Supervisor

In addition to help with mental health and dedication, many of those experiencing homeless need assistance finding and keeping a job. So in San Bernardino County, we are partnering with a nonprofit staffing agency to provide job coaching, placement, transportation assistance, and other support aimed at helping them find stable work despite the often steep employment barriers they face. If they’re receiving care for those issues and employed, their quality of life is better and the cost to taxpayers is reduced.

“The growing homelessness in California is much more than a housing problem”

Rob Lapsley - President of the California Business Roundtable

The growing homelessness in California is much more than a housing problem; it is a substance abuse and mental health crisis. While policymakers continue to prioritize affordable housing as the main solution we are finally starting to see discussions that reinforce the need for comprehensive mental health and substance abuse treatment solutions as well. CBRT is supporting billions of one-time dollars from the budget surplus to stimulate investment in these comprehensive services and the Governor’s office of Housing and Community Development is expediting funding to the local communities at a record pace. But in addition to the funding we need strict accountability, oversight and reforms of these programs at the local level in order to get results and build trust with California taxpayers for future long-term support. Empathy and frustration with our homeless population is at an all-time high among Californians especially among small and medium size businesses who live with it on their doorsteps every day. Our economy has provided the needed revenue to address this issue and policymakers are quickly running out of time to get results.

“We need more places our families can afford to call home”

Carolyn Coleman - Executive Director of the League of California Cities

Every day, cities are taking action to address the challenges residents face searching for a place to call home.

In 2018, the League supported the $500 million in the state’s budget for communities to address homelessness and the passage of a $2 billion bond for supportive housing for homeless individuals. We also supported the $650 million in this year’s budget for communities to provide shelter and services to help residents transition into permanent housing.

The severe shortage of affordable housing is a major contributor to homelessness. We need more places our families can afford to call home.

To produce more affordable housing, we supported a $4 billion bond in 2018, and the $1 billion in this year’s budget to increase the availability of housing tax credits and to fund infill infrastructure.

We are also supporting Senate Bill 5 that calls for a strong partnership between the state and cities by committing $200 million in tax increment financing annually that cities can use toward the construction of affordable housing. Estimates are that SB 5 will support up to 86,000 housing units over the next decade.

There is no single or easy solution to address homelessness. Building more affordable housing is a major part of the answer.

“California’s homeless are on the frontlines of climate change related disasters”

Amanda Eaken - Director of Transportation and Climate for the Natural Resources Defense Council

California’s homeless are on the frontlines of climate change related disasters, as wildfires and heat waves claim the lives of those with no protection each year. This population also experiences high rates of asthma and health complications, as a result of being constantly exposed to industrial pollution, while often lacking access to health services. Taking steps to end chronic homelessness, through providing sufficient funding for affordable housing and wrap-around social services, is critical to addressing these inequities.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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