California boasts a powerhouse economy that would rank fifth in the world if we were a country. Our state boasts an immense concentration of wealth: A million millionaires live here.
But we also have the nation’s highest poverty rate. One in 5 Californians is struggling to get by.
Looking at our extreme income inequality, and some of the highest housing prices in the United States, it’s not hard to see why homelessness has become our state’s most significant catastrophe.
Every week, it seems there are more tents massed under freeway overpasses in California cities, more people huddled in downtown doorways, and more people living in their cars.
In 2018, California’s homeless population numbered about 130,000, a 13% increase from 2016. The latest count conducted in communities statewide in January has ominous results: a 22% increase in Riverside County, 23% in San Bernardino County, 43% in Orange County and 50% in Kern County. In Los Angeles County, the increase is 12%.
We estimate that about a third of the homeless population suffers from mental illness, and about one-fifth with substance use. To aid these individuals, many of whom have experienced homelessness for years, we are building a robust safety net. This is possible based on efforts like Los Angeles’ Measure H, which dedicates a portion of sales tax for homeless services, and No Place Like Home, a statewide initiative that’s expediting affordable housing development for mentally ill individuals.
But in a state which accounts for a quarter of our nation’s homeless, we can’t ignore that more than half are living outdoors. New York State has a large homeless population, about 92,000 people, but only 5% lack any form of shelter. Why the stark contrast?
New York invests in first getting people off the streets with a comprehensive shelter system. While California has been focused on building more permanent housing, we must pay equal and urgent attention to first getting people indoors as a key step to long-term stability.
We applaud the decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom to establish the Homeless & Supportive Housing Task Force and to include $1 billion in his proposed budget to address the issue. His proposal includes $650 million that would go directly to communities, including $275 million for the state’s most populous cities, to use for temporary shelters that surround residents with the services they need to stabilize and transition to permanent housing.
By quickly moving people through these shelters and into housing, we can start to make a real dent in the numbers of people sleeping outside.
But all of our hard work getting people into shelter will be futile if we see them replaced on our streets by those forced out of their homes by stark economics.
These are the Californians who park our cars, clean our buildings, prepare our coffee, and even teach our kids. Zillow research shows that a typical renter in Los Angeles is paying almost half their income toward housing costs. They are our neighbors, and they are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Far too often, they are one medical emergency, car repair, or rent increase away from falling into homelessness.
To address this, we must pursue scaled-up, sustainable approaches to prevent Californians from falling into homelessness in the first place.
We simply must produce more housing across California, and it must be housing of all types. California has a deficit of 1.5 million affordable rental homes.
We know that red tape stifles production, so we must look seriously at reforming state and local laws to make it easier to build the housing we desperately need. We should challenge our local entitlement departments to dramatically reduce the turn-around times for review and permitting.
We must also preserve affordable housing options for individuals and families before they are priced out. This means making sure that rents stay affordable, while promoting wealth-building within diverse communities of color that have been disenfranchised for far too long.
At the state level, this means allocating more tax credits to support the refinancing of projects to extend affordability covenants. At the local level, grant and loan programs should be set up for small property owners, helping them pay for essential home improvements, as long as they commit to keeping the rent affordable.
We must also protect residents from drastic rent increases and unlawful evictions through state legislation aimed at preventing rent gouging and evictions without just cause. Locally, we must support robust Right to Counsel programs to help defend renters from unjust evictions.
New York has seen great success: in the first year of establishing a Right to Counsel program, of the 22,000 New Yorkers represented by attorneys, 84% were able to remain in their homes. Small property owners should also be able to tap into this fund to help resolve renter conflicts.
Lastly, we need to partner to ensure that Californians are deeply moved by this humanitarian crisis to support diverse housing solutions in their neighborhoods. It is our moral imperative to produce more homes, preserve affordability of our housing stock, and protect our residents who are at risk of eviction.
There is no retreat, there is no room for complacency, and there can be no conscientious objectors in this battle to house all Californians. If we’re going to get everyone in, we have to be all in.
Darrell Steinberg is the mayor of Sacramento and the principal author of Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act of 2004. Mark Ridley-Thomas is supervisor for Los Angeles County’s Second District and the principal author of Measure H, Los Angeles County’s Homeless Services and Prevention Act of 2017.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.