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Crisis in California Shows Why Housing Must Be Protected as a Human Right

The housing crisis is escalating, and it won’t be solved through symbolic pronouncements or toothless measures.

People shelter in a homeless encampment on Polk Street near City Hall in San Francisco as atmospheric river storms hit California on January 13, 2023.

Mayors from around California gathered in Sacramento last week to discuss the state’s homelessness crisis. They urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to find $3 billion per year, on a rolling basis, to furnish a stable source of funding to provide shelter to the rapidly growing population of people living on the streets.

Newsom’s administration has already spent billions of dollars on homelessness, yet has achieved a scandalously low rate of return on this vast societal investment. It’s not that this money isn’t helping some people — perhaps many thousands of people — to access some form of housing; rather, for every person who leaves the streets and, with state assistance, finds housing, it seems there’s another person who takes their place.

This is partly because so few affordable housing units are being built; Newsom promised to get 3.5 million homes built while he was governor, yet, despite recent efforts to inject several billion dollars into building affordable housing, so far less than one-sixth of that number have been permitted, and a far smaller number have actually been built.

Frustrated activists have begun pushing for an amendment to the state constitution to declare that all residents have a right to housing; and in March, San Francisco Assemblymember Matt Haney unveiled Constitutional Amendment 10, which, if voters were to pass it, would place a housing guarantee in the state constitution. Yet, such a measure is likely years off still, and previous efforts to prod the legislature on a right to housing have either withered on the vine, or they have been vetoed by Governor Newsom, whose office argued the cost would be prohibitive. Moreover, even if Haney’s amendment passes, if it is ever to be anything more than aspirational, it will have to have enforcement teeth to ensure vastly more affordable homes get built, and California’s sorry history on this issue hardly gives cause for optimism here.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is pushing for much larger investments in affordable housing, estimates that California is the least affordable state in the country in which to be a renter. Each year, huge numbers of tenants are evicted by landlords pushing to raise rents and build more upscale units at the cost of displacing established communities. Tenants’ rights groups such as Tenants Together have, for years, pushed for legislation that would codify the right of tenants to organize collectively against landlords, and would establish rules such as Just Cause, which would prohibit evictions unless the landlord has a specific claim against an individual tenant. In 2019, this legislation passed in the Assembly only to be shot down in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the California housing crisis continues to escalate.

Nonprofits that have been pushing for expedited construction of affordable housing are infuriated that hundreds of lots for affordable housing units remain empty and fenced off, as developers look to cobble together funding streams from an array of state and county agencies that work at a sloth’s pace, taking years to approve each step of the process. The California Debt Limit Allocation Committee, which gives affordable housing developers access to tax-exempt bonds that can cover up to 40 percent of the construction costs, have received so many applications that they are turning away qualified projects, slowing the pace of construction even more.

Tens of thousands of people are being released from state prisons, which is a long-overdue corrective after decades in which harmful “tough on crime” bills swelled the prison population sevenfold from what it was before mass incarceration became normalized. Yet in city after city, there are restrictive housing rules on the books that largely prohibit landlords from renting to people with criminal records — essentially guaranteeing that huge numbers of formerly incarcerated people will end up camped out on city sidewalks, underpasses and rivers’ edges. That benefits neither the homeless nor the broader community. It is an entirely dysfunctional calculus.

Because of the scarcity of affordable market rent units, qualifying for public assistance vis-à-vis housing is vital for low-income Californians. Yet there are wait lists that run to as many as eight years for the few public housing units on hand, and for Section 8 vouchers in cities such as San Diego, families can wait seven years for their vouchers to be approved. Moreover, many of those who are homeless wouldn’t qualify for such housing subsidies in any case, owing to discrimination against people with criminal records.

Last month, Newsom called on legislators to, over the coming year, craft legislation to provide housing, complete with supportive services, to 12,000 people per year. He has also announced plans to use $30 million in state funds to build 1,200 “tiny” homes for houseless people around the state. Yet, in a state with well over 100,000 unsheltered people living on the streets, and with a shelter system that, unlike on the East Coast, doesn’t even begin to make a dent in the scale of the on-the-streets homelessness crisis, this investment seems shockingly insufficient.

California’s problem isn’t simply that it is unwilling to spend adequate amounts of money on tackling homelessness. And its problem also isn’t simply that its cities do not affirm the sort of right to shelter that Eastern cities like New York provide (an inadequate stopgap to be sure, but one that at least does provide some guaranteed access to emergency shelters, thus limiting the numbers who sleep out on the streets each night). Rather it’s that the overlapping crises that have fueled the crisis are, at this point, so large as to be resistant to easy-fix cash infusions.

Sure, investing in anti-homelessness programs, as Newsom’s administration is doing, is necessary, but such investments are in themselves far from sufficient. First and foremost, California has to approve, and fund, the building of more affordable homes, and to do this it has to fast-track application and funding systems for affordable housing. It has to massively modify the California Environmental Quality Act, which in its time was a landmark piece of environmental legislation, subjecting all developments to exhaustive environmental reviews, but which now is often used as a NIMBYists’ charter, allowing individuals to sue to hold up necessary developments for years. California needs to revamp its local ordinances barring formerly incarcerated people from most housing stock. And it must dramatically scale up its abilities at the county and city level to provide accessible medical treatment and mental health care. Without these reforms, however much money Newsom throws at the problem, he will simply be putting band-aids onto a gaping wound.

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