Rising homelessness is tearing California cities apart

“As the pandemic recedes, elected officials across deep-blue California are reacting to intense public pressure to erase the most visible signs of homelessness. Democratic leaders who once would have been loath to forcibly remove people from sidewalks, parks and alongside highways are increasingly imposing camping bans, often while framing the policies as compassionate.
“Enforcement has its place,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who has spent much of the past year trying to soothe public anger in a city that has seen its unsheltered homeless population surpass that of San Francisco — 5,000 in the most recent count compared with San Francisco’s 4,400. “I think it’s right for cities to say, ‘You know, there are certain places where it’s just not appropriate to camp.’””

“Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced the state had cleared 1,200 encampments in the past year, attempting to soften the message with a series of visits to social service programs. But without enough beds to shelter unhoused people, advocates say efforts to clear encampments are nothing more than cosmetic political stunts that essentially shuffle the problem from street corner to another.”

““No one’s happy to have to do this,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said earlier this summer as he discussed ticketing people who refuse shelter. “We’re doing everything we can to provide people with better choices than the street.”

Other Democratic leaders around the country, facing similar pressure, have also moved to clear out encampments and push homeless people out of public spaces. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain who won his office on a pledge to fight crime, came under fire this year for his removal of homeless people from subways and transit hubs. The city’s shelter system is now bursting at the seams.”

“A recent court decision requires local governments to provide enough beds before clearing encampments — a mandate that does not apply to state property. But that’s easier said than done in a state where there are three to four times as many homeless people as shelter beds.

California’s homelessness problem has deep, gnarled roots dating back decades, but has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. Tents and tarps on sidewalks, in parks and under freeways have become a near-ubiquitous symbol of the state’s enduring crisis. A pandemic-spurred project to move people from encampments to motels has lapsed, and eviction moratoriums have dissolved. Homelessness is a top concern for voters in the liberal state, and as Democrats prepare for the midterm elections, Newsom and other leaders have been eager to show voters they’re taking action.

But the practice of clearing out camps can be a futile exercise, particularly when the people being forced to pack up their tents have nowhere else to go or simply end up doing the same thing just a few blocks away.”

“Addiction and mental illness can drive people into homelessness and keep them there, which has fueled Newsom’s push for a civil court system that would create treatment plans for those with the most critical needs and allow involuntary commitment for people who do not participate. The CARE Courts program, which Newsom is expected to sign into law soon, is estimated to help between 7,000 and 12,000 people — a small portion of the more than 160,000 Californians without stable housing.”

California’s Competitors

“The median home value in San Francisco in 2022 is above $1.5 million, according to the Zillow Home Value Index, which shows home values rising by more than 10 percent in the past year alone. In nearby San Jose, Redfin reports a median home price of $1.45 million—but home values have risen by a staggering 24 percent in the last year. Today’s Bay Area is simply unaffordable for most people, in part because California regulations hinder new construction and in part because natural geographical constraints reduce the total amount of buildable space; San Francisco has a huge housing supply shortage that shows no signs of being remedied soon.

Pair this with complaints that the city has failed to handle its homelessness problem, leading to open-air drug scenes and massive tent encampments in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. One in every 100 San Franciscans is homeless, and California is a national outlier in terms of what proportion of the homeless population is actively “unsheltered,” as in, sleeping on the streets or under highway overpasses. In San Francisco, 73 percent of the city’s homeless population is considered unsheltered. That’s not normal, even for a big city: In New York City, the figure is about 3 percent.

And then there was the pandemic, which made many big tech offices obsolete: Twitter, Yelp, and Airbnb attempted to sublease their expensive Bay Area office spaces. Pinterest paid almost $90 million in the third quarter of 2020 to break the lease of their almost 500,000-square-foot office space. For many workers, the value of living in San Francisco dropped. Why pay a premium to live near an office you aren’t going to?

Finally, there was the broader sense, especially among high-value tech workers, that San Francisco and its neighbors were uninterested and unresponsive, focused only on extracting from their most productive citizens in the form of high taxes, which fund poor city services. In the last few years, many have simply grown tired of paying exorbitant taxes for the privilege of living in California—one that now bestows little in return.

Hence the Golden State exodus. In 2021, for the first time ever, California lost a congressional seat. The state didn’t technically lose population, but it didn’t have the same growth rate as the rest of the country.”

“the shift also owes something to responsive governance. Leaders of other cities have actively courted the movers. In December 2020, venture capitalist Delian Asparouhov tweeted “ok guys hear me out, what if we move silicon valley to miami.” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez responded promptly, “How can I help?”

Yet as Bay Area tech workers depart, it remains an open question whether those new pastures will truly be greener. The city of Austin has faced rising housing costs, stemming in part from restrictions on development. Miami has struggled with corruption and policing problems. San Francisco’s urban competitors are cheaper, for now, but there are already worrying signs that the cities luring tech’s highly mobile, highly desirable workers are already poised to repeat many of the same mistakes that drove so many Californians away.”

“In 2012, Austin city officials saw the writing on the wall and proactively tried to remedy these problems by moving toward a zoning code rewrite. The 30-year-old code had outlasted its usefulness, and with massive population growth, city planners needed to allow for much more density.

The city’s newly proposed zoning code was dubbed CodeNEXT, as part of a forward-looking urban revitalization plan, Imagine Austin. The new code aimed to reduce the strict separations between Austin’s residential and commercial corridors, allowing for more mixed-use buildings and more housing overall.

It would’ve scrapped single-family zoning restrictions in many areas, allowing for duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and apartment buildings to be built in their stead; it would’ve allowed for urban in-fill instead of forcing newcomers to gravitate toward far-flung suburbs; it would’ve reduced or eliminated minimum parking requirements in some places too. It wasn’t exactly an urbanist’s dream—some criticized it for not going far enough with regard to density—but it was a reasonable step toward that ideal.”

“By 2018, the project was dead in the water, having been met with fierce opposition primarily from neighborhood preservationists and homeowners, who had seen their homes double in price over the last five or 10 years.”

Biden’s Build Back Better Plan Contains One Potentially Helpful Housing Program

“Homelessness is a major issue in the U.S., and is inherently intertwined with the cost of housing. In fact, in a recent poll, respondents from the 20 metro areas that experienced the largest population growth between 2010–2019 listed both the cost of housing and homelessness as their top two concerns, and by almost identical margins (86 and 87 percent, respectively). The average cost of rent has increased nearly 20 percent within the last year alone, and since 2001, in nearly every state, rents have risen at a faster rate than incomes.

But simply offering rental assistance without a simultaneous increase in the supply of housing would only serve to exacerbate the cost problem, as a larger amount of money would chase after the exact same amount of inventory. In fact, the U.S. is currently as many as 5 million houses short of meeting estimated demand.

Of the roughly $150 billion which the Build Back Better Act appropriates toward housing, more than half is put toward dubious use, via rental assistance programs. About a third of that portion, though, is specifically tailored toward the construction or rehabilitation of more affordable housing units to increase the overall supply, which could help drive down costs.”

“The Build Back Better Act does fund the establishment of a “competitive grant program,” the Unlocking Possibilities Program, to incentivize “streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes.” As with any grant program, its efficacy will be dictated by its implementation, but with more than $4.26 billion appropriated, there is plenty of breathing room to potentially make a difference.

In an ideal scenario, of course, there would be as few zoning restrictions as possible, allowing developers to simply respond to the needs of the community without requiring the government’s stamp of approval. While public funding to incentivize a reduction or simplification of red tape is better than the status quo, it is still not a perfect solution.”

Congress isn’t going to save the housing market

“More than 580,000 Americans are homeless. The median sale price for a home has just surpassed $400,000. Homeownership is on the decline.

This, by all accounts, is a national emergency — and one House Democrats had proposed $330 billion to tackle as part of their Build Back Better plan. This package was both a once-in-a-generation investment and also barely enough to scratch the surface. Now, even those proposed investments are being cut down as part of negotiations over the final package.”

“some in Congress were willing to make substantial investments, very few were willing to tackle the fundamental problem that was making homes so expensive in the first place: lack of supply.

Yes, it’s easier to try to help people afford something expensive than to try and make it less expensive to begin with. But many of the policies that try to subsidize housing can actually make it more expensive. “What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill,” says Paul Williams, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute.”

Los Angeles Is Squandering $1.2 Billion While Homeless Face a ‘Spiral of Death’

“Five years after Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure and a countywide sales tax hike to raise another estimated $355 million annually to solve its homelessness problem, there are more people living and dying on the streets than ever before.

Many of these men and women are both frequent targets and perpetrators of violence.

Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who did not respond to our interview request, has partially blamed this failure on the pandemic, which slowed new housing construction and limited shelter capacity. It’s true that COVID caused a surge in homelessness, but the city’s plan was already failing.”

“The centerpiece of L.A.’s plan was to spend the $1.2 billion raised through Proposition HHH to build 10,000 supportive housing units over a decade. Even if the government were able to pull that off, it would merely put a dent in the problem in a city where more than 30,000 people are living on the streets and sidewalks according to the 2020 homelessness count.

Five years into the 10-year plan, just 14 projects are in service. Of the promised 10,000 supportive housing units, the city has completed fewer than 700.

It would take more than 30 years to house all of the people currently homeless in L.A. county at that pace, according to a federal court order.”

A Canadian study gave $7,500 to homeless people. Here’s how they spent it.

“The study, conducted by the charity Foundations for Social Change in partnership with the University of British Columbia, was fairly simple. It identified 50 people in the Vancouver area who had become homeless in the past two years. In spring 2018, it gave them each one lump sum of $7,500 (in Canadian dollars). And it told them to do whatever they wanted with the cash.”

“Over the next year, the study followed up with the recipients periodically, asking how they were spending the money and what was happening in their lives. Because they were participating in a randomized controlled trial, their outcomes were compared to those of a control group: 65 homeless people who didn’t receive any cash. Both cash recipients and people in the control group got access to workshops and coaching focused on developing life skills and plans.

The results? The people who received cash transfers moved into stable housing faster and saved enough money to maintain financial security over the year of follow-up. They decreased spending on drugs, tobacco, and alcohol by 39 percent on average, and increased spending on food, clothes, and rent, according to self-reports.”

Causes and Solutions to Homelessness (Sources)

How Can the U.S. End Homelessness? Alana Semuels. 4 25 2016. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/end-homelessness-us/479115/ Here’s how Finland solved its homelessness problem 2 13 2018. Alex Gray. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/how-finland-solved-homelessness/ Prevention Homeless hub. https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/prevention Homelessness Prevention and the Welsh Legal Duty: Lessons

California’s Government Has Turned Homelessness Into Big Business

“You might have noticed California is enduring housing and homeless crises. The market solution to housing shortages is simple: Government should reduce regulations, slow-growth restrictions, rent controls and fees that limit supply and drive up prices. Let builders build. Homelessness is a more complicated problem because homeless people often have addiction and mental-health issues, but more housing would help.

I can’t say exactly how it will work, just as I can’t say exactly how a molly bolt gets from the foundry in India to Home Depot in Sacramento. But I can tell you what won’t work—namely the policies our government now is championing. Gov. Gavin Newsom spent most of his recent State of the State speech detailing a blueprint for dealing with the “disgraceful” homeless situation, which involves more public spending and programs.”

“An investigation from this newspaper group found that a third of the apartments being built through the $1.2 billion Prop. HHH bond measure, which voters approved in 2016 to fund supportive housing, “will each cost more than $546,000, the median sale price of a condominium in Los Angeles.” The report found it “uncertain if the program will reach its goal of 10,000 new permanent housing units.”

I’d think it’s fairly certain the bond will run out of cash before its targeted numbers are met and city leaders will be back asking voters for more money. It’s also certain such projects will at best help a fraction of LA’s homeless. Some projects in Southern California have seen per-unit costs approaching $700,000. This is nuts.”