For a city as opulent as San Francisco, it has long been staggering to see the extreme poverty of the people homeless on its streets. Downtown tents, makeshift cardboard beds, and human excrement litter the sidewalks. Impoverished people lie on the floor while highly paid professionals rush by. In 2018, a UN official came to San Francisco on a world tour to investigate living conditions. She was shocked by what she saw. Their official report concluded that the city’s treatment of unhoused people was “cruel and inhumane treatment and a violation of several human rights, including the right to life, housing, health, water and sanitation”. The number of homeless San Franciscans has since grown to over 8,000 people, most of them sleeping on the streets, not in shelters.
San Francisco is pretty typical of major American cities these days, especially on the west coast. From San Diego to Seattle, tent cities have sprung up full of impoverished people. In California alone, there were around 151,000 homeless residents as of January 2020. There are many contributors to the problem. The horrors of childhood trauma and poverty, mental illness, and chronic substance abuse certainly increase the likelihood of someone living on the street. But Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says the main cause of the crisis is simple: housing has become far too scarce and too expensive.
Data support them. A few years ago, a team of economists at Zillow found that homelessness rose rapidly once cities crossed a threshold where the typical resident had to spend more than a third of their income on housing. When incomes don’t keep pace with rental rates, a cascading effect spreads across the housing market: high-income people start renting apartments, middle-income people have rented, middle-income people start renting low-income apartments to rent and low income people are left behind.
“It’s kind of a musical armchair game,” says Roman. “And people who strike against them – because they suffer from a mental illness, an addiction or a disability – are the least likely to get the chair.
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Homelessness wasn’t always that bad. “In the 1970s, there was plenty of affordable housing for every low-income household who needed one – and we really had no homelessness,” says Roman.
In the 1980s, homelessness became a chronic problem. There were many factors including the federal government’s decision to cut the budget for affordable housing. By then, the California state government had cut taxes and wiped out welfare programs, including those for state-funded mental health facilities, resulting in thousands of people with mental illness and other difficulties struggling to get by on their own.
But the main reason for the crisis boils down to the supply and demand for housing. When regions like the San Francisco Bay Area became draws for highly paid professionals in the computerized economy, they couldn’t build enough new units to keep up with demand. A 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that California will need 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 to address its chronic housing shortage. However, new housing construction has only slowed since then, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s election promise to lead efforts to produce those 3.5 million units. Even before the pandemic devastated the construction business, California was only building about 100,000 new homes a year, well below the 180,000-year minimum that the state urgently needs, according to analysts.
As Conor Dougherty documents in his insightful new book, Golden Gates, California housing policy is a mess. Homeowners fear that new high-rise buildings will destroy neighborhoods and damage their home values. Existing tenants fear further gentrification and displacement. Zoning and various regulations make it difficult to build new homes.
Many proponents say California needs some sort of new rental control program, but the city of San Francisco passed a rental control bill back in 1994 that helped keep existing tenants from being evicted – but exacerbated the deeper problem of rental shortages. The 1994 law convinced a large number of San Francisco landlords to take their rental homes off the market, for example by selling their units as condominiums or by leveling them and building new ones because the law did not apply to new construction. Research has shown that the Rent Act led to a 25% drop in rental supply in the city – at a time when demand was rising.
The result of all this is obscenely high rents and property prices. Combined with stagnating wages for many low-income jobs and a lack of political will to spend significantly more on subsidized housing, it is easy to understand why a large population group is doubling, living with their parents and moving to increasingly expensive outskirts and on to the city pushed the road.
Booming cities in other states arguably did a better job than San Francisco and Los Angeles in providing at least a band-aid for the bubbling wound. New York City, for example, has a “right to shelter” and an extensive shelter system that helps people sleep inside every night. NYC has a homelessness rate similar to SF and LA, but different in character. As of January 2020, 72% of homeless Californians were homeless. Compare that to New York State, where only 5% are unprotected. The result is a city where homelessness, while still worrying, is also less obvious. The warmer weather on the west coast, which could change the perception of the cruelty of letting people sleep outdoors, could make up the difference, but New York has a “right to” based on a 1979 court ruling interpreting the state constitution Shelter “. To give New Yorkers that right.
Rather than building a large system of shelters, California’s cities have taken a sloppy approach that UC San Diego sociologist Neil Gong calls “tolerant containment” – basically, the uninhabited in certain wretched neighborhoods, like San Francisco’s tenderloin or Los Angeless Skid Row, and then selectively prosecuted for living on the street. Gong calls this approach “a Frankenstein monster created by pairing bourgeois libertarianism with austerity”.
Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney for the National Homelessness Law Center, says California cities have historically been just as energetic as other cities in violently clearing camps and punishing people for homelessness. In 2018, however, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibited cities from punishing people for sleeping outside when they did not have access to indoor or long-term accommodation. Following that ruling, and in line with CDC guidelines recommending increased free movement during the pandemic, say some West Coast cities that lack adequate housing have increasingly approved homeless camps.
Last year, Californians of all stripes identified homelessness as the single biggest problem the state wanted to address. With a political boom, legal intervention, and billions of federal dollars in the Biden administration, California politicians are finally trying to do something big to help people who are unhodged and unsafe.
Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced a $ 12 billion plan that promises to “provide 65,000 people with housing services, provide stable housing for more than 300,000 people, and create 46,000 new housing units.” The initiative builds on programs implemented during the pandemic that converted hotels and other buildings into apartments for the uninhabited. San Francisco Mayor London Breed wants the city to spend more than a billion on the problem over the next two years to pursue a city election initiative that has approved taxing large businesses and using the funds to help the homeless .
Hopefully these programs will go a long way in solving the problem. But unless California addresses the cause – a chronic lack of affordable housing and a persistent failure to significantly increase new construction – the state seems doomed to grapple with obscene levels of homelessness.
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