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California lawmakers push housing, homelessness bills — but will they work?

With public frustration over the homelessness crisis rising, California lawmakers have floated a raft of bills to tackle the issue and a lack of housing — affordable or otherwise — in the Golden State.

(CN) — Take a random selection of 10,000 Californians and 44 people will be homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services. That’s over 171,000 people across the Golden State. Half of the nation's unsheltered population — people living on the streets, in tents, in cars, in parks — live in California. On top of that, 17 million California renters face housing instability according to the California Budget and Policy Center.

Homelessness and not enough affordable housing are not new issues in California, but rising home prices, skyrocketing rent, and the growing number of people living without shelter have brought public frustration to a boiling point, with local mayors, city councils, and county boards of supervisors taking the brunt of that frustration as they stumble through policies and initiatives to try to respond to the parallel crises. A bevy of bills floating through the Legislature this year hope to strengthen the state’s involvement in easing those frustrations. Will they work? 

“No bill is a silver bullet,” said state Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco. “It’s taken us 50 years to dig into this hole, and it’s going to take us a while to dig out.”

As chair of the state Senate’s housing committee, Wiener has led efforts to pass legislation to streamline regulations, making it easier for developers to build more housing to fill California’s persistent shortage of homes and apartments. 

In 2015, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated the state should have been building 70,000 to 110,000 more homes and apartments than it already was building each year from 1980 to 2010. In total, that’s 3.5 million more homes and apartments.

Wiener shepherded a bill through the Legislature in 2017 that streamlined the approval process for developers to build housing, especially affordable housing in cities that don’t produce enough to meet the state’s guidelines. The lawmaker hoped the streamlined process would make cities more willing to permit more developers to build, or, the law says the state will force them to do it.

In a couple of years the law will sunset, so Wiener has introduced a bill that would continue the provisions. 

Another bill by Wiener would allow religious institutions and colleges to build 100% affordable housing projects on their property, mainly to house people who work at those institutions.       

“It’s an all-of-the-above approach,” Wiener said, adding that along with making it easier for developers to build more of every kind of housing, he’s also supportive of social housing —or publicly financed housing where rents are capped for a mix of tenants who make varying incomes.     

“Our analysis is that we do have a housing shortage, but we have specifically a shortage of affordable housing,” said Anya Svanoe, the communication director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action, a community organizing group.  

The alliance is organizing to support a bill to extend the state’s rent cap to limit landlords’ abilities to increase rent by only 5% each year, instead of 10% currently allowed.  

Another bill the alliance wants to see passed would create a $500 million fund for nonprofits and community land trusts to acquire “naturally occurring” affordable housing — rental homes that are relatively cheaper than others — to keep them affordable and out of the hands of large corporations that often buy those properties and then hike rent.

Both bills, plus a proposed amendment to the California Constitution declaring housing a human right, will help stem the tide of people losing their homes and falling into homelessness, Svanoe said. 

“Yes, we are making demands of the Legislature because people are dying. It’s very dire for a lot of our folks,” she said. 

One way to keep people in their homes, especially seniors and young people of color whose communities face gentrification, is by building more ADUs, detached rental units built in the backyards of existing homes, said state Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, who represents parts of South Los Angeles. 

Pointing to the exodus of Black residents from LA, Smallwood-Cuevas said she’d like to see policies that help homeowners of color in previously redlined communities draw equity from their homes to be able to build ADUs. 

“These are complex and deeply rooted. We’ve had some policies, and now the chickens have come home to roost in some ways,” she said, referring to the state’s history of housing discrimination and the decline in unionized manufacturing jobs. “When we think about homelessness it’s an accumulation of economic policies, I believe."

One way to correct that, she said, is for the state to reinvest in public housing programs, she said. 

“The reason we have homelessness is the issue was dumped on municipalities by the federal government,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of Coalition on Homelessness. “It’s literally impossible for municipal governments to solve homelessness on their own without the state and federal government.”

While her organization usually deals with local issues in San Francisco, Friednbach said that the state, and the federal government, could make a massive improvement in dealing with the housing and homelessness crisis by increasing funding to housing programs. She pointed to San Fransico’s Prop C, a ballot measure passed in 2018 that taxes corporations that make more than $50 million in revenue to fund local housing and homelessness programs as a possible model for the state.    

In the meantime, her organization is interested in a bill that would give housing subsidies to seniors and people with disabilities who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. And the group is against another bill that would ban homeless encampments near certain areas like schools. 

“With the right amount of funding we could eradicate homelessness in our communities,” said Michael Roberson, the homeless services coordinator for Tuolumne County.   

Making the bureaucratic hoops counties have to jump through to fund housing and shelter projects easier — especially in rural counties with small county governments like Tuolumne — by creating one, uncomplicated state plan to build housing rather than just more money would help a lot of people in need, Roberson said. 

Tuolumne is now trying to save up funding to build a navigation center, where people can come for temporary shelter while a case worker helps them to find more permanent housing, he said. The county is also looking into the possibility of implementing a scattered housing model, where people are given vouchers to pay for apartments or rooms in houses.

“We have to not lean into the frustration, we have to lean into the root causes and redirect our anger to collective care and solutions for each other,” Smallwood-Cuevas said of the public's frustration over homelessness crisis. “I’m here for the hard work because that’s what it’s going to take. We have to do it one bill, one policy, at a time. That’s how things work here in Sacramento.” 

Categories / Government, Regional

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