Sixteen years ago, I was on a state Homeless Summit panel hosted by California’s then-Gov. Gray Davis in Sacramento. I and other advocates were optimistic that the state’s homelessness crisis could be resolved because of a $2.1 billion bond, Proposition 46, would provide new housing for people struggling with homelessness. Voters approved the bond overwhelmingly.
Fast forward to today. California has the highest homeless count in the nation, 134,000 people, an increase of 14 percent from 2016 to 2017. There are homeless encampments across California and there seems to be little hope of solving the crisis quickly.
Candidates for governor are shelling out ideas for solving the crisis. Republican John Cox recently criticized the state for its high cost of homes, using the multimillion-dollar sale of the “Brady Bunch” home as an example.
The next governor is going to need to do more than simply decry the cost of a split-level suburban home to solve one of the state’s worst human crises.
When the state had an $8.8 billion budget surplus, 11 mayors and a handful of legislators proposed allocating $1.5 billion toward homelessness. Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to $500 million for emergency solutions, the Homeless Emergency Program.
There needs to be more. The next governor must do more than hope for an annual budget surplus to pay for more temporary housing.
Voters will decide two proposals are on the November ballot: Proposition 2, known as No Place Like Home, is a $2 billion initiative for permanent housing aimed at chronically homeless mentally ill people. Proposition 1 is a $4 billion affordable housing initiative for seniors and veterans.
Both would be significant. But neither is a game changer unless we consider both bonds to be a downpayment toward long-term, consistent housing, and services investment.
As some who has worked in this field for 22 years, I believe the governor needs to push for more long-term funding, move quickly and increase density. Here are some specifics:
- In 2010, then-LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed that the federal government give 30 years of transit funds to the city in 10 years. The result was quick funding for LA’s current public transit. We need a similar approach to supportive housing. Thirty years worth of funding would bring billions of dollars for affordable and homeless housing—now.
- Communities that have seen reductions of homelessness have used a “housing first” approach where they reallocate resources from emergency solutions toward supporting housing that helps people move into apartments, supported by wraparound services.
- In 2012, Brown dissolved redevelopment agencies that allowed cities to reallocate property taxes toward eradicating urban blight. Although some cities used the funds for purposes other than what they were intended for—the reason for dissolution—about $1 billion per year were used for affordable housing. The state desperately needs $1 billion per year, if not triple that, for new housing and services. The next governor must allocate additional funding for new housing infrastructure.
- The idea of multiple story, multi-family affordable housing for formerly homeless Californians is sometimes threatening for neighbors who are worried about their quality of life. But world-class land-sparse cities like Tokyo learned decades ago that in order to have enough housing for its growing population it needed to build up.
California needs to replicate this strategy. State Senator Scott Wiener tried to propose new laws that would mandate cities to build more densely, but it failed. Assemblyman Todd Gloria is proposing a new bill that would increase density.
California has 24 percent of America’s total homeless population. California cannot wait 20 or 30 years to build up a housing infrastructure that will make a home available to all people living on our streets. We need housing now.
California’s next governor must have the foresight to create a new game-changing approach to supportive housing and homeless solutions. Otherwise, in 15 years, we will be voting on a new billion-dollar bond.
Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH and PATH Ventures, statewide homeless services and housing development agencies. His email is JoelR@ePath.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.