Big city mayors to California lawmakers on homelessness: Go bold

The mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Sacramento called for bold state action to help the more than 130,000 Californians who are homeless, urging Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to revive a controversial funding source for affordable housing and make it easier for cities to build shelters.

“This is a fundamentally broken system that needs to be re-imagined from the get-go,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, after relaying the story of a homeless Oakland woman who gave birth in a car two days ago. “I just hope that we don’t keep on tweaking this cycle that we have become complacent with.”

Mayors Schaaf, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Kevin Faulconer of San Diego and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento reflected on the difficulties of addressing what Garcetti called “the great humanitarian crisis the state faces” at a downtown Sacramento event sponsored by the California Dream Project, a collaboration of CALmatters and public radio stations Capitol Public Radio, KQED, KPCC and KPBS.

Despite the passage last month of two statewide initiatives that promise $6 billion in fresh affordable housing and homelessness dollars, Faulconer, the panel’s lone Republican whom GOP circles have floated as a future candidate for governor, argued that more affordable housing dollars were still desperately needed.

He was joined by Steinberg, a Democrat and former state legislative leader, in lobbying for the state to revive “redevelopment,” a controversial program that outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown helped eliminate in 2011. The program used local property tax revenue to fund affordable housing. A bill to re-start a redevelopment program failed to make it out of the Legislature in the last session.

“This is not a partisan issue. It is the ‘right thing we should be doing’ issue,” said Faulconer.

Despite leading very different California cities with different homeless populations, each mayor lamented the common difficulty of finding neighborhoods willing to accept new homeless shelters and permanent supportive housing, which provides wrap-around mental health and other services to the chronically homeless.

Garcetti—mayor of the seat of a county with the nation’s second largest homeless population, just behind New York—has run into the issue repeatedly in recent months. He was openly jeered at a town hall meeting in the beachside neighborhood of Venice last month, where he backed a proposal for a shelter on a local unused bus yard.

“I tell other elected officials, ‘Don’t process these things to death,’ ” said Garcetti, who stressed that communities that often start with a not-in-my-backyard stance tend to accept shelters and affordable housing once they’re up and running.

As a way of getting around so-called NIMBYs, Sacramento Mayor Steinberg said that cities and counties shouldn’t be so defensive about retaining local control on housing decisions—something you rarely hear from mayors.

“Local control is highly overrated,” said Steinberg. “I’m tired of the us-versus-them. It’s not getting us anywhere.”

When asked about the separate but related issue of rent control, Mayor Garcetti called on the state Legislature to revive a possible compromise over a 1995 state law that prohibits local governments from expanding rent control.  A repeal of that Costa Hawkins law on the November statewide ballot failed by 20 points.

“They almost had a deal and (the Legislature) should go back to that,” said Garcetti. “There shouldn’t be (rent) increases that are outrageous in the midst of a homelessness crisis.”

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