In summary

California’s governor delivers a bold speech on homelessness — but shies away from the bolder recommendations of his own task force.

Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted his second annual “State of the State” address today to an issue that has consumed much of his first 12 months in office: the rising number of Californians without a home.

Traditionally, California governors treat these constitutionally-required addresses as an opportunity to announce a laundry list of proposals across a range of issues — education, the environment, criminal justice. Toss in some self-congratulatory remarks on last year’s legislative accomplishments, throw a perfunctory jab at Washington D.C. for political gridlock, gladhand some lawmakers and call it a day.

But with a record percentage of California voters citing homelessness as the biggest issue confronting the state, and with President Donald Trump bashing Newsom’s progressive leadership for letting the problem get this bad, the governor tossed aside convention.

“Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is failing to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” said Newsom, before outlining a series of proposals he urged the Legislature to adopt.

He departed from past addresses not only by his singular focus on homelessness, but by mentioning it at all. The word “homeless” did not appear in a single one of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speeches between 2011 and 2018.

Newsom’s advisors hope this break with tradition is a savvy political maneuver, letting voters know that their top priority is also their governor’s. Fair or not, Newsom will be held responsible for whether average Californians see a visible reduction in sleeping bags along their sidewalks and tent encampments in their parks. He might as well get out in front of the issue so no one can accuse him of evading it.

But placing homelessness at the top of his agenda — and thereby defining his governorship by the progress he makes to solve the problem — is risky. Newsom can only do so much to fix homelessness in the first place, and he’s set himself up to be held accountable for actions that demand buy-in from a web of other players, including state lawmakers, local officials, developers, health care leaders, and the White House.  

“The biggest risk is not taking a risk on homelessness,” Newsom said after his address. “The biggest risk is denying the reality that we see on the streets and sidewalks across the state. The biggest risk is abdicating responsibility, pointing fingers.”

But in political terms?

“Yeah,” the governor acknowledged, he is taking a risk.

In some ways, it’s familiar territory. Big bets have worked out well for Newsom in the past when he’s tapped into a zeitgeist that favors policies other Democrats shied away from. As San Francisco mayor, Newsom sanctioned same-sex marriage years before it became a legal right across the United States. As lieutenant governor, he championed the ballot measure California voters passed to legalize marijuana in 2016.

Keep tabs on the latest California policy and politics news

But solving homelessness is arguably more complicated, and the sophomore-year governor will face hurdles ahead. 

Will the locals comply?

Most homeless services — emergency shelters, mental illness treatment, street outreach — are run by cities and counties. While they may be funded by state and federal dollars, decisions on where to site a new shelter or whether to buy motels for homeless housing are largely left to local governments.

Nothing legally compels a city or county to do anything on homelessness. Technically, it’s all voluntary — a legal framework that has led neighboring jurisdictions to accuse each other of not doing their fair share.

A task force Newsom created last year to identify new homelessness solutions called for a “legally enforceable mandate” that would allow the state to sue cities or counties that failed to make meaningful progress on homelessness goals.

But in today’s State of the State, Newsom declined to embrace his task force’s signature proposal.

“We know the state’s traditional way of insisting on accountability, which is to write a mean letter,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, co-chair of Newsom’s task force, who nonetheless applauded the governor for his emphasis on the issue. “But that’s not what he said today and that’s not what the task force said five or six weeks ago.”

Newsom instead proposed a “do it or lose it” approach that would tie new state funding for homelessness to specific benchmarks — building a certain amount of low-income units, for example, or placing a certain number of people in housing.

Steinberg says Newsom has successfully changed the conversation on what is expected from local governments, and “do it or lose it” could well work. But the question remains: Will local governments make progress on reducing homelessness absent the threat of looming litigation?

Time…and the White House…are not on Newsom’s side

More than 150,000 Californians are homeless, at last count.

That “at last count” part could be politically problematic for Newsom. Those numbers are a snapshot of Californians living outdoors and in shelters in January 2019, and were not officially published by the federal government until December of that year.

Cities and counties around the state finished their official “one night counts” for 2020 last month. Which means much of the new funding and policy proposals the Newsom administration has announced won’t be reflected in the state’s official 2020 homeless count, due at the end of the year. 

If the 2020 homeless count for California is significantly higher than 2019’s, that’s ample political ammunition for Newsom’s critics to pan his proposals. Don’t expect U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson — who singled out California no fewer than nine times when announcing the national 2019 homeless count — to incorporate the nuances of the time lag in next December’s press release.

Newsom administration officials insist they are not beholden to Carson’s public relations strategy. But like it or not, Newsom’s homelessness goals are nevertheless tied to one Trump administration prerogative: funding.

“Clearly Newsom can’t control the federal response, and unfortunately that’s been heading in a really troubling direction recently,” said Sharon Rapport, director of California state policy for the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

The Trump administration has proposed a 15% cut to HUD funding, including the entire elimination of key affordable housing programs. Trump’s new homelessness czar wants to shift funding away from “housing first” approaches that do not precondition shelter on sobriety or participation in drug rehabilitation services.

The revenue rub and building more housing

Many of the homelessness proposals Newsom referenced today weren’t new. But homelessness advocates were elated to hear one significant departure from Newsom’s January budget proposal — a call for “significant, sustainable revenue.”

That’s most likely a new tax to fund homelessness services every year. Newsom declined to specify what that tax would look like, but regardless he’ll need a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers to make it happen. That’s not an easy lift in an election year, even with Democratic supermajorities in the statehouse.

We’re not talking about chump change. Advocates are hoping for annual ongoing homelessness spending in the $2 billion range, and are entertaining the idea of floating a millionaires’ tax for the 2022 ballot if they can’t make headway in the Legislature, according to Rapport.

But just after the speech, Newsom signaled a wariness about more spending. “One thing I can’t support is continuing to send out money with no accountability attached. No expectations, no metrics, no transparency,” he said. “I will not support any additional appropriations — not one dollar — unless it’s attached to real accountability and results.”

The governor also used the State of the State to reiterate his desire to see the Legislature pass a major housing production bill this year, arguing more supply was the only long-term solution to preventing Californians from being priced out of their homes.

Yet his campaign goal of building 500,000 units each year is off to a rocky start. Preliminary data indicates California permitted only 110,000 homes his first year in office, a total lower than 2018.

What type of housing production bill does he want the Legislature to approve? Again, Newsom offered little in the way of specifics. But rumors are circulating in the Capitol that elements of unsuccessful Senate Bill 50 — a controversial housing proposal that would have eliminated single-family-only zoning in much of the state and legalized apartment buildings around transit— might be split up into several different bills.

“I honestly don’t care if it gets passed in one bill or multiple bills. I just want the policy to pass because it’s important,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat who authored the defeated bill.

Support in-depth reporting that matters

As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on the generosity of Californians like you to cover the issues that matter. If you value our reporting, support our journalism with a donation.

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

Matt Levin is the data and housing dude for CALmatters. His work entails distilling complex policy topics into easily digestible charts and graphs, finding and writing original stories from data, yelling...

Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. Her stories explain political dynamics in the Capitol and examine how money, advocacy and relationships...