We Are Living in a Housing Apocalypse

Shouldn’t We Fix the Housing Pipeline Now?

In California, in every city and town, it is suddenly the 1930s   — Hoovervilles. Don’t know the reference? Tent cities. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

“California is a Garden of Eden, but if you ain’t got the do re mi, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.” — Woody Guthrie

In California, in every city and town, on the side of the freeway, near the railroad tracks, it is suddenly the 1930s   — Hoovervilles. Don’t know the reference? Tent cities.

What is to be done? Some say, “People don’t have a right to just sleep where they want. If people can’t afford to live here, why don’t they just go somewhere else? How can this be happening in my neighborhood?”

The answer to these questions is simple  —  but really hard. People need housing. Many studies have shown that California is 3 million units of housing short to meet the existing need for people to have a home. Three million.We are far past a housing crisis. We are living in a housing apocalypse! The only reason the streets are not teeming with people looking for homes is that somehow, somehow, people seem to manage  —  living in overcrowded conditions, living in their cars, moving out of state, moving back with their parents  —  we manage. But for a small (and growing) percentage, they have run out of options and are now living in tents in your neighborhood. We saw this coming. Don’t pretend you didn’t.

Shouldn’t cities be planning for more housing? Yes! Every city in California has a requirement to build housing according to the state mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). But, according to the Orange County Register, 97 percent of cities are failing to meet their housing needs!Mayors and others in Santa Barbara County have argued that these mandates are unrealistic and impossible to achieve. However, the numbers reflect actual demand. California needs more housing. Thus, creative solutions and new financial support for development from the public are required to keep prices in the range of working people.

Even if cities were honoring their commitments, the typical planning process is passive, reactive, regulation-bound and S-L-O-W (which means expensive). Cities basically wait for developers to bring them projects and then do all they can to slow them down, make them more expensive, and change them to fit some strange notion of civic requirement  —  like making four-story buildings look like two-story buildings  —  huh? Given all of this headache, the incentives are set for people to build the most profitable, least offensive, and least helpful (in terms of the workforce or the poor) housing.

But, what does this have to do with homelessness and tent cities? The answer to ending homelessness is housing (with supportive services on a case-by-case basis). It is not, as some leaders believe, more shelters.

If the pipeline to create housing for non-wealthy people is broken, and people are flooding the streets, should we provide a bigger bucket to catch them? Shouldn’t we fix the pipe and get new housing flowing, now?

Sadly, for those of us who favor new housing as the only real solution to ending homelessness, new funding for shelters is available. Existing shelters are full, so it makes sense to create more shelters. The seeming immediate alternative is what cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have done  —  sanction encampments and ensure there are trashcans, toilets, and showers for people. The County of Santa Barbara is doing that (to some extent) in Isla Vista. There is also talk of raising local revenues to create more shelter beds in certain areas. Local leaders are trying to solve the problem with temporary measures.

But, we don’t really need bigger buckets. We need solutions. The problem with shelters is that they become permanent. Some say, “But the poor are always with us. Shouldn’t they have a safe place to sleep?” Shelters are not permanent solutions; they are warehouses of the poor. Is that what we want? Warehouses full of poor people? That’s what permanent shelters become. Temporary shelters that are laser-focused on getting people housed, like the two the county has recently provided under COVID-19 funding, are part of the answer. But, the pipeline must be fixed to allow for homeless people to flow into permanent housing.

Here are the housing solutions to fix the broken pipeline:

•  Fulfilling the required amount of housing in each city and county should be the top priority for local governments. Don’t dismiss the RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation); implement it! This means streamlining the permitting process, allowing for development of vacant land in the unincorporated parts of the county on urban corridors like Hollister Avenue, taking the blighted malls over for housing, and implementing the long-held plans already in place.

•  This means, no tyranny of the minority of naysayers. Cities and counties must urgently site, plan, and create incentives for the building of housing.

•  Incentives should include infrastructure improvements, the taking of under-performing property and land through eminent domain, new taxes and bonds for financing, and streamlining and eliminating regulations that tie up the creation of housing. Raising local revenues through new taxes and bonds would finance the costs needed for curing blight and creating development incentives.

•  Section 8 for all. If everyone who qualifies has a voucher (something that the Biden administration is considering), then everyone can pay market-rate rent, and there is tremendous demand-side pressure for new housing.

•  Leadership. Our leaders must face down the angry residents. Our businesses should support this. People who already live in homes will object. The objections are obvious (and usually wrong): more traffic, less parking, ugly new buildings, undesirable tenants, change to the character of our communities, not enough space in schools.  The reality is that these objections don’t make sense because we have huge housing shortages — our job centers are dying because people no longer live in them.

The time is past due for culture change. California cannot just stay a Garden of Eden for those who have the money (Do Re Mi) and expect to continue to thrive. Our teachers, nurses, police officers, social service staff, restaurant staff, shop keepers, librarians, and childcare providers need a place to live.

Our very poor people should not be just expected to leave their home communities because we are too selfish to accept new housing for them.

It’s not just a moral issue, it’s the law, and it makes good economic sense. We need to walk the talk of our deep blue convictions as a state — social justice, equity, equal access, and diversity require that we provide housing for all. It’s a human right and (should be) our top priority as communities.

The answer to growing homelessness is not to build more shelters. It’s to rapidly, urgently, and courageously build more housing.

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