Berkeley universities

Is California Doing Enough to Address Homelessness?

In his State of State Addresses On Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom told his audience that “just a few years ago, California had no comprehensive strategy” to tackle the exploding homelessness crisis. “But everything changed,” he said. Newsom spoke of moving “a record 58,000 people to the streets since the pandemic began” and “unprecedented investments for frontline cities and counties.”

Nothing Newsom said about homelessness was wrong. But the tone seemed off. It was oddly festive, considering California had over 161,000 homeless on the streets at the start of the pandemic, in 2020 – a quarter of all homeless people in the United States – and almost certainly counts many more people living on the streets today. Many of the state’s urban centers are increasingly looking like desolate slums. In Sacramento, for example, where I live and where Newsom was speaking from, there are tent and box camps lining the streets along the downtown freeway from 3rd Street to 15th Street, where hundreds of people live. They cook over open fires and their goods are strewn on the sidewalks, in the alleys and increasingly on the streets themselves.

I have seen slums like this before on my travels – in India, Brazil and South Africa. Until a few years ago, however, I had never seen such concentrated poverty and desperation in the United States. Even in New York, when I lived there in the early 1990s, there were no slums on the scale you see in California today.

In total, the California capital currently has around 10,000 homeless people. It is a chaotic, shameful, dangerous and entirely dystopian reality. It’s also the biggest flaw in California’s progressive political landscape.

Newsom was not wrong to point out that the state is finally taking seriously a set of interrelated crises – poverty, unaffordable housing, the bloated criminal justice system, a grotesquely dysfunctional method of delivering mental health services, late courts, etc. – that fuel the homelessness epidemic. He referred, for example, to his recent – vital, albeit belated – decision to create CARE Courts it would both require counties to provide services to homeless people with mental health issues and require those people to accept services.

But what has been missing in the tone of the governor’s speech was a genuine acknowledgment of the continuing inanity of housing policies and regulations that make it nearly impossible to build significant amounts of affordable housing in a state that already has the most expensive real estate in the world. country and the highest levels of homelessness.

Take, for example, the well-intentioned but hopelessly misapplied California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA was originally adopted as a way to give environmental groups input into decision-making processes that could have a significant adverse effect on habitat and species conservation. It was a landmark law when it was signed into law in 1970 and rightly helped establish California’s reputation as the nation’s most progressive state on the environment. But over the decades it has morphed into something entirely different, giving hopelessly selfish and short-sighted NIMBY groups a virtual veto over any proposal for the rapid expansion of high-density housing, shelters and recovery centers. drug treatment, without which any effort to solve the housing crisis will likely prove Sisyphean.

For all the wrong reasons, big business Republicans have long hated CEQA. Now, however, a growing number of Democrats are realizing that this is locking down a dysfunctional approach to building affordable housing in a state that desperately needs hundreds of thousands more homes being built at high speed.

Last week, in perhaps the most bizarre CEQA ruling in years, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling imposing a strict ceiling on the number of incoming students at UC Berkeley. The ruling came after a Berkeley neighborhood group filed a lawsuit to stop the university from expanding its student rosters, arguing that increasing student housing at Berkeley would have a negative impact about the city – this in a city with hundreds of people, many of them seriously mentally ill, living in squalid tent camps in the legendary People’s Park and along many major thoroughfares. The situation eventually led the city to release a plan to house People’s Park campers in local hotels, at a cost of millions of dollars, so the university could finally build more student housing on the land.

Seriously, how messed up, selfish, unable to see past the end of your own privileged nose, to sue a college or a city, to build more housing and encourage more people to get an education superior?

The Supreme Court ruling will force the prestigious university to make up to 5,000 fewer offers to students this spring than it intended. And that provoked a furious political reaction, from the governor down. As a result, it is quite likely that lawmakers will attempt in the coming days to modify CEQA to allow the college admissions process to proceed as intended, perhaps by creating an exclusion so that universities are not subject to the same CEQA restrictions as other institutions.

But the difficulties around housing go beyond the CEQA. California’s notoriously complex zoning rules continually put cities and the state at loggerheads, making cooperation on housing policy extremely difficult.

Witness the recent absurd decision in which state housing regulators rejected Los Angeles’ long-term growth plan because the state wanted it to include 250,000 more homes and asked LA to come up with a new plan by October. This sounds great in theory, but in practice these blueprints take years to generate, and rejecting Los Angeles’ plan at this late stage in the game puts billions of dollars in affordable housing subsidies for the city at risk. In other words, California has decided that because its biggest city won’t build enough affordable housing, it will punish that city by cutting the subsidies that allow it to build any affordable homes. Talk about cutting off your nose to upset your face.

Governor Newsom has, over the past few years, invested billions of dollars in the fight against homelessness. Hopefully at some point these investments will start to pay off. Meanwhile, from my vantage point in downtown Sacramento, the problem seems to be getting worse by the day; the homeless are shunted from place to place, with no long-term solutions on the horizon and no real ability to prevent the streets from becoming open-air havens.

In his State of the State Address, the Governor rightly highlighted the many important programs and policies his administration is implementing – from expanding access to child care to increasing paid sick leave, from raising the minimum wage to creating a universal pre-K for young children. These are all life-saving changes, and Newsom deserves credit for pushing them. But on homelessness, a certain humility is necessary. California’s crisis is acute, and to date the solutions offered have been tentative, the failure to create more affordable and supported housing pronounced.