Opinion | Homelessness Threatens Democracy
Even if you don’t live in California, you’ve probably seen the pictures of tents lining Venice Beach. Or maybe you’ve seen photographs of Oakland’s sprawling homeless encampments, or the crowds of people living on the street in Los Angeles’s Skid Row neighborhood. Those images, while stark, do not come close to capturing the scope of the state’s homelessness crisis.
Numbers come a little closer. California is home to nearly 12 percent of the country’s total population but, as of January 2020, 28 percent of its unhoused population, according to federal statistics. More than half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population resides in California. All told, the federal government’s most recent point-in-time count tells us that roughly 161,548 Californians were homeless as of just one night in early 2020, 113,660 of whom were unsheltered — and this was before Covid-19 plunged the United States into crisis.
The political implications of mass homelessness cut deep, cut to the very foundations of our democratic system, in fact. Widespread homelessness is both a symptom of democratic decline and a harbinger of worse to come.
It should never have gotten this bad. Homelessness is solvable. Its primary driver is housing unaffordability (not a sudden recent increase in mental illness or substance use disorder, despite claims to the contrary), and so the solution has always been more housing, particularly for those who don’t currently have it. But California has allowed homelessness to metastasize over the past few decades. As the humanitarian crisis has gotten worse, it has become a political crisis. Homelessness is one of the major themes in this year’s campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, and a growing number of commentators have cited it as evidence that the “California dream” is dying.
But to eulogize the California dream or fret over the governor’s electoral prospects is to miss the larger picture.
The structural factors that threaten U.S. democracy have directly contributed to homelessness in California. Take structural racism. In his landmark book “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein outlined how the government spent decades segregating neighborhoods as a matter of public policy, stifling Black homeownership and pushing Black Americans and other people of color into zones of concentrated urban poverty.
California was an early innovator in racist housing policies: Berkeley was most likely the birthplace of single-family zoning, which constricts housing supply and pushes up the cost of housing. This policy puts it out of reach for low-income households, in particular the people of color it was intended to keep out.
More than a century after it was first enacted, Berkeley is now in the process of undoing single-family zoning. But at both the city and the state level, other racist policies remain on the books. Some of them are baked into the state’s Constitution, which the voters amended in 1950 to restrict development of low-income public housing. And California’s decades-long effort to keep low-income Black residents out of adequate housing continues to bear fruit: today, Black people make up 6.5 percent of the state’s overall population, but 40 percent of its homeless population.
Similarly, as economic inequality has threatened the nation’s political system, it has most likely exacerbated homelessness in California. In a recent paper, researchers presented evidence that income inequality may fuel homelessness in regions where housing supply fails to keep up with demand. The authors theorized that this may be because the wealthiest households in an unequal city bid up the cost of housing for everyone else, making it increasingly unaffordable to lower-income residents. This appears to be exactly what happened in the Bay Area, where the unfathomable wealth generated by the tech boom has been mostly captured by those at the top of the income distribution.
Because Bay Area cities have failed to produce enough supply to keep up with population increases, lower and middle-income residents now have to compete for housing with the super-wealthy, whose ability to outbid everyone else continually forces prices up. As a result, homes in Berkeley sold for about 19 percent above asking price on average in the first three months of this year, the highest citywide average in the nation.
Building more housing would break this dynamic. But much like federal efforts to expand voting rights, California’s fight to expand housing supply has been stymied by what I consider vetocracy. I alluded to one example of this vetocracy earlier: Article 34 of the state Constitution, which requires voter approval for any low-income public housing project to be built in a community. Another oft-cited example is the state’s California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which, generally, requires environmental impact assessments of new developments. “Not In My Back Yarders” have capitalized on this prima facie reasonable requirement, burying proposed developments in CEQA litigation that can slow projects to a crawl, or kill them entirely.
Even as the homelessness crisis has grown out of the same factors as the crisis of democracy, it has directly contributed to democratic decay. California’s continual failure to make inroads against widespread homelessness risks fomenting anger, cynicism and disaffection with the state’s political system. A state that appears powerless to address fundamental problems does not make a very persuasive case for its own survival. As such, state and local policymakers need to take homelessness seriously as not only a humanitarian disaster, but a threat to liberal democracy.
Taking the threat seriously does not mean doubling down on cruel and ineffective policies, such as the criminalizing of homelessness or relying on temporary shelters to keep the unhoused out of sight. It means spending political capital to ensure that, long term, California can dramatically increase its housing supply. And it means offering immediate Housing First services to those who have already been pushed into homelessness.
Housing First policies start with the premise — validated by a wealth of empirical research (including from my employer, University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative) — that people who are homeless need stable housing in order to benefit from the other services, such as behavioral health care and substance use treatment, that will put them on a path to full recovery.
This month, California took an important step in the right direction. The most recent budget signed by Governor Newsom includes $12 billion earmarked for combating homelessness, primarily through Housing First-aligned efforts. This amount, while significant, still represents only an initial step. Homelessness has become so dire in large part because the state allowed it to fester for years. It will require years more work, planning, public investment and legal reform, to undo the results. The cost will be high, but the cost of inaction is far higher.
Ned Resnikoff is policy manager for the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco.
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