UNHOUSED - All over California, cities are falling far short when it comes to providing enough shelter for their homeless communities.
More than 69,000 homeless residents live in Los Angeles County, for instance, but that county has just over 21,000 beds in shelters and temporary housing programs.
It’s a similar story in Sacramento County, which counted nearly 9,300 unhoused residents in its last census, but has just over 3,000 shelter and temporary housing beds.
Those massive gaps – which ensure thousands of people remain homeless – are visible in cities throughout California. But despite constant reassurances from Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers that getting people off the street is a top priority, there’s no state requirement for cities and counties to make sure they have enough shelters or housing for homeless residents.
A bill working its way through the Legislature could change that, and potentially lead to sanctions against local governments that fail to plan for the needs of homeless Californians.
Senate Bill 7 would — for the first time — require cities and counties to plan enough beds for everyone living without a place to call home. It would go beyond just temporary shelter, also including permanent housing placements.
Its author, Sen. Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat from Encinitas, called it a “transformational idea” that could help move the needle on homelessness where other attempts have failed.
“Everything we’re doing currently, it will result in homelessness growing,” Blakespear said in an interview. “It will not result in homelessness going down.”
California cities’ housing goals
Currently, the state makes sure every city and county plans for new housing through a process known as the regional housing needs allocation. In all, the state requires cities and counties to plan for 2.5 million new homes over the next eight years — about 25% of which must be affordable for very low-income occupants.
But this method doesn’t require cities and counties to plan any housing that is specifically for homeless residents.
If the bill passes, local officials would have to include homeless housing in their plans. How much is yet to be determined, but it would be based on each city’s point-in-time census count of its homeless population. Ideally, Blakespear said, the plans would require a unit for every single person counted.
The idea comes at a time when the state is forcing local governments to take more responsibility for providing housing.
Newsom’s administration sued the Orange County coastal enclave of Huntington Beach earlier this year for failing to adopt a housing plan. And cities that flout state housing law also are subject to the “builder’s remedy,” which allows developers to bypass local zoning laws for certain projects.
Blakespear’s bill has gained some early support from housing activists, and recently passed out of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee by a 6-2 vote. While some local leaders are sure to chafe under yet another state-imposed housing requirement, several big-city mayors are tentatively supportive.
“The final details in the bill matter,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in an emailed statement, “but any bill that moves the state and cities closer to making housing and services for the homeless a mandatory obligation for government is a step in the right direction.”
Data collected by Sacramento County’s homeless services agencies shows the county has 3,080 beds in its year-round shelters and transitional housing programs — 6,198 fewer than its estimated total number of unhoused residents.
Los Angeles County has 21,100 placements in its temporary housing, safe parking and motel programs, according to a county dashboard — not enough to accommodate even a third of its unhoused population.
Advocates want more money for homeless housing
At a recent hearing, some bill critics wondered where the money would come from to build all this extra housing.
“The funding’s going to be incredibly critical,” said Jason Rhine, assistant director of legislative affairs for the League of California Cities. “If we do not have the money, we will not be able to house individuals.”
The league hasn’t officially opposed the bill, but says it has concerns.
Blakespear wants to pair her bill with a new state fund, which would help cities, counties and nonprofits build housing for people who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes. But it remains to be seen how much — if any — money the Legislature allocates, as the state faces a budget deficit of at least $22.5 billion this year.
Some aspects of the legislation are still up for negotiation. It’s unclear what type of homeless housing cities and counties could use to fulfill the new requirements. Blakespear envisions it would include both permanent and temporary — meaning apartments, but also shelters, RV sites, single-room-occupancy hotels, and more.
It’s also unclear exactly what each city and county would be on the hook for under the new bill, and what the penalties would be for noncompliance. The state’s current process requires cities to plan for housing, including zoning for it and removing roadblocks from its construction, but doesn’t require them to get it built.
Much of the housing cities plan for during that state-mandated process never gets constructed. And low-income housing fares the worst. In the last eight-year planning cycle, just 20% of the very-low-income units needed statewide were permitted.
The California Building Industry Association opposes Blakespear’s bill, worrying money to fund it would come from raising taxes and fees paid by homebuilders. Furthermore, existing law already requires cities and counties to assess their need for emergency shelter, said Cornelious Burke, the association’s vice president of legislative affairs.
Blakespear said she has no intention of using construction fees to cover the cost of her bill. And she disagreed the state’s existing shelter-assessment requirement renders her bill unnecessary.
“Those are just words,” she said. “That is not an actual obligation to provide anything for people who are unhoused.”
Ray Bramson of Destination: Home, a nonprofit that helps spearhead the homelessness response in Santa Clara County, said the bill could help get more homeless housing built. But it depends on how the details of the bill shake out, he said. For one thing, the bill should focus on permanent housing that comes with supportive services like mental health care – not on temporary shelter, Bramson said.
And, the bill must come with funding.
“If not,” he said, “then it’s just another goal that we’re going to struggle to meet collectively.”
(Marisa Kendall reports on California's homelessness crisis for CalMatters, where this story was first presented. She previously covered homelessness for the Bay Area News Group, courts for The Recorder in San Francisco and crime for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. She's a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C.)