In his State of the State addresss on Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom told his audience that “just a few years ago, California lacked any comprehensive strategy” to tackle the exploding homelessness crisis. “But that’s all changed,” he said. Newsom spoke of having moved “a record 58,000 people off the streets since the beginning of the pandemic,” and of “unprecedented investments for cities and counties on the front line.”
None of what Newsom said about homelessness was wrong. But the tone seemed off. It was oddly celebratory, considering that California had upwards of 161,000 on-the-streets homeless at the start of the pandemic, in 2020—one-quarter of all the homeless in the United States—and almost certainly has far more people living on the streets today. Many urban centers in the state increasingly resemble desolate shantytowns. In Sacramento, for example, where I live and where Newsom was speaking from, there are tent and cardboard encampments running along the streets alongside the center-city freeway from 3rd Street to 15th Street, where hundreds of people live. They cook on open fires, and their possessions are strewn on sidewalks, in alleyways, and increasingly on the streets themselves.
I have seen shantytowns like this before on my travels—in India, in Brazil, and in South Africa. Until a few years ago, though, I’d never seen such concentrated poverty and despair in the United States. Even in New York, when I lived there in the early 1990s, there weren’t shantytowns on the scale one sees now in California.
All told, California’s capital city currently has an estimated 10,000 homeless. It is a shambolic, shameful, dangerous, and entirely dystopian reality. It is also the single greatest blemish on California’s progressive political landscape.
Newsom wasn’t wrong in emphasizing that the state is finally taking seriously a set of interrelated crises—poverty, housing unaffordability, the bloated criminal justice system, a grotesquely dysfunctional method of providing mental health services, backlogged courts, and so on—that fuel the homelessness epidemic. He referenced, for example, his recent decision—vital, albeit long overdue—to set up CARE courts that would both obligate counties to provide services to mentally ill homeless individuals and compel those individuals to accept the services.
But what was lacking in the tone of the governor’s speech was a genuine acknowledgement of the ongoing inanity of housing policies and regulations that make it almost impossible to build significant quantities of affordable housing in a state that already has the most expensive real estate in the country and the highest levels of homelessness.
Take, for example, the well-intentioned but hopelessly misapplied California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA was originally passed as a way to give environmental groups input in decision-making processes that could have a large and adverse effect on habitat and species preservation. It was a landmark law when it was enacted in 1970, and deservedly helped establish California’s reputation as the most environmentally progressive state in the country. But over the decades, it has morphed into something entirely different, giving desperately selfish and shortsighted NIMBY groups a virtual veto over any proposals to rapidly expand high-density housing, shelters, and drug-treatment centers, without which any effort to solve the housing crisis will likely prove Sisyphean.
For all the wrong reasons, big-business Republicans have long loathed CEQA. Now, however, a growing number of Democrats are realizing that it locks into place a dysfunctional approach to building affordable homes in a state that desperately needs hundreds of thousands more housing units built at speed.
Last week, in perhaps the most bizarre CEQA ruling of recent years, California’s Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling imposing a strict cap on the number of incoming students to UC Berkeley. The ruling was issued after a neighborhood group in Berkeley sued to stop the university from expanding its student rolls, arguing that increasing the number of student housing units in Berkeley would impact the city adversely—this in a city with hundreds of people, many of them seriously mentally ill, living in squalid tent encampments in the fabled People’s Park and along many of the main thoroughfares. The situation has finally led the city to publish a plan to house the People’s Park campers in local hotels, at a cost of millions of dollars, so that the university can finally build more student housing on the grounds.
Seriously, just how messed up do you have to be, how selfish, how unable to see beyond the end of your own privileged nose, to sue a university, or a city, for building more housing and encouraging more people to get a higher education?
The Supreme Court’s ruling will force the prestigious university to make up to 5,000 fewer offers to students this spring than it had intended to make. And it has prompted a furious political backlash, from the governor on down. As a result, it’s fairly likely that legislators will attempt in the coming days to modify CEQA so as to allow the university admissions process to proceed as planned, perhaps by authoring a carve-out so that universities aren’t subject to the same CEQA restrictions as are other institutions.
But the difficulties around housing go beyond CEQA. California’s notoriously complex zoning rules continuously put cities and the state at loggerheads, making cooperation on housing policy extraordinarily difficult.
Witness the recent absurd ruling in which state housing regulators rejected Los Angeles’s long-term plan for growth because the state wanted it to include an additional 250,000 homes and has mandated that LA come up with a new plan by October. That sounds good in theory, but in practice these plans take years to generate, and rejecting LA’s plan at this late point in the game puts at risk billions of dollars in affordable housing grants for the city. In other words, California has decided that because its largest city isn’t going to build enough affordable houses, it’s going to punish that city by removing the grants that enable it to build any affordable houses. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Governor Newsom has, over the past few years, thrown billions of dollars into tackling homelessness. Hopefully, at some point, these investments will start to pay off. In the meantime, from my vantage point in downtown Sacramento, the problem seems to be getting worse by the day; the homeless are shunted from one locale to the next, with no long-term solutions on the horizon and no real ability to prevent the streets from becoming outdoor asylums.
In his State of the State speech, the governor rightly pointed out the vast number of important programs and policies his administration is implementing—from expanding child care access to increasing paid sick leave, from raising the minimum wage to creating universal Pre-K for young children. These are all vital changes, and Newsom deserves credit for pushing them. But on homelessness, a degree of humility is called for. California’s crisis is acute, and, to date, the solutions proposed have been half-hearted, the inability to create more affordable and more supportive housing pronounced.