By Alexander “Sasha” Harnden, Policy Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty
As results from recent homelessness counts from cities and counties across California are released, showing large increases in unsheltered populations, public officials are reportedly “stunned,” “shocked,” and “alarmed” by the numbers.
No one in California who has followed the efforts to increase protections for tenants, ease rising rents and housing instability, and encourage proven solutions to homelessness should be shocked or stunned by our state’s increasing homelessness. It is predictable, expected, and the natural result of our legislature’s failure to enact reasonable reforms in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe.
We should not be shocked, but we should all be alarmed.
We’ve all seen recent stories about how local expenditures on homeless services haven’t put a dent in the crisis because those efforts are frustrated by new families falling into homelessness. We’ve read stories about rising rent burdens, inappropriate evictions of long-term tenants, and the large proportions of today’s homeless population who aren’t homeless because of mental illness or substance abuse but because of economic factors beyond their control. We’ve read about the outsized power wielded by interest groups representing landlords, the real estate industry, and housing speculators, and about our state’s inability to enact meaningful tenant protections.
And yet, despite the clear connection between these stories, California officials find themselves “shocked” and “stunned” by the inevitable increase in homelessness that flows from these conditions, and from the inability or unwillingness to address them.
Just last month, the California State Assembly failed to bring a measure up for a floor vote that would have required “just cause” for landlords to evict tenants. AB 1481, authored by Assembly members Tim Grayson and Rob Bonta, would have required that landlords state an allowable reason when forcing a tenant to leave their home. The bill would have permitted evictions for virtually any legitimate reason, such as a tenant’s bad conduct, failure to perform obligations, or the landlord’s desire to do something different with their property. Despite this, and against the backdrop of our housing crisis, the bill lacked the legislative support needed to even come up for a vote on the Assembly floor.
Senate Bill 529, by Senator Maria Elena Durazo, which would have protected tenants’ right to organize in response to conditions in their buildings, failed by one vote. AB 36, by Assembly member Richard Bloom, which would have made basic reforms to restrictions on local rent control policies, wasn’t even debated in its first policy committee. And Assembly member David Chiu’s AB 1482, which would put a ceiling on rent increases, was significantly amended so that it could pass the Assembly floor.
Opportunities still remain for California’s legislature to demonstrate a serious commitment to tackling our homelessness crisis this year. AB 1482, despite recent amendments, will put the brakes on the most outrageous rent increases; there are numerous examples of tenants receiving increases doubling or even tripling their monthly rent.
Western Center is co-sponsoring another bill, SB 329 by Senator Holly Mitchell, to increase access to existing units for low-income renters who receive housing assistance — a proven solution to homelessness. The bill would add housing assistance as a protected source of income under our state’s anti-discrimination laws, meaning landlords could no longer discriminate against a housing applicant just because they get help to pay their rent. Similar policies have been adopted in local jurisdictions and other states, and have been shown to drastically improve access to quality housing for assisted families.
We should all be alarmed by rising homelessness in our communities. All of us are served by supportive communities where all our neighbors have a stable place to call home, and all of us are affected by the insecurity and instability wrought by rising rents and a lack of tenant protections. These are the factors that lead directly to rising homelessness, strains on our social service systems, and public health and safety issues — for sheltered and unsheltered residents alike. As we work to increase the production of needed affordable units – particularly at the lowest income levels – we must also ensure families are protected from rising rents, arbitrary eviction and discrimination, or we run the risk of continuing the cycle of homelessness and half measures.
Until we take the steps required to solve the problems leading to increased homelessness, we should not be shocked or stunned to see new neighbors living on the streets. What should alarm us all is the failure to implement proven solutions for the state, in the midst of a housing crisis that affects every single one of us.