This op-ed was first published on SFGate on July 24.
Opinion: Why past California homelessness policies failed and what we should be doing now
By Libby Schaaf and Paul Markovich
Decades of rising homelessness in the Bay Area and across California may lead many to conclude that it’s a problem we can’t solve. It’s a false conclusion. The causes of homelessness are manifold and often complex. But they are well known to us and well within our grasp to address. Where we have failed is achieving the scale necessary to solve the problem and deploying our resources in a more efficient and tightly coordinated way.
At a federal level, we have dramatically defunded housing assistance programs like Section 8 designed to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. At the state, regional and local levels, we have come up woefully short in changing restrictive housing policies that have made much of California unaffordable for many residents and, in particular, those at the greatest risk of falling into homelessness. And at all levels, including in the private sector, we have failed to break down political, administrative, bureaucratic, and other barriers that keep us from achieving scale.
A recent report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute highlights the many causes and painful human consequences of doing too little, moving too slowly and acting with little coordination. But the report also offers a path forward. We need to scale up funding, scale up policy solutions and scale up coordination among the disparate government and nongovernmental organizations responsible for tackling our homeless problem. With California lawmakers recently committing $12 billion over the next two years to fight homelessness, the time is now to strike.
There can be little question homelessness is a major problem. The nine-county Bay Area had an estimated 35,118 homeless individuals in 2020, the third largest concentration of homelessness in the U.S. and up 24 percent in just three years. Since 2017, nearly a quarter of all new homelessness in the U.S. has occurred in the Bay Area. We are dead-last nationally in unsheltered homelessness. An incredible 77 percent of Bay Area homeless residents lack access to basic shelter, the highest percent in the U.S. and far higher than most regions.
Our high rate of homelessness is consistent with other U.S. regions with expensive rental markets. This helps explain why expensive places like San Francisco and New York City have large homeless populations while places with inexpensive housing markets—like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—do not despite having high rates of poverty.
Insufficient regional and state coordination undermine the Bay Area’s ability to make progress. The Bay Area’s nine counties and 101 municipalities lack the ability to each independently address a problem that simply does not respect jurisdictional boundaries.
Add to these other challenges facing all U.S. cities, including substance abuse, mental health, and shrinking federal support for affordable housing, and you have all the ingredients for our current crisis. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimates it would cost about $9 billion in one-time costs, and $2.5 billion annually, to scale up the region’s inventory of shelters, permanent housing, and prevention programs to meet current needs.
Thankfully, California’s record budget surplus and new leadership in Washington, D.C. makes that seemingly fanciful objective closer than ever. In addition to the state funding, including $2.5 billion for the Bay Area based on population, federal legislation by Rep. Maxine Waters would commit Congress to fully funding the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and extending rental assistance to the 8.2 million households that currently qualify but receive no benefits due to lack of funding. By fully funding Section 8, the Congress can help ensure the Bay Area’s 267,000 extremely-low-income residents, 85 percent of whom don’t receive any housing assistance whatsoever, obtain and remain housed.
Yet the state and federal government cannot solve this problem on their own. The Bay Area should utilize existing tools like the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, or BAHFA, to create a regional pool of funding to build housing opportunities for high-risk households in all corners of the Bay Area. Revenue measures passed using BAHFA would, for the first time, create regional funding for the construction and preservation of new housing and shelters for very-low-income and homeless Bay Area residents.
These investments must be paired with common-sense (and free) policy reforms to help prevent homelessness in the first place. State lawmakers should approve pending legislation that would make it easier to build affordable housing options like duplexes and accessory dwelling units, and to further reduce local barriers to building emergency shelters to ensure nobody sleeps outdoors.
The Bay Area’s homelessness crisis was decades in the making, but the time to solve it is now. That’s why we’re urging leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to act, and why we’re committed to helping the region do its part to bring this tragic chapter in our history to a close.
Libby Schaaf is the Mayor of Oakland, a member of Governor Newsom’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, and Co-Chair of the bipartisan Mayors and CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment. Paul Markovich is the president and CEO of Oakland-based not-for-profit health plan Blue Shield of California.