Homelessness

California Is Clueless About Homelessness

Both Los Angeles and San Francisco struggle with restrictive land use regulations that raise the costs and completion times of housing projects. That same red tape is now hobbling projects aimed at helping alleviate homelessness.

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"More money, more problems" might as well be the slogan for how San Francisco and Los Angeles approach homelessness.

Voters in both cities recently approved billions of dollars in new spending for supportive housing and services for homeless residents. Although the intentions are good and the resources are there, projects in both cities have suffered from major delays and cost overruns. Meanwhile, their homeless populations continue to grow.

San Francisco's "safe sleeping" open-air tent encampments were supposed to get homeless people out of crowded, dangerous indoor shelters while still providing them with meals, showers, security, and social services. The funding for these sites came from Proposition C, a 2018 ballot initiative that imposed the largest tax increase in San Francisco's history, raising $300 million for homelessness services.

The initiative won at the ballot box with 60 percent of the vote, even though most of the city's political leaders came out against it. They argued that the tax hike was excessive and that the plan for spending all that money was vague and lacked accountability.

Those warnings proved prescient. Under Proposition C, the city is spending around $61,000 annually on each "safe sleeping" occupant, or $5,083 per month. By comparison, the median monthly rent for an apartment in San Francisco is $2,913.

In contrast with Proposition C, Proposition HHH, which Los Angeles voters approved in 2016, had the enthusiastic backing of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who saw it as the cornerstone of his plan to turn back a rising tide of homelessness. The $1.2 billion bond initiative included a much clearer spending plan and required that the city controller release an annual audit of its progress. It was supposed to build 10,000 new units of affordable and supportive housing over 10 years.

The city controller's reports have shown that Los Angeles can spend homelessness dollars about as effectively as San Francisco. Five years after Proposition HHH's passage, the city had managed to build only about 700 of the 10,000 promised units. In a recent ruling, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter said the city's "inaction" on homelessness likely violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Both cities struggle with restrictive land use regulations that raise the costs and completion times of housing projects. Those rules have blocked private development and pushed rent prices up. The same red tape is now tripping up city officials who are trying to build shelter for the homeless.