What Is Contributing to California’s Homelessness?

Restrictive housing policies are a key contributor to placing Californians under serious economic pressure and at risk of homelessness.

A homeless man sleeps beside his makeshift temporary shelter on a street in downtown Los Angeles June 25.
A homeless man sleeps beside his makeshift temporary shelter on a street in downtown Los Angeles June 25. (photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — The principle of supply and demand has turned particularly cruel in California, as an insufficient supply of housing has helped fuel a homelessness crisis.

California does not have enough homes: Homeownership is at its lowest rate since the 1940s. The lack of housing has had serious consequences for California citizens, as downward pressure from affluent renters and homebuyers has pushed low-income residents into precarious economic conditions, one catastrophe away from homelessness. About 554,000 people in the United States were homeless in 2017, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development — and 25% of them lived in California.

In California as a whole, housing production has been declining while the population has grown. About 80,000 homes have been built per year over the last decade, far below the amount needed to keep up with its growing population. Families making less than $118,000 now qualify as “low-income” in San Francisco, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Steven Greenhut, the Western region director for R Street Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank, told the Register that “building more housing is desperately needed for so many reasons.” Additional housing, he said, could provide significant relief on behalf of renters, who spend approximately a third of their income on housing in California.

The cost of providing a home is even more burdensome for low-income households: Roughly half of them spend more than 50% of their income on housing. When cost of living is factored in, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation.

The state bears a significant responsibility for the lack of housing, Greenhut said.

“We’ve screwed up the whole housing market through all these regulations,” Greenhut said.

Local fees on building can add an additional 6% to 18% to the cost of a home. Energy-efficiency regulations add to the cost of a home as well: A recently enacted California rule mandating solar panels on nearly all new home construction will add about $10,000 to the total cost. In Los Angeles, energy-efficiency requirements increase building costs by 10%. In areas with particularly severe homelessness crises, land is expensive and construction costs are high, making housing even more expensive.



Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, told the Register there were important economic factors behind modern homelessness, like the distance between cost of rent and income in some urban areas, but “there are also some social factors that are important to take into account.”

Untreated serious mental illness is a significant issue in the homeless population, especially for the chronically homeless. When institutionalization of the mentally ill ended, it led to more people with serious mental illness living on the streets by the 1970s and 1980s, Eide said. Many of them are chronically homeless — defined as homeless for more than a year or becoming homeless four times in three years — and tend to refuse treatment or services offered by cities.

Eide also pointed to the rise of the single-parent family in contributing to homelessness. Family homelessness is driven to a significant degree by the problems and precariousness of working-class single-parent families. A poor family with two parents is much less likely to end up homeless than a one-parent family, he said.

Alongside the rise of single-parent families, and their inherent susceptibility to instability, is a general lack of strong personal bonds that can be called on during crises.

“[Homelessness is] a complicated problem, and people wind up homeless for lots of different reasons,” Eide said. “But I think it’s fair to generalize that when we talk about someone who is homeless, in another sense, they are kind of ‘family-less.’” That’s because while many people facing homelessness might fall back on their family for help, people without a social safety net are more likely to wind up homeless.


Los Angeles

Los Angeles County in July 2018 released a report that showed the homeless population had decreased 4% to 52,765  —  the first decline in four years.

But the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time last year jumped to 9,205 in 2018, from 8,044 the year before. Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research organization focusing on urban policies, told the Register that “if we don’t reduce the flow of people into homelessness, the problem is intractable.”

“We need earlier interventions, because at the end of the day, permanent housing is very expensive and very difficult to scale up to the level that we need,” he said.

The damage caused by homelessness — physical, mental and economic — becomes more severe the longer people are homeless, he said.

“Wreckage accumulates in people’s lives.”

While “Housing First” policies — which advocate finding homeless people permanent supportive housing without any preconditions, such as sobriety — have been the preferred approach from homeless advocates, building at the scale required to house California’s homeless population will not occur for years, said Flaming.

Temporary shelters are another facet of civic responses to homeless, but they can be vulnerable to budget decisions and community opposition. In California, only about a third of the homeless population lives in shelters — typically women, families or the newly homeless. The rest make do with what they have or can find: In Los Angeles County, the number of people living in vehicles, tents or other makeshift shelters has increased 32% since 2016.

Flaming said people decide against entering shelters for several reasons, including that some see the strict environment of a shelter as an “infantilizing” experience. But temporary shelters, which often have a 90-day limit, can be demoralizing by returning their residents to the homeless condition. Flaming suggested that shelters should ensure they offer connections to jobs and housing to give residents a path to follow out of homelessness.

“If it’s simply warehousing, it won’t be enthusiastically embraced by homeless individuals.”


Housing First

Permanent supportive housing units have been a preferred avenue of ending homelessness in many communities, by placing their residents close to the social services and case management they need to stay housed. But in practice, the units take so long to build they tend to only keep pace with the number of homeless, Eide said.

“The crisis is still with us, despite enormous amounts of spending,” he said. “All they can say is, ‘Well, it would have been worse.’” For both the public and private sector, he said, “It is unaffordable in expensive markets to buy land and hire people to build housing that’s going to be affordable to people who don’t have very much money.”

In an area where rents are already burdensome, prioritizing permanent housing for the homeless is not a quick solution, he said.

“At the moment, they’re just way behind where they need to be on that front, and it’s not clear they’re going to catch up anytime soon.”

Eide said “Housing First” policies should be judged not only on placing people in homes and reducing harm, but also by whether they have any “restorative effect” on the men and women they assist.

“Does it make people independent again? Does it treat their mental illness? On a 10-year scale, are they further along the path toward independence and recovery than they would be under some other service scheme?”

“I think the evidence is less impressive on those fronts than it is just in terms of being able to bring people in and keep them stably housed.”


Slow-Moving Crisis

Kathleen Domingo, director of the office of Life, Justice and Peace in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that the housing emergency has been a slow-moving crisis.

“We’ve known that we were going to have a housing shortage for years, and we just didn’t prioritize building houses,” she said. “Because we haven’t prioritized housing, and in a particular way lower-income housing, for those who are being forced out, or are coming here for opportunities, there’s nowhere to look.”

Domingo said that the gentrifying impulse in certain areas also needs to be addressed honestly.

“Communities trying to appeal to a population that can afford homes starting at $600,000 or $800,000 — that’s a community that’s not really thinking long-term about what they need,” she said.

Domingo emphasized that there is nothing wrong with neighborhood development, but criticized city planning that does not provide for jobs and housing for every strata of society.

“You can’t run a city and not allow people who work at service jobs or low-income jobs to live there,” she said.

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.