California’s homeless population keeps skyrocketing, and so has the number of bills aiming at solving the homelessness problem. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a billion-dollar plan designed to get more houses built for those who need it. But even that much money isn’t likely to help many people if the underlying problem remains unchanged. To solve California’s homelessness problem, you have to address inflexible zoning rules and ineffective municipal bureaucracies.
Newsom’s executive order allocates $750 million to build more affordable housing units and to establish a California Access to Housing and Services Fund within the state’s Department of Social Services. The goal is to pay rent for individuals facing homelessness and to make vacant state properties available immediately as shelter options. An additional $695 million will be used to boost preventative health care measures for the homeless through Medi-Cal Healthier California for All.
This follows 18 housing bills that Newsom signed into law last fall. The bills are supposed to accelerate housing production, but they don’t have much teeth. They require local jurisdictions to publicly share information about zoning ordinances and other building rules—not to roll the regs back, just to be more transparent about them. They also ask cities and counties to maintain an inventory of state surplus land sites suitable for residential development.
California voters also approved $4 billion in bonds last year for affordable housing programs.
“You can’t just throw money at homelessness and a lack of affordable housing and expect that you’re going to achieve the result that you’re hoping to achieve,” says David Wolfe, legislative director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. After all, it hasn’t worked so far.
California is home to almost half of America’s homeless population, and the median price for a house there is more than twice the national level. Fixing that problem means building more houses, but zoning laws and anti-development activism make that difficult. Serious reform will require moves like modifying city codes to let developers build units that aren’t single-family homes. And dialing back rules, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, that let neighborhood activists block new construction with faux-environmental concerns. And, in general, clearing away the thicket of state and local regulations that get in the way of meeting the demand for housing.
“If you’re a city council,” San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting told Curbed San Francisco, “the people who vote for you oppose the housing you’re creating, and you’re creating housing for the people who have yet to move in.”
Californians also have to contend with a perverse incentive built into Proposition 13, a measure that limits property-tax increases on homes until they’re sold. This gives cities a reason to encourage commercial instead of residential development.
As legislators continue to pour money into housing programs, perhaps they should think more about how to address the broken system responsible for the mess. In the meantime, others will look for ways to route around the system. Silicon Valley giants have begun to propose their own housing projects, underscoring the state government’s inability to move forwards with its own reforms.