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February 4, 2023

Guest View: The real cause of California’s homelessness crisis

By Dan Walters

Gov. Gavin Newsom, newly inaugurated Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and legislative leaders are pledging decisive action on California’s homelessness crisis, which raises a pithy question: Why did it erupt during a period of strong economic growth?

The reasons often offered include a moderate climate, the availability of generous welfare benefits, mental health and drug abuse. However, a lengthy and meticulously sourced article in the current issue of Atlantic magazine demolishes all of those supposed causes.

Rather, the article argues persuasively, California and other left-leaning states tend to have the nation’s most egregious levels of homelessness because they have made it extraordinarily difficult to build enough housing to meet demands.

Author Jerusalem Demsas contends that the progressive politics of California and other states are “largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue.

“Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups … But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.”

Demsas singles out Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area as examples of how environmentalists, architectural preservationists, homeowner groups and left-leaning organizations joined hands to enact a thicket of difficult procedural hurdles that became “veto points” to thwart efforts to build the new housing needed in prosperous “superstar cities.”

While thriving economies drew workers to these regions, their lack of housing manifested itself in soaring rents and home prices that drove those on the lower rungs of the economy into homelessness.

“The small-c conservative belief that people who already live in a community should have veto power over changes to it has wormed its way into liberal ideology,” Demsas writes. “This pervasive localism is the key to understanding why officials who seem genuinely shaken by the homelessness crisis too rarely take serious action to address it.”

The syndrome that Demsas details is well known in California political circles and Newsom and the Legislature have taken some steps to reduce—or bypass—the procedural hurdles to increasing construction of new housing, particularly projects to serve the working class families most in danger of being priced out of the market and therefore becoming homeless.

The state is finally enforcing the quotas it sets on regional and local governments for zoning enough land for needed housing. It has also exempted some forms of housing from local zoning rules, and has talked about cracking down on cities that impose impossible land use or design criteria on developers. However, the state’s mostly Democratic politicians have largely been unwilling to put their ideological brethren and allies, such as environmental groups, on the hot seat.

That reluctance is symbolized by their persistent reluctance to make a much-needed overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act, which is often misused by anti-growth activists and labor unions to tie up housing projects.

It should be embarrassing to California officials that while their state deals with a seemingly intractable homelessness crisis, red states, as Demsas points out, don’t have similar problems because they don’t have structural aversion to construction and therefore don’t have the high housing costs that drive people into streets.

The governor, legislators and others who profess commitment to ending homelessness in California should begin by reading the message of truth to power provided by Atlantic, whose own ideological bent is also to the left.

Dan Walters wrote this column for CalMatters.org. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Nobel prize winner Milton Freeman said it- “A welfare state and uncontrolled immigration can’t co-exist”.
    If hundreds of thousands of poor are attracted to Califonia’s free medical, food stamps and other plethora of sanctuary state perks, we’re only going to put more pressure on the housing market, especially lower income housing.
    A huge percentage of the quarter million or so a month swarming across the border are going to end up here.
    Not to mention the blind eye turned to drug abuse/use, that add to the inability for people to lead responsible lives which vastly contributes to homelessness.

  2. socialist nations throughout the world also have drug and alcohol issues in their population. and they provide a minimum income for all their citizens. and yet, their homeless issues are minimal.
    Many of the immigrants arriving in the USA are leaving for the same reason immigrants have migrated here since 1776.:
    1. better opportunity for a life of quality and opportunity to WORK .
    2. dramatically better living conditions.
    3. democracy with the guarantee to be free and seek the pursuit of happiness ( ii is in the Declaration of Independence-READ IT !)
    4. health care so they can live past 40.
    5. freedom to vote.
    6. freedom from oppression, murder, violence and government imposed fascism.
    7. the ability to contribute to society and practice their religion, their language and their culture while learning English.
    8. in the case of CA, immigrants come here because of our weather, job opportunities, plentiful production of food , medical care, and schools for ALL.

    America was built on immigration, whether documented or not. when the vast majority of immigrants were WHITE, the while people in this nation grudgingly accepted it.
    NOW that the immigrants to this nation are people of color, NOT SO MUCH.
    is there just a hint of racism involved here? ya think ? YOU KNOW THERE IS.
    we need to build housing, but Dan Walters does not seem to realize it has to placed so it is not in a toxic waste (air , land and water) zone, that it is well designed and it close to public transportation and services people need. Only some home builders (whether single family units or multiple family units) will build them. many will not.
    as new low cost housing programs are proposed, they go first to the planning commission and then to the city council. both meetings are open to the public for comment. if you have a complaint, a counterproposal or even support the proposal, ATTEND the meeting. that is how democracy works.

    • You clearly don’t understand his point. It is a lack of supply (or excess demand) that causes excess pricing. Their is no such thing as ‘affordable’ housing of which you speak, it is SUBSIDIZED by other people and it hasn’t and never will work to solve an under supplied market. And immigration, legal and illegal and births to immigrants during the past 40+ years accounts for ALL population growth in this state. So the trade off should have been mass development or restrict immigration.

  3. Pajaronian doesn’t want you to see the reality so go check out Sav Says YouTube channel and take a look for yourself on what is going on in the streets of CA and WA.

  4. Sure NIMByS and even BANANAS are live and well in this state, but to blame homelessness on a lack of housing is silly. When people who are not addled by addictions or mental health issues (so often concurrent), lose a job or adequate income to afford to live somewhere, they move to a place they can find work and afford. The homeless are, for the most part, ill or ill-willed. Those who aren’t and cannot afford to live in the most expensive cities in the country should not be ‘housed’ by taxpayers.

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