Let’s Be Real: Homelessness is a Housing Problem

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No corner of the state has been untouched by California’s homelessness crisis: the most recent count found that Los Angeles County has more than 65,000 homeless individuals and families, including more than 800 in Santa Monica–and that’s almost certainly a significant undercount. If newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Bass is going to put a dent in that figure, she needs to get at the core of the challenge: as researchers Gregg Colburn and Clayon Aldern put it, homelessness is a housing problem.

The City of Santa Monica has recognized that it has a  “tremendous need for expanded permanent affordable housing” is to get individuals off the streets. Decades of chronic underbuilding have caused record-high rents, making Santa Monica one of the most expensive cities in the nation for renters and Los Angeles County the third most cost burdened county in the nation. Housing costs have forced hundreds of thousands of lower-income Southern Californians into homelessness or to the brink of homelessness, and made it impossible for many more individuals and families to escape the cycle of housing insecurity.

Access to safe and stable housing is a prerequisite for reliably preparing for and attending work; housing loss consequently contributes greatly to job loss. Housing insecurity also exacerbates health issues, further increasing the likelihood of job loss. With so many barriers standing in the way of keeping a roof over their head, let alone making a steady income, it becomes nearly impossible for those facing homelessness to re-enter stable housing on their own and end the cycle. Those affected include families, teachers, and essential workers who live and work among us here in Santa Monica, many of whom are simply struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. The vast majority of Los Angeles County’s homeless are long-time community members whose last stable housing was in Los Angeles County.

That’s why California adopted the “Housing First” model—an evidence-driven approach to addressing homelessness that prioritizes moving unhoused people into permanent housing. But even as the state, local and regional governments, and providers put billions of dollars into Housing First programs, the homelessness crisis continues to worsen and more Californians find themselves without permanent housing every year.

Why do California cities continue to struggle to make progress on homelessness? For answers, my new report from California YIMBY looked at a city that has been far more successful: Houston, Texas, where homelessness has declined by more than half over the past decade. The lessons we can learn from Houston are summarized in the report: “Housing Abundance as a Condition for Ending Homelessness.”

It’s all there in the title: above all, we need to build more housing if we want to end homelessness. Make no mistake, Housing First is an effective strategy for getting unhoused people back into permanent homes, but until we build enough housing to drive down costs, Californians will continue being driven into homelessness faster than Housing First programs are able to break the cycle.

Building more homes doesn’t just prevent homelessness: I also found that it also makes Housing First implementation far more successful. Because Houston has abundant housing, the nonprofit charged with managing the region’s homeless services system has an easier time locating units for its clients. Because it’s easier to build in Houston, affordable housing developers have more flexibility to build subsidized and permanent supportive housing. And because housing is cheaper for everyone, the frontline workers who provide homeless services aren’t getting priced out of the region.

Houston’s progress toward ending homelessness shows that it can be done—and California can do it too, if we follow Houston’s example. But we need better coordination between all the different state, local, county, and regional agencies that oversee homelessness policy and delivery of services. We also need a long-term plan: while the state’s $14 billion investment in fighting homelessness was an important first step, virtually all of those funds are set to expire soon. The state must secure ongoing funding sources for its Housing First programs.

And, of course, the state needs to build housing, especially in infamously expensive communities like Santa Monica. An investment in housing production is also an investment in stronger, more connected communities. Only when we have housing abundance will we be able to make housing accessible and affordable, end much of the homelessness we see around us, and make our communities more healthy, humane and, well, neighborly. 

Ned Resnikoff is the policy director for CA Yimby.

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