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You've just been named California's homelessness czar — what's your first move?

Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken grief for failing to fulfill what seems like a pretty achievable campaign promise: appointing a homelessness "czar" to help the 150,000 Californians living in shelters and on the streets. Newsom's quest, which at various points had the mayor of Sacramento, the state secretary of health and human services and a Washington DC-based consultant co-wearing the "czar" crown, culminated earlier this month in a Truman-esque "buck stops here" declaration.

"You want to know who's the homeless czar?" Newsom said, index finger pounding the podium. "I'm the homeless czar in the state of California."

Well, good czars are hard to find. But that's partly because homelessness is a complex and difficult problem, with options that range, at best, from imperfect to limited. Some choices might bring people in from the streets over the long term, but are expensive and time-consuming. Others might prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, but are difficult to efficiently target.

Poll after poll suggests Californians want something done about homelessness, ASAP. So, we're temporarily making you czar. Here's a menu of talked-about "solutions" rated with expert input according to speed, cost, and political feasibility. What would be your battle plan?

Option 1: Build way more permanent supportive housing

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What is it?

Subsidized apartments that charge people experiencing homelessness minimal rents with no limits on how long they can stay. Built by nonprofit developers and paid for with public dollars, they "support" residents with in-house or visiting case managers who bring tenants to health appointments, show them how to use appliances and connect them with job and safety net programs. Permanent supportive housing primarily helps the chronically homeless, who often have severe disabilities such as serious mental illness, drug addiction and physical ailments.

Cost: Expensive

Nonpartisan research consistently says permanent supportive housing is very effective at keeping the chronically homeless housed, which saves on health and law enforcement costs. But the upfront cost of building it is a lot, especially where it's needed most — $500,000 per unit in Los Angeles, for example. Newsom recently pledged $750 million in new emergency homelessness funding for the entire state. If you used all of that to build new permanent supportive housing in L.A., you'd get 1,500 units. Los Angeles County alone had nearly 16,000 chronically homeless people in 2019.

Speed: Relatively slow

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It takes one to three years in California to build this kind of housing. You can do some things to speed up the process, such as get rid of environmental reviews for new projects. But unless you're buying a motel and converting it (more on this later), this is still going to take some time.

Political support: Decently strong

Many homelessness advocates tout permanent supportive housing as the solution most worthy of more dollars, and the governor and big city mayors champion it frequently. Neighbors may not love the idea of new low-income housing on their block, but they hate it less than shelters. But ask Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti how the cost and time of building new supportive housing plays politically. Once a rising star among Democrats with national ambitions, Garcetti has seen his popularity falter as a $1.2 billion voter-approved bond has generated just one unit after three years.

Option 2: Embrace 'Right to Shelter'

What is it?

A legal obligation for every city and county in California to provide shelter beds for every person experiencing homelessness, and a legal obligation for the homeless to accept shelter when offered. Advocates for "right to shelter" cite New York City's success in using the policy to bring its homeless population indoors — New York has a much smaller rate of "unsheltered" homeless than California. Detractors argue "right to shelter" simply warehouses people experiencing homelessness and that in a world of finite resources, permanent housing should take priority.

Cost: Expensive

No reliable estimate exists for what "right to shelter" would cost statewide. But it's not cheap for New York City, which spends nearly $2 billion annually on its shelter system. California has a much larger homeless population than New York, and would need more upfront investment to get new shelters built. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated providing a bed in a shelter for every homeless person in the state would cost $2 to $3 billion annually — not including the upfront cost of new construction.

Speed: Relatively slow

Building a shelter takes less time than permanent housing — if you can get neighbors and local elected officials to sign off. That's a big if. Even progressive places like San Francisco have seen attempts to build new shelters blocked or delayed by lawsuits from neighborhood groups who fear crime and declining property values if a shelter is placed nearby. State laws have made it tougher to file these lawsuits in recent years.

Political support: Weak

Not a ton of support for this one. The governor fears its cost, homelessness advocates fear its potential civil liberties restrictions and cities and counties would demand more funding if obligated to build new shelters. Speaking of...

Option 3: Sue cities that don't do enough

What is it?

Most of what California cities and counties do to address homelessness is voluntary; no state law punishes cities that fail to make progress towards reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets. Newsom's Council of Regional Homeless Advisors recommended changing that earlier this month, with a new "legally enforceable mandate" that would force municipalities and the state to take specific actions towards ending homelessness. A "designated public official" could sue a city or county for failing to hit benchmarks on emergency shelters and permanent housing, and a judge could then seize control of a local government's homelessness initiatives.

Cost: Expensive

Yes, we know all the options so far are expensive. Newsom's task force conveniently omitted how much a "legally enforceable mandate" might cost the state. But it's not going to be cheap. Cities and counties will demand additional resources to meet the state's goals, whatever they are. Those funds also would likely have to be annual and ongoing — something the governor has been reluctant to approve.

Speed: Relatively slow

Newsom's task force was also ambiguous on how quickly the state should force cities to reduce their homeless populations, recommending only an "aggressive but reasonable period of time." Pressed, task force co-chair and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he would expect the vast majority of his medium-sized city's homeless population to be housed in five years. Not every local government may be as ambitious, and it will take time for the state to set up the legal apparatus to make this work.

Political support: Mixed

The idea has broad support, ranging from big city mayors to progressive homelessness advocates to elected officials from some smaller local governments. But to become law, such a measure would need a two-thirds vote of both chambers in the Legislature to be placed on the November ballot, and then a majority of the vote statewide. Democrats hold a supermajority in the Legislature, but the odds would be complicated if cost-conscious cities and counties push back.

Option 4: Go big on prevention

What is it?

Many California cities have made strides in moving people from streets and shelters into safe, stable housing. But progress is hard to show when, as in San Francisco, three people are losing a safe place to live for every homeless person who's being housed. Enter the many state and local programs designed to prevent individuals from falling into homelessness: emergency rental assistance, for instance, or eviction defense or "shallow subsidies" to keep families in precarious housing situations from falling through the cracks.

Cost: Less expensive...but less efficient

A Chicago call center for people on the brink of homelessness distributed $3.7 million in prevention funds to nearly 3,000 households in 2018. A few hundred dollars cash was often enough to prevent tenants from losing their homes. But it's difficult to target those programs because it's hard to know which low income families might have managed to avoid homelessness even without the cash assistance. Only a fraction of low-income Californians fall into homelessness.

Speed: Relatively fast

It's easier to expand rental assistance programs quickly than to build new housing.

Political support: Strong

Pretty much everyone is on board with doing more to prevent people from falling into homelessness. The real fight comes when finite financial resources are divided among prevention, shelter and permanent housing.

Option 5: Convert more motels and SRO's to homeless housing

What is it?

Not all permanent housing and emergency shelters need to be built from scratch. Local governments also can purchase and convert existing housing — like motels and single-room-occupancy properties — into homeless housing. Or they can partner with motel owners to lease rooms or entire buildings. The state could incentivize local governments to do more of this by altering grant criteria and tweaking state law.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive

Buying and rehabbing an existing apartment building or motel is typically much cheaper than building a new one. New permanent housing units could be brought online for roughly half the cost of building new ones, according to Sharon Rapport from the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Costs are rising, however — SRO's in particular have been snatched up by private developers in recent years and converted to higher-end housing.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

The problem here is finding available properties. There just aren't that many motel owners with tons of vacant units desperate for local governments to make them offers. Local zoning restrictions on motel conversions don't help. Plus, if you're going to use public funds, you can't just throw people on the street into a dilapidated SRO — homeless housing has to meet certain standards. Motel and SRO conversions are a tool in the toolbox, but not a silver bullet.

Political support: Strong

A popular idea with fairly widespread support and not a ton of opposition.

Option 6: 'Special courts' for the homeless

What is it?

Former state lawmaker Mike Gatto is gathering signatures to get the "California Compassionate Intervention Act" on the November ballot. The initiative would ramp up enforcement of "quality of life" crimes like public intoxication and "willfully disturbing others" on public transit that are often ignored or deprioritized by law enforcement. Those arrested and convicted for such crimes and found to be suffering from drug addiction or mental illness would be sentenced to a three month drug rehabilitation program or up to nearly a year in a mental hospital.

Cost: Relatively expensive

An estimated $900 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Although it's possible it could cost more.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

Unclear how long it would take to set up the alternative court system, but in theory it could be law January 1.

Political support: Mixed

While the initiative's author insists that private polling shows widespread public support, many progressives in the state detest it. Critics say it criminalizes homelessness and poverty without attacking the root of the problem: a lack of affordable housing. It's also unclear what happens to a person experiencing homelessness after they exit rehab or a psychiatric facility.

Option 7: 'Cabin communities' and tiny homes

What is it?

Pioneered in Oakland, "cabin communities" offer small, tough-shed like structures in place of tent encampments. Two people can occupy a cabin at a time, and occupants can bring pets and their own belongings — something many emergency shelters don't allow. Each community can shelter about 40 people at a time, offer meals, and restroom facilities, and provide case workers who try to place residents in longer-term housing. In a variation, some cities have explored "tiny home" villages with 500 square feet per unit of living space.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive

Cabin communities are cheap. According to budget documents analyzed by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, cabin communities cost $5,000 per bed to build and $21,250 per year to operate.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

Quicker than building new emergency shelters or permanent housing. Oakland put up four cabin communities within 15 months. But that's assuming land and resources are immediately available.

Political support: Strong

Lower cost, quicker deployment, reduces visible homelessness — what's not to like? Homelessness advocates say while cabin communities can help, they're a stopgap, not a long-term solution.

Option 8: Build way more 'extremely low-income' housing

What is it?

Housing for very poor Californians, heavily subsidized by public dollars. These typically look like apartment buildings but don't include case managers or wrap-around services for people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities. According to the nonprofit California Housing Partnership, 1.3 million California renter households are considered "extremely low income", making less than $25,000 a year. They compete for less than 300,000 affordable and available rental homes.

Cost: Expensive

Expensive if you want to tackle the problem comprehensively. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated it would cost $15 billion to $30 billion annually to build new housing for every low-income Californian who needs it. Targeting those at the lowest end of the income ladder will reduce those costs, but the price tag will still be expensive.

Speed: Slow

Building any new housing takes time. Building subsidized low-income housing typically takes even longer, as nonprofit developers must cobble together disparate funding sources before pitching a viable project, a process that often takes years. A homelessness czar could push for some policy tweaks here and there to speed things along, but this won't happen overnight.

Political support: Mixed

Most homelessness experts and advocates agree building more low-income housing is one of the best long-term homelessness prevention strategies. Voters tend to agree, approving billions in affordable housing bonds at the state and local level over the last few years. But the ongoing dollars required to meet the scale of the problem make this tough politically.

Option 9: Tax empty houses

What is it?

A group of homeless Oakland mothers made national headlines when they occupied a vacant property owned by a corporate house-flipper. Social justice organizations have lobbied for years to transform vacant housing into homeless housing, citing the cruel irony of luxury units remaining tenant-less while people slept on the streets.

One option would be to levy a special tax on vacant units to underwrite housing for homeless people. Nonprofit developers and community land trusts also could have right of first refusal over properties auctioned off after foreclosure. A universal property registry could be created so every landlord has to report whether their unit is occupied.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive but...

This really depends on how vacant properties are sanctioned, how many a city has and how many can legally be turned into homeless housing. Implementing a tax would be straightforward, but local governments still have to certify occupancy. And it's no silver bullet. Cities such as Vancouver and Washington D.C. have adopted vacancy taxes but homelessness remains a problem.

Speed: Relatively quick but..

It depends again on the plan for the housing. A vacant property tax can be approved quickly, but it can take time to make vacant property habitable.

Political support: Mixed

Tenant rights groups and anti-gentrification activists love this idea. Not so popular among moderates, landlords or anyone who owns a vacation home.

Option 10: Do nothing

What is it?

The status quo. No additional state resources beyond what we currently spend, no major policy changes, no ballot initiatives...nada.

Cost: Very expensive

Many of your options as homelessness czar have high price tags. But keep in mind homelessness already drains billions of dollars from state and local coffers in indirect costs. The state doesn't have a total for how much homelessness strains public health, law enforcement, park and street maintenance...but it's a lot. One study estimated that Santa Clara County alone spent a half-billion dollars annually on indirect costs associated with homelessness, such as emergency room visits and court costs. Not to mention lost business, tourism and other private sector costs.

Political support:Not much

California voters want this problem fixed, one way or another. In a recent nonpartisan poll, Californians identified homelessness as the most important issue confronting Newsom and state lawmakers this year — more important than the economy or the environment or health care. No pressure, Czar.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California's policies and politics. Read more state news from CALmatters here. Matt Levin can be emailed at [email protected].

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You've just been named California's homelessness czar — what's your first move?

by /

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 24, 2020, 9:28 am

Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken grief for failing to fulfill what seems like a pretty achievable campaign promise: appointing a homelessness "czar" to help the 150,000 Californians living in shelters and on the streets. Newsom's quest, which at various points had the mayor of Sacramento, the state secretary of health and human services and a Washington DC-based consultant co-wearing the "czar" crown, culminated earlier this month in a Truman-esque "buck stops here" declaration.

"You want to know who's the homeless czar?" Newsom said, index finger pounding the podium. "I'm the homeless czar in the state of California."

Well, good czars are hard to find. But that's partly because homelessness is a complex and difficult problem, with options that range, at best, from imperfect to limited. Some choices might bring people in from the streets over the long term, but are expensive and time-consuming. Others might prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, but are difficult to efficiently target.

Poll after poll suggests Californians want something done about homelessness, ASAP. So, we're temporarily making you czar. Here's a menu of talked-about "solutions" rated with expert input according to speed, cost, and political feasibility. What would be your battle plan?

Option 1: Build way more permanent supportive housing

What is it?

Subsidized apartments that charge people experiencing homelessness minimal rents with no limits on how long they can stay. Built by nonprofit developers and paid for with public dollars, they "support" residents with in-house or visiting case managers who bring tenants to health appointments, show them how to use appliances and connect them with job and safety net programs. Permanent supportive housing primarily helps the chronically homeless, who often have severe disabilities such as serious mental illness, drug addiction and physical ailments.

Cost: Expensive

Nonpartisan research consistently says permanent supportive housing is very effective at keeping the chronically homeless housed, which saves on health and law enforcement costs. But the upfront cost of building it is a lot, especially where it's needed most — $500,000 per unit in Los Angeles, for example. Newsom recently pledged $750 million in new emergency homelessness funding for the entire state. If you used all of that to build new permanent supportive housing in L.A., you'd get 1,500 units. Los Angeles County alone had nearly 16,000 chronically homeless people in 2019.

Speed: Relatively slow

It takes one to three years in California to build this kind of housing. You can do some things to speed up the process, such as get rid of environmental reviews for new projects. But unless you're buying a motel and converting it (more on this later), this is still going to take some time.

Political support: Decently strong

Many homelessness advocates tout permanent supportive housing as the solution most worthy of more dollars, and the governor and big city mayors champion it frequently. Neighbors may not love the idea of new low-income housing on their block, but they hate it less than shelters. But ask Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti how the cost and time of building new supportive housing plays politically. Once a rising star among Democrats with national ambitions, Garcetti has seen his popularity falter as a $1.2 billion voter-approved bond has generated just one unit after three years.

Option 2: Embrace 'Right to Shelter'

What is it?

A legal obligation for every city and county in California to provide shelter beds for every person experiencing homelessness, and a legal obligation for the homeless to accept shelter when offered. Advocates for "right to shelter" cite New York City's success in using the policy to bring its homeless population indoors — New York has a much smaller rate of "unsheltered" homeless than California. Detractors argue "right to shelter" simply warehouses people experiencing homelessness and that in a world of finite resources, permanent housing should take priority.

Cost: Expensive

No reliable estimate exists for what "right to shelter" would cost statewide. But it's not cheap for New York City, which spends nearly $2 billion annually on its shelter system. California has a much larger homeless population than New York, and would need more upfront investment to get new shelters built. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated providing a bed in a shelter for every homeless person in the state would cost $2 to $3 billion annually — not including the upfront cost of new construction.

Speed: Relatively slow

Building a shelter takes less time than permanent housing — if you can get neighbors and local elected officials to sign off. That's a big if. Even progressive places like San Francisco have seen attempts to build new shelters blocked or delayed by lawsuits from neighborhood groups who fear crime and declining property values if a shelter is placed nearby. State laws have made it tougher to file these lawsuits in recent years.

Political support: Weak

Not a ton of support for this one. The governor fears its cost, homelessness advocates fear its potential civil liberties restrictions and cities and counties would demand more funding if obligated to build new shelters. Speaking of...

Option 3: Sue cities that don't do enough

What is it?

Most of what California cities and counties do to address homelessness is voluntary; no state law punishes cities that fail to make progress towards reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets. Newsom's Council of Regional Homeless Advisors recommended changing that earlier this month, with a new "legally enforceable mandate" that would force municipalities and the state to take specific actions towards ending homelessness. A "designated public official" could sue a city or county for failing to hit benchmarks on emergency shelters and permanent housing, and a judge could then seize control of a local government's homelessness initiatives.

Cost: Expensive

Yes, we know all the options so far are expensive. Newsom's task force conveniently omitted how much a "legally enforceable mandate" might cost the state. But it's not going to be cheap. Cities and counties will demand additional resources to meet the state's goals, whatever they are. Those funds also would likely have to be annual and ongoing — something the governor has been reluctant to approve.

Speed: Relatively slow

Newsom's task force was also ambiguous on how quickly the state should force cities to reduce their homeless populations, recommending only an "aggressive but reasonable period of time." Pressed, task force co-chair and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he would expect the vast majority of his medium-sized city's homeless population to be housed in five years. Not every local government may be as ambitious, and it will take time for the state to set up the legal apparatus to make this work.

Political support: Mixed

The idea has broad support, ranging from big city mayors to progressive homelessness advocates to elected officials from some smaller local governments. But to become law, such a measure would need a two-thirds vote of both chambers in the Legislature to be placed on the November ballot, and then a majority of the vote statewide. Democrats hold a supermajority in the Legislature, but the odds would be complicated if cost-conscious cities and counties push back.

Option 4: Go big on prevention

What is it?

Many California cities have made strides in moving people from streets and shelters into safe, stable housing. But progress is hard to show when, as in San Francisco, three people are losing a safe place to live for every homeless person who's being housed. Enter the many state and local programs designed to prevent individuals from falling into homelessness: emergency rental assistance, for instance, or eviction defense or "shallow subsidies" to keep families in precarious housing situations from falling through the cracks.

Cost: Less expensive...but less efficient

A Chicago call center for people on the brink of homelessness distributed $3.7 million in prevention funds to nearly 3,000 households in 2018. A few hundred dollars cash was often enough to prevent tenants from losing their homes. But it's difficult to target those programs because it's hard to know which low income families might have managed to avoid homelessness even without the cash assistance. Only a fraction of low-income Californians fall into homelessness.

Speed: Relatively fast

It's easier to expand rental assistance programs quickly than to build new housing.

Political support: Strong

Pretty much everyone is on board with doing more to prevent people from falling into homelessness. The real fight comes when finite financial resources are divided among prevention, shelter and permanent housing.

Option 5: Convert more motels and SRO's to homeless housing

What is it?

Not all permanent housing and emergency shelters need to be built from scratch. Local governments also can purchase and convert existing housing — like motels and single-room-occupancy properties — into homeless housing. Or they can partner with motel owners to lease rooms or entire buildings. The state could incentivize local governments to do more of this by altering grant criteria and tweaking state law.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive

Buying and rehabbing an existing apartment building or motel is typically much cheaper than building a new one. New permanent housing units could be brought online for roughly half the cost of building new ones, according to Sharon Rapport from the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Costs are rising, however — SRO's in particular have been snatched up by private developers in recent years and converted to higher-end housing.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

The problem here is finding available properties. There just aren't that many motel owners with tons of vacant units desperate for local governments to make them offers. Local zoning restrictions on motel conversions don't help. Plus, if you're going to use public funds, you can't just throw people on the street into a dilapidated SRO — homeless housing has to meet certain standards. Motel and SRO conversions are a tool in the toolbox, but not a silver bullet.

Political support: Strong

A popular idea with fairly widespread support and not a ton of opposition.

Option 6: 'Special courts' for the homeless

What is it?

Former state lawmaker Mike Gatto is gathering signatures to get the "California Compassionate Intervention Act" on the November ballot. The initiative would ramp up enforcement of "quality of life" crimes like public intoxication and "willfully disturbing others" on public transit that are often ignored or deprioritized by law enforcement. Those arrested and convicted for such crimes and found to be suffering from drug addiction or mental illness would be sentenced to a three month drug rehabilitation program or up to nearly a year in a mental hospital.

Cost: Relatively expensive

An estimated $900 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Although it's possible it could cost more.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

Unclear how long it would take to set up the alternative court system, but in theory it could be law January 1.

Political support: Mixed

While the initiative's author insists that private polling shows widespread public support, many progressives in the state detest it. Critics say it criminalizes homelessness and poverty without attacking the root of the problem: a lack of affordable housing. It's also unclear what happens to a person experiencing homelessness after they exit rehab or a psychiatric facility.

Option 7: 'Cabin communities' and tiny homes

What is it?

Pioneered in Oakland, "cabin communities" offer small, tough-shed like structures in place of tent encampments. Two people can occupy a cabin at a time, and occupants can bring pets and their own belongings — something many emergency shelters don't allow. Each community can shelter about 40 people at a time, offer meals, and restroom facilities, and provide case workers who try to place residents in longer-term housing. In a variation, some cities have explored "tiny home" villages with 500 square feet per unit of living space.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive

Cabin communities are cheap. According to budget documents analyzed by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, cabin communities cost $5,000 per bed to build and $21,250 per year to operate.

Speed: Relatively fast, if...

Quicker than building new emergency shelters or permanent housing. Oakland put up four cabin communities within 15 months. But that's assuming land and resources are immediately available.

Political support: Strong

Lower cost, quicker deployment, reduces visible homelessness — what's not to like? Homelessness advocates say while cabin communities can help, they're a stopgap, not a long-term solution.

Option 8: Build way more 'extremely low-income' housing

What is it?

Housing for very poor Californians, heavily subsidized by public dollars. These typically look like apartment buildings but don't include case managers or wrap-around services for people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities. According to the nonprofit California Housing Partnership, 1.3 million California renter households are considered "extremely low income", making less than $25,000 a year. They compete for less than 300,000 affordable and available rental homes.

Cost: Expensive

Expensive if you want to tackle the problem comprehensively. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated it would cost $15 billion to $30 billion annually to build new housing for every low-income Californian who needs it. Targeting those at the lowest end of the income ladder will reduce those costs, but the price tag will still be expensive.

Speed: Slow

Building any new housing takes time. Building subsidized low-income housing typically takes even longer, as nonprofit developers must cobble together disparate funding sources before pitching a viable project, a process that often takes years. A homelessness czar could push for some policy tweaks here and there to speed things along, but this won't happen overnight.

Political support: Mixed

Most homelessness experts and advocates agree building more low-income housing is one of the best long-term homelessness prevention strategies. Voters tend to agree, approving billions in affordable housing bonds at the state and local level over the last few years. But the ongoing dollars required to meet the scale of the problem make this tough politically.

Option 9: Tax empty houses

What is it?

A group of homeless Oakland mothers made national headlines when they occupied a vacant property owned by a corporate house-flipper. Social justice organizations have lobbied for years to transform vacant housing into homeless housing, citing the cruel irony of luxury units remaining tenant-less while people slept on the streets.

One option would be to levy a special tax on vacant units to underwrite housing for homeless people. Nonprofit developers and community land trusts also could have right of first refusal over properties auctioned off after foreclosure. A universal property registry could be created so every landlord has to report whether their unit is occupied.

Cost: Relatively inexpensive but...

This really depends on how vacant properties are sanctioned, how many a city has and how many can legally be turned into homeless housing. Implementing a tax would be straightforward, but local governments still have to certify occupancy. And it's no silver bullet. Cities such as Vancouver and Washington D.C. have adopted vacancy taxes but homelessness remains a problem.

Speed: Relatively quick but..

It depends again on the plan for the housing. A vacant property tax can be approved quickly, but it can take time to make vacant property habitable.

Political support: Mixed

Tenant rights groups and anti-gentrification activists love this idea. Not so popular among moderates, landlords or anyone who owns a vacation home.

Option 10: Do nothing

What is it?

The status quo. No additional state resources beyond what we currently spend, no major policy changes, no ballot initiatives...nada.

Cost: Very expensive

Many of your options as homelessness czar have high price tags. But keep in mind homelessness already drains billions of dollars from state and local coffers in indirect costs. The state doesn't have a total for how much homelessness strains public health, law enforcement, park and street maintenance...but it's a lot. One study estimated that Santa Clara County alone spent a half-billion dollars annually on indirect costs associated with homelessness, such as emergency room visits and court costs. Not to mention lost business, tourism and other private sector costs.

Political support:Not much

California voters want this problem fixed, one way or another. In a recent nonpartisan poll, Californians identified homelessness as the most important issue confronting Newsom and state lawmakers this year — more important than the economy or the environment or health care. No pressure, Czar.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California's policies and politics. Read more state news from CALmatters here. Matt Levin can be emailed at [email protected].

Comments

What Will They Do Next
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2020 at 6:11 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2020 at 6:11 pm
18 people like this

Liberals in Sacramento and across the country are responsible for this. California is positioned to spend billions of dollars next year on this problem and has shown no results improving the situation. In fact, it's only getting worse and this is undeniable. We don't need a czar. We need to vote every progressive liberal out of office in 2020 and start to make California Great Again.

Start by enforcing the law and get people off the streets. The tent encampments keep growing and it won't be long before they're on University Avenue, Castro Street and Santa Cruz Avenue. What will follow is human defecation on the streets, the stench of urine and the discarded syringes of junkies. Just look at San Francisco, Oakland and every other city in the country governed by democrats. It is undeniable. Look at Austin Texas, which never had a problem until liberals moving from California and other liberal states took over the local government.

Mental health issues need to be addressed and forced hospitalization and detox centers need to be the law.

Gavin Newsome doesn't have a clue. He just wants to run for POTUS in 2024. His policies as mayor of S.F. were a total fail and as governor he's a joke.

Nobody has a total solution, but one thing is true. When you reward people for living on the streets, you get more of the same.


What I Would Do As RV/Homless Czar
Crescent Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 3:03 pm
What I Would Do As RV/Homless Czar, Crescent Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 3:03 pm
6 people like this

> You've just been named California's homelessness czar — what's your first move?

Legally force force the homeless RV dwellers to make their mobile homes more presentable in appearance as most of them are cluttered with crap & are plagued by filthy interiors & exteriors.

Make it a part of the registration process...meet a certain criteria & you are 'in'. Otherwise, get lost.

In other words, take and have some pride in your dwelling. This is Palo Alto afterall.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:02 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:02 pm
1 person likes this

First I would put in RV parks in all cities in the Bay Area, at least one of a designated size in each city with full services of power, sewage, water, etc. I would then move all RVs parked for more than 24 hours in one place to use them, charge them rent and utilities.

Next, I would acknowledge the difference between the mentally ill/chronic homeless and those who just need a fresh start to get their lives back in order. I would get the mentally ill off the streets and make cities provide short term doss houses for singles and families, with counseling and non-profit groups working to help get the individuals presentable for jobs and living independently.

I would then work on public transportation to get people from where they live to the jobs that are available. I would force Caltrain to make more daily train service to Gilroy, I would get rid of all the independent transport services under one authority, trains, light rail, Bart, bus services, ferries, adding better services across the Bay and from the Coast as well as places like Tracy, Livermore, etc. With the money saved from duplicating administration, there would be money to invest in improving services from where people live to where the jobs are. If people could live in a less expensive area and commute within an hour to where the jobs are, we would all benefit.

Lastly, I would aim to improve job finding services, home searching services, so that those who can work can find jobs and those who are busy looking for staff can find them. This is done well for jobs at the higher end of the pay scale, but sadly lacking for minimum wage and lower income jobs. I would also educate minimum wage earners that if they should expect to be on minimum wage for no longer than two years in a job, and they should be promoted or trained to take on a more senior position that takes them out of minimum wage category.

I am not an expert on any of this so acknowledge that probably some is unworkable, but I would put time, effort and diligence in attempting to make these happen.


No Pelosi, No Newsom
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:34 pm
No Pelosi, No Newsom, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:34 pm
15 people like this

The government should prioritize the vets who fought for our country who probably suffer from PTSD.

The drug addicted people don't deserve any help, they are spoiled and worthless to society. Ship them to the desert. CA has become a "me" state. Everyone wants the wealthy to bail them out instead of working for themselves.

Newsom ruined S.F. and California. I'm voting Republican across the board next time.


Sensible
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 11:38 pm
Sensible, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 11:38 pm
5 people like this

One thing that should be done as part of any action, is to also consistently take data on why people became homeless and what helps them over a longer period of time. Prevention can't really work unless we understand. I read an article featuring a few homeless young people, and they came from other states because of promises by shady characters that drew them to LA. For someone like that, one of helpful steps might be to understand who might benefit from just having transportation, moving, and setup costs to return to their families in cheaper states.

Another is to understand how to, frankly, differentiate cases that really require seasoned professional longterm intervention from people just as they become vulnerable who wouldn't otherwise become trapped in a negative cycle. When the two get mixed, it hurts everyone, because they need different things, and different groups are more suited to help depending.

Another thing that would really help is if the state would stop furthering false arguments related to development, redevelopment, overdevelopment as if they will lower the cost of housing or reduce homelessness. The development and encouraging of unfettered concentration of highly paid tech job monocultures is a cause of displacement and lack of affordable housing. Taking a sober and constructive look a the demand side is important.

The cities have become really unhealthy for people of traditionally low- and middle-skill jobs. There are a lot of people who live far away to support their families in better living conditions but who will live in substandard conditions in SV for the job. This has been going on for decades but it's worse now with the unfettered concentrated job growth.

One thing the state can start doing is to focus on helping cities to buy up their retail area land, so that cities can be the landowners the same way Stanford owns land and their faculty buy the houses, which make sit affordable and allows them to keep neighborhoods that attract their faculty. If cities did the same thing, they could both keep the cost of retail stable for businesses, ensure that businesses residents need remain nearby, and most importantly, in exchange for the lower costs, leverage higher wages from the employers. The employers would be able to maintain and keep workers and pay them a living wage, and employees in traditionally low-wage jobs could afford to live here without having to win a subsidized housing lottery (which many people don't want anyway). The great thing is that cities owning the property means that benefit becomes more and more valuable to cities (and the city residents) as time passes, without it costing the cities anything.

This is how cities in California can continue to have schools, civic buildings, etc -- and it's probably time we looked at retail that way, too. This will at the same time allow a whole segment of the population up and down the state to earn a living wage.

The state really should be looking at the idea of investing in cities that need the makeovers to attract job creators, so that we get a couple more job centers and draw down some of the intense demand in the few that we have now. This more than anything will multiply the economic opportunities for people on all ends of the spectrum. Let's face it, these clustering tech centers are a new phenomenon, and they destroy the opportunities that middle- and low-skill workers have traditionally found in cities, even as the tech centers need all kinds of workers for their care and feeding.

If we had a few more places to take some of the pressure off of here, places employers and residents, artists and engineers, wanted to live, people who can't make their way here could find places with similar amenities and advantages but with affordable housing.

Homelessness is a complex problem, and we have to understand and keep investigating and taking data on why people at any given time and place become homeless, where they're from, and what helps. My father, a Korean war veteran, talked about how he thought all his technical skills from the military would transfer to civilian work, but instead he found it very difficult. Eventually the GI bill did mean a PhD and lifelong employment. But military veterans still find the transition very difficult. I've spoken with young men returning from Iraq who sounded just like my dad on this issue.

Figuring out as a society how to make that transition smoother could also reduce the homelessness problem for veterans. This may seem unrelated, but the community colleges in California at some point standardized their transfer courses to align with the UC's, so that the courses at the community colleges are the same as the ones people take at the UC's. This made transfer so much more doable and practical, and it put a UC education in reach to thousands more students every year who for one reason or other benefit from starting at community colleges (which are much cheaper). Something similar for veterans could help a lot, so that it's easier for them to interface with employers and colleges, to get credits where their experience could give them credit. This could help our veterans transition better to civilian life, allow them to make use of their military training and experience without having to start over, and help our civil society to better incorporate their experiences and talents after service.

Organizations to help match younger people with older people who want to age in their homes, who will take responsibility for ensuring the older people are not trapped if it doesn't work out, or the younger people have another placement if it doesn't work out for them, could help house more people. Obviously, this wouldn't work for people who primarily need mental health services. It's just really important to continually understand homelessness to address it.

Lastly, the state needs to stop using the plight of poor people to advantage developers to do things that make the problem even worse. It makes people not trust government, and it prevents people from taking effective measures when false claims are made to advantage already rich developers and things never really pan out for everyone else. Using the poor and homeless for such cynical purposes also makes the public less willing to do things because they don't trust. Fool me over and over again...


Annette
College Terrace
on Jan 26, 2020 at 7:46 am
Annette, College Terrace
on Jan 26, 2020 at 7:46 am
6 people like this

Day 1: convene a small group of experts and give them a short period of time to develop working plans for leveraging technology to fully benefit society by creating vibrant, fully supported new jobs/housing centers in areas of the state that are available for such growth.


JR
Palo Verde
on Jan 26, 2020 at 8:11 am
JR, Palo Verde
on Jan 26, 2020 at 8:11 am
9 people like this

Step one is to reopen mental treatment hospitals across the nation that Ronald Reagan closed down. Homelessness increased directly as a result. When people can't get help, they have nowhere to go, and end up on the streets.

Millionaire and billionaire property developers profited greatly as a result. For example, Agnews Developmental Center was redeveloped as mostly offices, developers tens of millions of dollars. It's sickening to think that they profited at the expense of the homeless, but it's 100% true.


Annette
College Terrace
on Jan 26, 2020 at 8:27 am
Annette, College Terrace
on Jan 26, 2020 at 8:27 am
3 people like this

@JR - good point, excellent suggestion. Thank you for the reminder about that critical past action. Will history repeat?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 26, 2020 at 12:22 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 26, 2020 at 12:22 pm
1 person likes this

Posted by What Will They Do Next, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> Liberals in Sacramento and across the country are responsible for this.

So, was Ronald Reagan a "liberal"? What exactly do *you* mean by "liberal"?

Required reading: a very short article explaining "LPS", a *bipartisan* bill approved of both by liberals and conservatives at the time (different motives and reasons). BTW, most people would consider Ronald Reagan a "conservative" in this context. Likewise, Jerry Brown as a "liberal".

>> Mental health issues need to be addressed and forced hospitalization and detox centers need to be the law.

LPS does need to be modified, although, how require treatment is more difficult now, post-*Riese*. But, we could start by providing treatment for patients who ask for it voluntarily. The way it works now, a "5150" hold is often the *maximum* that temporary treatment is provided before patients are tossed out. I don't think most people realize how little psychiatric care is available to the non-wealthy.

I would also add that *some* homelessness is due to mental illness, *some* to substance abuse, *some* as a result of economic factors, and *some* to difficult combinations of the previous reasons. It is a complex issue, and addressing it requires more subtlety and more money than people wish.


czars? or law breakers?
Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jan 26, 2020 at 1:52 pm
czars? or law breakers?, Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jan 26, 2020 at 1:52 pm
1 person likes this

Anon - thanks. These newly minted 'czars' seem to think they get to ignore established law. Wonder who gave them that idea? (call your witnesses, donny!)

JR - Reagan closed CA hospitals as guv, not nationally as president, iirc.

All this came after he denounced Medicare as socialized medicine; so yes, Anon, he would be classified as a conservative.

;-)

Web Link B Now that's a peice of vinyl I'd like to add to my collection!


Make Them Go Away...Somewhere
Crescent Park
on Jan 26, 2020 at 2:48 pm
Make Them Go Away...Somewhere, Crescent Park
on Jan 26, 2020 at 2:48 pm
12 people like this

> The drug addicted people don't deserve any help, they are spoiled and worthless to society. Ship them to the desert.

^^^ Agreed...I have absolutely no sympathy, empathy or compassion for the countless abusers (aka addicts) of opiods, fentanyl, methamphetamine & crack cocaine.

They brought it upon themselves and these addictions invariably lead to more crime in order for them to sustain their habits.

Lock them up & throw away the keys...but offer rehab assistance to those who truly want to kick the habit. It has to come from within.

We do not want PA turning into another Tenderloin District.


>> Step one is to reopen mental treatment hospitals across the nation that Ronald Reagan closed down. Homelessness increased directly as a result. When people can't get help, they have nowhere to go, and end up on the streets.

^^^ Also reopen any of those private prisons which will be shutting down. While it will cost taxpayers money to provide for these derelict/addicts, it's still better than having them on the streets.

By nature of their 'predispositions' they surrender to all civil rights and should be placed under state conservatorship.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2020 at 5:27 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2020 at 5:27 pm
2 people like this

Posted by Make Them Go Away...Somewhere, a resident of Crescent Park

>> Lock them up & throw away the keys...but offer rehab assistance to those who truly want to kick the habit. It has to come from within.

May I assume that you consider yourself a "conservative"?

>> By nature of their 'predispositions' they surrender to all civil rights and should be placed under state conservatorship.

So, you are willing to pay for this, right?


@Anon
Mountain View
on Jan 27, 2020 at 6:28 pm
@Anon, Mountain View
on Jan 27, 2020 at 6:28 pm
6 people like this

Be thankful that the commenter from Cresent Park didn't call for them to be put into gas chambers...


Pro-Lockdown
another community
on Jan 28, 2020 at 10:47 am
Pro-Lockdown, another community
on Jan 28, 2020 at 10:47 am
9 people like this

The various upscale readers & do-gooder mentalities 'simply don't get it.'

The blatantly mentally ill and those with problematic drug/alcohol addictions/predispositions do need to be put away...these individuals constitute most of the INCOHERENT homeless people you witness on the street.

How many of you would actually invite these folks into your home for a nice warm meal & perhaps offer them a sleepover as it is now wintertime & 40F degrees outside during the evenings? Yeah, I thought so.

What many 'soft on lockdown' proponents don't understand is that by rounding-up & locking the drug addicts up (even against their will), you are doing them a favor...albeit it at tax-payer expense. Call it crime prevention as well as lessening the daily workload for local law enforcement who oftentimes have to respond to various derelict public disturbances.

In lockdown, they will not have access to meth, fentanyl, opiods, alcohol & whatnot + an opportunity to detox.

The problem is letting these addicts out again (whether rehabbed or not) because like an alcoholic, one remains an alcoholic for life & there will always be room or potential for a relapse depending upon their inherent predispositions and/or LACK of willpower.

I have dealt with many of these kinds of individuals as a veteran county jail guard. When incarcerated, these inmates simply have to do without their vices but when released...and in many instances, the first thing they do is go for is another fix and thus the cycle of drug/alcohol abuse & CRIME perpetuates itself.

On a lesser note, the same can be said of cigarettes (another addiction of sorts). While there is no tobacco allowed in jail, the first thing many released inmates do is seek a cigarette from another recently released inmate or search for a liquor store from which to buy them....even though they haven't smoked for well over a year! Go figure.

Bottom line...an addict is an addict & as one contributor noted, a state mandated conservatorship will help to alleviate the problem of the derelict homeless creating public disturbances on our city streets as well as reducing drug-related crime(s).

As for the mentally ill, if they refuse to take their meds (or are undiagnosed as being bi-polar, psychotic etc.) a full lockdown enables them to both protect themselves and society as well.

After all, you all seem to want safer streets in the SF Bay Area, less urban blight + an attractive environment where one can go shopping and/or dining sans any unnecessary visual or audible disturbances from the un-kept.

Be honest with yourselves.






Make Them Go Away
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm
Make Them Go Away, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm
4 people like this

previous quote: "Be honest with yourselves."

^^^ All things considered, unless the substance abuser or mentally ill person is an immediate family member or a close personal friend, most people are unconcerned (couldn't care less) with their demise unless their own private/personal lives are adversely affected (e.g. via robbery/burglary, assault, disturbing the the peace etc.).

There are simply too many of these forsaken individuals out there creating problems for law enforcement, merchants, residents, customers/diners and perhaps the best approach to dealing with them is to lock these troubled individuals up and essentially throw away the keys.

It's a win-win for all...free room & board for the derelict homeless + safer & more enjoyable streets, parks, restrooms, libraries & strip malls for law-abiding & tax-paying citizens who cannot tolerate or be bothered with these kinds of public nuisances & disturbances.

The tax-supported financial resources are there providing less public money is spent on other frivolous/non-essential expenditures...starting from the federal government and all the way down to Palo Alto.

It is said that roughly 40% of the derelict homeless are mentally ill while another 40% are substance abusers. Doing the math, that comes to about 80% of the current homeless population.

The other 20% whether displaced due to economic factors or parked in their RVs can be dealt with.


Me 2
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2020 at 4:31 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2020 at 4:31 pm
3 people like this

Sigh. Reagan closing the hospitals trope. Technically true, but the policy started under his predecessor, Pat Brown Sr. It was actually consensus across the political spectrum to close them.

Web Link


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2020 at 5:21 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2020 at 5:21 pm
3 people like this

Posted by Me 2, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> Sigh. Reagan closing the hospitals trope. Technically true, but the policy started under his predecessor, Pat Brown Sr. It was actually consensus across the political spectrum to close them.

Agreed. It was truly bipartisan, as I mentioned in a previous link. Started during Brown Sr., signed into law and implementation begun during Reagan, and completed by Brown Jr. But, because "conservatives" criticize the existence of the homeless, it is sometimes necessary to remind those "conservatives" that Reagan signed it into law and began the implementation.

>> Web Link

Good link!

Web Link

So, past history aside, now the question is, what to do?


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