Missing Rung on the Housing Ladder

We are facing a homelessness crisis in California that is about to explode.  How is this possible in one of the richest states in one of the richest countries of the world?  It’s because our standards for the definition of “housing” are too limited.  There are several rungs missing on the housing “ladder.”  There is literally nothing between tents and “affordable” permanent housing.  Yet affordable housing is not affordable to build.

The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley calculates that the average cost to build an affordable housing unit in California is upwards of $480,000.   However, in the cities experiencing the most acute homelessness, the cost is dramatically higher than that: $750,000 in San Francisco for example.  What’s worse, it takes several years to build.  With the huge growth in employment in recent years, we have found ourselves in a severe housing crisis.

East coast and west coast cities have taken dramatically different courses in addressing homelessness.  The Bay Area Council Economic Institute explains the different models.  New York has prioritized having enough shelter beds for the entire population in need, resulting in over 96% of the people experiencing homelessness in New York being at least sheltered.  This heavy investment in shelter has been at the expense of building permanent housing: only 24% have access to permanent supportive housing.  On the other hand, California cities have ardently prioritized building permanent supportive or permanent affordable housing over shelters, and in fact thousands of units have been built over the past 10 years.  While this is a noble goal, it has resulted in underinvestment in shelters; 69% of people experiencing homelessness in California are unsheltered.

California reported over 130,000 people experiencing homelessness as of the most recent count, in 2019.  However, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that number is about to skyrocket when the eviction moratoriums begin to expire.  UCLA Luskin Institute predicts that members of nearly 120,000 households (not individuals but entire households) in Los Angeles County (including 184,000 children) are likely to become homeless for at least some period of time in the next 12 months.  The Aspen Institute estimates that between 4.1m and 5.4m Californians are at risk of homelessness due to COVID-related evictions.  Of course, many people who can’t pay their rent will still find a way to do so by borrowing from friends or maxing out their credit card– wholly unsustainable ways.  Eventually, the surge is coming to our streets.

When the pandemic hit, cities were forced to dramatically reduce their already limited shelter capacity.  The tents sprung up on every street, lane, or alley in our cities.

Just before the pandemic hit, a very interesting development occurred.  In Martin vs. Boise the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling that Boise could not enforce its Camping and Disorderly Conduct ordinances, essentially ruling that homeless persons cannot be prosecuted for sleeping on the streets when they have no other options.  This applies across the 9th Circuit, which includes California.

On May 4, 2020, UC Hastings filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco on behalf of residents and businesses in the Tenderloin district, over conditions in the neighborhood.  As a result, the number of tents in the neighborhood has been reduced by nearly 90%, largely by moving people into Shelter In Place (SIP) hotels.

The combination of the Boise ruling and the pandemic have caused a renewed interest in funding “interim housing” or shelters in California.  Then in May 2020, Judge John Carter issued an order that the city and county of Los Angeles provide shelter for the 6,000 or more people residing under freeways in Los Angeles County.

All of a sudden, interim housing is back in vogue on the west coast.  Cities are scrambling to find ways to finally shelter the people who have been living on our streets for too long.  In San Francisco, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman proposes legislation that would require the city to create enough beds at “safe sleeping sites” for everyone in San Francisco willing to accept one.  The city has already created a small handful of safe sleeping sites during the pandemic, and they have been a rousing success.  Dr. Lena Miller of Urban Alchemy, the organization that manages a few of these safe sleeping villages says that at first neighbors complained fiercely.  “But once the site was up and running, the thank you notes started flooding in.”  Urban Alchemy hires formerly incarcerated or others with “lived experience” to manage the sites– and ensures that they are good, safe, clean neighbors.

People living in tents describe the nightmare of their reality.  Women are frequently raped in their tents, and people are afraid to wander off from their tents (even to find a bathroom) for fear that their few worldly possessions will be stolen.  Violence on the streets at night is rampant.  The safe sleeping villages are a big step in the right direction.  When people relocate their tents to an official site, there is a gate with a security guard to ensure the safety of themselves and their belongings; food is brought in, and showers and toilets are provided.

It’s an easy sell– greater than 90% of people accept the invitation to a safe sleeping site, and they fill up quickly.  This is as opposed to under 40% acceptance rate of traditional shelters.  Why?  Because people are humans– they need dignity.  They want privacy– to drink, to be intimate, to do their own thing.  Congregate shelters where people are sleeping on cots next to strangers is not housing, it’s not dignity.

Safe sleeping villages are one rung up the housing ladder from doorways.  But we need other rungs too.  DignityMoves is building villages with manufactured buildings– for a fraction of the cost of traditional affordable housing.  For $35,000 we can build units where everyone gets their own room: a bed, a desk, a window, and a door that locks.

The housing ladder still needs several more rungs from there.  But Safe Sleeping Villages and DignityMoves communities are a first step to filling in the ladder.