Step One In Tackling California's Homelessness Crisis? Build More Homes!
As California still reels, along with the rest of the world, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the state also finds itself contending with another pandemic that is perhaps less deadly but no less vexing. I’m referring, of course, to the homelessness crisis, which affects a troubling number of our fellow Golden State citizens. While COVID certainly hasn’t made finding and paying for board and shelter easier, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that there were 161,548 Californians who were homeless in January 2020, two full months before the first wave of lockdowns went into effect. While not quite a quarter of the 580,000 Americans estimated to be without permanent housing, California still saw the biggest increase in homeless people of any state between 2019 and 2020, with 10,270 more Californians experiencing homelessness within the past two years. By comparison, Texas, the state with the next-biggest bump in its homeless population, went up by 1,381 people, a fraction of what our state has seen. To further complicate matters, some experts believe the HHS’s estimate of a 6.8% rise is an undercount, with the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness’s director Bob Erlenbusch saying, “ I think the real percentage [increase] is in the 10% range.” And this all before taking the COVID pandemic and the debilitating effect it’s had on the economy into account.
Another misconception that people have about the homeless population is that they all suffer from debilitating mental illnesses like schizophrenia. And in fairness, there is some truth to this perception: a 2015 survey from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for instance, found that 45% of homeless people experienced some form of mental illness. This is eye-opening as it is considering how massively out of proportion the share of psychiatric disorders among the homeless is in comparison to the general population, but it’s also revealing in that it indicates 55% of homeless people—that is, the majority of unhoused people—don’t suffer from any mental illness at all. That’s because, as KQED's Matt Levin and Jackie Botts explain, while mental illness and other issues do contribute to homelessness, the “primary reason” people find themselves on the streets is simply because, “They can no longer afford rent.” It has the ring of a truism to it: well yeah, if everybody could afford a home, then there wouldn’t be homeless people, would there? But this simple answer raises a very salient question: why is it that so many Californians, including many who are employed and of sound mind, are unable to afford even the most modest of housing?
The answer, according to Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Jeff Hewitt, is that the process of building homes in California is regulated and regimented in a way that makes constructing new housing impossible in many cases and extremely expensive in the few instances where it isn’t. As proof of this, he points to the fact that the cost of getting approval to build a new home is over $85,000: not to build the home itself, but to get the necessary clearances to even start construction. With it being so expensive to merely get permission to build housing, is it any wonder that the median price to buy a home in California is over $600,000, a whopping 87% or so higher than in other states? At this rate, even those of us with a roof over our heads are probably going to have to pull a Joe Rogan and book it to Texas if we ever even begin to dream of actually becoming homeowners.
Hewitt is far from the only to make this connection, however. On the contrary, the Cato Institute backs up his analysis, contending that, “Government zoning regulations are perhaps the single biggest driver of housing underproduction: beyond density‐ based zoning like single‐family only zones (which account for three-quarters of Los Angeles), minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and time‐consuming approval processes all inflate the cost of new housing in Los Angeles and the rest of California.” This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky, “the free market will take care of everything” theorizing either: Cato goes on to note how successful the very policies they advocate were in helping LA more than double the amount of affordable homes in certain neighborhoods in recent years.
Progressives will likely be inclined to dismiss this as some radical libertarian idea that won’t actually solve the issue, but they might be surprised to learn that this is a relatively uncontroversial point among even respectably left-of-center commentators and media. NPR, that notorious propagator of right-wing talking points and narratives, ultimately acknowledges that “the core reason for the [homelessness] crisis boils down to supply and demand for housing”, and not the tax cuts or defunded social programs that they bemoan shortly beforehand. And even the LA Times Editorial Board, in an op-ed criticizing the “errant plans” of the various recall candidates to tackle homelessness, takes a break from pooh-poohing their proposals point by point to admit that they’re basically correct about how the current system makes building new homes nearly impossible. “Several candidates pledged to remove obstacles to getting building permits and to allow multi-unit buildings in neighborhoods zoned for single families… These are good ideas, although they will be challenging to put in place,” the Times’ grants before resuming dunking on such harebrained “solutions” as making it easier for the state to involuntarily commit homeless people.
Now if seemingly everyone from the right-libertarian wonks at the Cato Institute to the liberal milquetoasts at NPR agrees that the housing crisis can be solved by simply letting developers build more housing, why haven’t they been allowed to do so? Well, because certain interests actually prefer the status quo, as disastrous as it has been for our state’s least fortunate. The usual suspects—power-hungry city governments who oppose anything that will streamline the home-building process and NIMBY homeowners who fear that a truly free housing market will drive their inflated home values down—are of course beneficiaries of this sad state of affairs, but some surprising parties also play a part in perpetuating it. These would be overzealous environmentalist groups (whose expansive interpretation of state environmental laws often serve to block new housing development) and the very vocal but also very misguided activists fighting against gentrification, that other terrible blight upon our beautiful cities. Where others see a mutually-beneficial arrangement in which people provide new housing for others who need it in exchange for an agreed-upon price, anti-gentrification activists see a nefarious plot by capitalist outsiders to sap communities of their local character and culture. I mean yeah, it’s terrible that there’s veterans, mentally-ill people, and families sleeping on the streets of LA and San Francisco, but at least they’re sleeping on streets with rich history and cultural significance, right?
To be sure, the problem of homelessness is a multifaceted issue that cannot be solved by any one course of action. There will still be those afflicted with mental illness—as well as those struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol—among us, and it will be up to Californians of good will and all political stripes to step up and provide them the treatment and care that they need. But for the time being, we can take the very small first step of making it easier for those who need homes to buy or rent one, and for developers to provide them. The easiest and most effective way to do that is to get out of the way and let them build!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.