No one who has a basic grasp of the situation is arguing against getting unhoused people into some form of “roof over their head” solution. Study after study has shown there is an extremely high public cost to deal with the problems associated with homelessness.
A comprehensive study conducted by Santa Clara County in 2015 calculated that the public cost of homelessness came to $520 million per year, and was a significant factor leading to the passage of Measure A the following year, providing $950 Million for permanent, affordable housing.
Two years later, the City of San Jose launched a Housing Crisis Workplan, with a goal of building 25,000 new housing units over the next five-year period. In the face of even higher homeless counts, San Jose voters approved Measure E in March 2020, a general tax to be used for a range of affordable housing projects and homeless prevention programs. Yet our creeks, underpasses, parks and public streets provide ample evidence that homelessness continues to be a serious, unsolved problem.
'Housing first,' or 'rapid build'?
Some argue that the “housing first” approach is wrong and efforts should be redirected to “rapid build” or emergency “interim” housing, and expanding shelters in the name of both moral imperatives and cost efficiencies.
Others argue that without a continued commitment to permanent, affordable housing, these “interim” solutions will only prolong the problem and end up costing more in the long run.
Still others point to the overly bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly process involved in not only building affordable housing, but providing essential supportive services that have proven critical to the success of long-term stabilization of the most vulnerable elements of the homeless population.
One very harsh statistic is the growing number of homeless who die on the streets in our county every year: 250 in 2021 and 246 in 2022. Faced with complaints about the millions of taxpayer dollars being spent and with little evidence of progress, state politicians, including former County Supervisor and now Sen. David Cortese, have called for an audit.
Why is this problem so intractable? How did we get to the point where we are debating whether the next dollar of tax money should go to a long-term investment in permanent housing which will take years, or to a “quick build” box on a fenced-off asphalt lot with minimal amenities? Either way, it is clear we cannot provide enough housing to meet demand. How did we get here?
For starters, we can look to long-standing housing and zoning policies dating back to the 1880s that made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for certain demographic groups to own property and acquire equity. As a direct consequence, a significant number of our population were relegated to being renters. (See Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein).
Fewer apartment mean higher rents
Since the amount of rent that can be charged is directly related to the availability of housing units for rent, a shortage of available units inevitably results in higher rent. Federal policies aimed to increase the percentage of home ownership enacted in the early 2000's led to risky “subprime” mortgages, millions of foreclosures, and the subsequent recession. As the country emerged from this crisis in around 2015, we witnessed a massive shift in wealth, with thousands of people living in tents, broken down RVs and without any health care or support.
Going back to only 1950, the California Real Estate Association, forerunner of the California Association of Realtors, launched a successful initiative against "low rent" public housing, adding Article 34 to the California Constitution. This unique provision prohibits government agencies from building "low rent" housing without a majority vote of the public. A lawsuit in 1970 resulted in a declaration by Federal Judge Robert F. Peckham that this Article to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it had a disparate impact on persons of color, particularly Hispanic families in San Jose and Black families in San Mateo. But the ruling was immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the City Council of San Jose, and Judge Peckham's ruling was overturned. Efforts to repeal Article 34 have been defeated multiple times. Ironically, the Federal Courthouse in San Jose is named in honor of Judge Robert Peckham.Arti
More recently in time, the City of San Jose, faced with what is known as a “jobs-housing imbalance,” actively sought to restrict new housing construction in favor of preserving land for industrial use.
During this same time period, the State Legislature terminated the Redevelopment Agency, which had been supplying 20% of its funds for affordable housing construction.
In another twist, an agreement that would have resulted in the construction of approximately 24,000 new housing units in the North First Street corridor was blocked by litigation from the City of Santa Clara on the basis that the City of San Jose was not funding the necessary infrastructure improvements to mitigate the impacts from these developments. A partial settlement of this long-standing litigation was only recently announced.
Regional housing needs not met
Meanwhile, the County of Santa Clara managed to build only around 14% of its required allocation of affordable housing units under the State mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) for the 5th cycle, and the City of San Jose’s results were even lower.
For the next eight-year cycle, the RHNA requires the City not only to build 62,200 new housing units of ALL types -- affordable, moderate and above-moderate), but to demonstrate HOW it plans to accomplish this in what is known as a “Housing Element.”
The initial deadline for approval of the Housing Element has passed, and the City of San Jose has still not adopted a new Housing Element. This is scheduled to go before the City Council on June 20.
Among the consequences if the city does not meet the next deadline: the inability to enforce zoning regulations; loss of eligibility for state funding for housing programs, and restricted ability to prevent developers from taking advantage of what is known as “builder’s remedy,” which effectively will allow development without planning approvals.
For additional perspective, consider that from 2014-2022, the City of San Jose’s target under RHNA requirements was to add 35,080 housing units. During this same time frame, in less than three (3) years between 2017 - 2020, over 30,000 housing units were lost to wildland fires in Northern California. Consequences include even greater restrictions on new housing in areas of high fire severity risk, and the decision by two major insurers to stop issuing new homeowner policies in California.
Despite all of this, people who simply fail to grasp the big picture, or who choose to ignore the combined impacts of poor planning, discriminatory zoning practices, and the resulting complexities required to fund affordable housing projects as a result of Article 34, are among the first to line up at the podium or log on to public hearings and argue passionately how much they feel sorry for the homeless – but just as passionately argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to live in their neighborhoods.
These passionate but misinformed NIMBYs play an outsized role in delaying the implementation of the very programs and plans needed to solve the homeless problem. As Walt Kelly famously penned in his comic strip Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Jeffrey B. Hare is a lecturer with San Jose State University Land Use and Planning Law, Department of Urban and Regional Planning.