Housing affordability and homelessness are indelibly linked. Despite stepped-up efforts to get the unsheltered into either transitional or permanent housing – after the passage of Measure H to expand services, the number of individuals touched by outreach efforts tripled – the homeless count in both the City and the County of Los Angeles has increased. The reason why is straightforward: Ranked by housing burden – spending more than 30 percent of your household income on shelter — the Los Angeles metro area ranks seven worst out of the top 150 metro areas for renters and actually second worst for homeowners. We are trying to reduce the number of homeless individuals and families but while we have made a dent, market pressures continue to drive people into housing instability and eventually into homelessness.
Certainly, part of the homeless problem is connected to mental health, addiction, and other issues, and that requires specialized efforts, including supportive housing that can connect people with services. But some of those problems are actually exacerbated by spells of housing instability and the data suggest that there are increasingly numbers of the homeless for whom economic drivers are the main factor. So while we need to address the chronic homeless, we need to build affordable housing, expand rent stabilization ordinances (including anti-eviction protections), and insure that the positive developments from our local investments in rail do not result in gentrification and displacement that will worsen our problems.
I grew in up poor in Santa Monica with my dad and younger brother. From a young age, I experienced the impact and uncertainty that housing insecurity can have on a family. Fortunately, rent control in Santa Monica helped keep rents affordable so that we could keep a roof over our heads. But when my dad died, my brother and I were on the brink of homeless. It was only the kindness of friends that kept us off the streets.
For years, tenants across the state have had little legal protection against steep rent hikes and evictions, which are increasingly forcing tenants to leave their communities—or even worse—pushing them onto the streets. Now tenants are demanding a more balanced playing field with responsible protections while still ensuring landlords can make a reasonable return on their investments. This is especially important for tenants in low-income communities of color who are being disproportionately impacted by our county’s housing crisis.
In recent years, there has been a surge in homelessness. This year’s homeless count revealed a 12% increase in the number of people experiencing homeless, with the county citing rising rents and economic instability as contributing factors.
Rent stabilization is a powerful tool to keep housing affordable and prevent homelessness, especially when coupled with other pro-tenant policies like just cause eviction and inclusionary zoning. These policies are good for homeowners, landlords and renters because they create greater predictability and provide stability for entire neighborhoods.
Housing affordability is not linked to spreading problem of encampments and skid row conditions, a human tragedy fostered by the judiciary. The people living in tents and under tarps, or unconscious on the pavement surrounded by trash, needles and human waste, should be patients, not tenants, and a few should probably be inmates. Lower housing costs won’t fix mental illness or substance abuse. Politicians and judges should be held accountable for leaving sick people on the streets until they’re either “ready to accept help” or become the coroner’s problem. It’s a cynical waste of public funds to build new apartments “for the homeless” at a typical cost of half-a-million dollars per unit. We should be building in-patient mental health care facilities and changing the law to make it easier to protect people who can’t make rational decisions.
What is actually linked to housing affordability is the problem of housing overcrowding—multiple families living in apartments, condos or homes that were designed for a single family, and an unknown but likely high number of people living in substandard housing, such as unpermitted and possibly unsafe garage conversions and backyard structures, not to mention vehicles.
Something else that is linked to housing affordability is the lack of economic opportunity for California workers. As the state recently ranked 50th in “business friendliness” by CNBC, California is failing to hold or attract companies that create high-paying jobs. The price of housing is only half the story of housing affordability. Wage and salary growth is a critical component of the problem.
The lack of affordable housing in our coastal counties has driven many people to move to San Bernardino County in search of less expensive housing options. This eastward migration has, in turn, driven up the cost of housing for those already struggling to afford mortgages or rent in the Inland Empire.
While the cost of housing has led some of our residents to become homeless, many more end up homeless because of untreated mental health and/or substance abuse problems.
There are many complexities in the growing homeless crisis, a lack of diverse housing options is one piece and frankly a piece a city has the most influence over. This is why I have focused my efforts to date heavily on increasing the housing stock and building partnerships to reduce the costs associated with production. It takes approximately 2-3 years to bring a housing project from concept to occupancy, so while our expansion efforts are critical, the outcomes of this work will take some time. But the city must be, and is, focused on a combination of long and short-term connected solutions.
A lack of affordable housing is driven by many factors, including inadequate production, excessive fees and burdensome processes, rises in labor and material costs, and federal housing subsidies that aren’t keeping pace with actual rents. With that said, homelessness is way too complex to be attributed to any single factor and we recognize that we can’t build ourselves out of this crisis.
It should be noted that a lack of affordable housing is not just a homeless issue. Within the city of Riverside, wages have increased and employment is high, allowing some Riversiders to buy housing despite high prices, but many hardworking people still can’t earn enough money to afford a market-rate place to live. This creates a negative impact on the rental market, which traditionally has impacted lower earners, but now impacts young and entry level professionals, as well as seniors retiring in our community, who can’t afford housing. We must continue to push for diverse housing options, because the people struggling to pay rent today will become the homeless individuals and families of tomorrow.
Housing affordability and homelessness have become intractable problems because we have failed to address some of the fundamental issues that inform them: poverty, the isolation of low-income and immigrant communities, the focus on progress and infrastructure development on gateway cities, etc.On a macro scale, the widening income inequality in our state coupled with lack of social mobility for many of low-income communities, which includes immigrants and refugees that comprise roughly 27% of our state’s population, seems to exacerbate this problem.
We pride ourselves as an equitable state, but whenever there are efforts to build the infrastructure that would begin to address these problems, even the most progressive members of our community hesitate to fully embrace certain solutions. i.e. building low-cost housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.
The reasons people cite for becoming homeless for the first time are increasingly based on economic reasons including housing affordability. In the 2019 Demographic Survey in Los Angeles, this number reached 71% up from 55% just a few years earlier. People experiencing chronic homelessness often have additional barriers to becoming stably housed. Providing appropriate supports when housing people that were experiencing homelessness is essential for these populations.
The exponential growth of homelessness in Southern California during the last decade has been driven in large part by the growing gap between rising housing costs and stagnant wages for people with low incomes in urban centers. Rising housing costs are a function of demand for market-rate housing and insufficient investment and short supply of affordable housing. People with low and very low incomes are spending more than 50% of income on housing – well above HUD’s housing affordability definition of 30% of pre-tax income. This gap renders housing unaffordable and housing instability and homelessness for many working people is the result. For people who face barriers to finding and keeping a job, the need to be where critical social services and supports are concentrated drives them to urban centers like Skid Row in Los Angeles.
There is certainly a good deal of overlap between the housing affordability and homelessness crises, particularly here in California, because financial issues are one of the leading causes of homelessness, and housing is typically one’s greatest expenditure. But there are a number of other reasons people become homeless – including job loss, substance abuse, mental health issues, physical disabilities and medical emergencies, death of a loved one (particularly a head of household) and other family issues – so it is far from a perfect correlation.
According to San Francisco’s 2019 survey of the homeless, for example, the loss of a job was the No. 1 primary reason for homelessness (26 percent), followed by alcohol or drug abuse (18 percent), eviction (13 percent), being kicked out by family or friends (12 percent), and mental health issues (8 percent).
As a result, improving housing affordability (as well as other costs of living and making it easier for people to obtain sound employment) will significantly reduce homelessness, but it will not in itself solve the problem, just as focusing solely on substance abuse and mental health issues will not eliminate it. This is why homelessness, especially, is such a difficult problem, and why steps must be taken in a number of policy areas – from taxation and regulation to housing to job growth and economic opportunity – to adequately address these issues.
To some extent homelessness is a unique problem, more tied to family and social dysfunction. But it increasingly represents part of a continuum that extends from people sharing apartments, sleeping on couches of friends and in their cars. High rents certainly contribute here, forcing more working people out in the streets. Laws that have decriminalized vagrancy have helped normalize homeless encampments. Of course, our mild climate makes homelessness somewhat less perilous than, say, Chicago.
Housing affordability, homelessness and—add to that–demands for rent control as rents increase exponentially–are all by-products of a decades-long failure by local elected officials to plan for, and encourage builders to build enough housing supply and choices, in a variety of price ranges, for a growing population, thriving jobs market and strong economy. According to Governor Newsom, the state needs 3.5 million homes to accommodate current population and jobs growth. Overall, the state has not built enough to meet the annual need since 1989, thus the crisis today.
According to Orange County Business Council, Orange County needs 58,000 homes, condos, and apartments–a number which will grow to nearly 100,000 by 2030. It is Economics 101: if supply is constrained (not enough homes built), and demand is high (strong jobs market, desirable location), then home prices rise, affecting affordability, and at its worst, results in homelessness. Sheltering homeless may even be more expensive as supportive services are needed (medical care, mental health care, addiction issues, job assistance, etc.) with housing to avoid a return to homelessness.
Some believe homelessness is someone living without a home. Statistically, most living on our streets are there because they are drug or alcohol addicted. Their chronic addictive lifestyle keeps them from a job, a house or even adequately taking care of themselves. Until the addicted homeless person seeks help will be unable to maintain any form of normalcy, let alone be responsible for a house. Affordable housing is an inventory of lower cost housing available to those at a point of being “priced out” of the current mainstream housing market for a given location. These people have the ability to pay for housing, provided the costs match their ability to pay. This of course is relative to their personal spending habits, lifestyle “wants” and other monetary obligations.
Housing First is a program that provides subsidized (taxpayer) funded housing for homeless people. The Housing First plan assumes that if a chronic homeless person, usually drug/alcohol addicted, were to be offered free housing with “no strings” attached, that person would get off the street and would eventually be willing to accept offered recovery services. This idea may have evolved to cope with court decisions resulting from lawsuits claiming homeless persons cannot be forced off the streets if housing is not available to them. Some believe addicted people living on our streets became that way because of job, housing or car loss, and once forced onto the street, took up drug or alcohol use to cope. Those who believe this need to spend time talking with chronic drunk/drugged homeless people. They will quickly learn there is a serious underlying problem that started the person down the destructive path of self-medicating with drug or alcohol. From there, the affected person was unable to maintain a productive lifestyle.
Absolutely, they’re linked. Setting aside the mental/social problems affecting perhaps two-thirds of all homeless, we’re still left with many people for whom affordability is a problem. But affordability is often mischaracterized as a problem created by gentrification or the presence of successful corporations in which relatively high employee pay (effective demand) drives up the price of housing. The real problem is in the artificial limits imposed on the supply side — and in California, supply is often a function of regulation.
It is a fact, though shocking, that many homeless people have jobs or are full-time students. They are living in their cars because they can’t pay for an alternative. Other people are homeless and would remain so even if there were affordable housing. The latter group include many who are mentally ill, drug users, and alcoholics. But the former group can be helped out of their cars through vouchers for motels, as Orange County provided immediately after Judge David Carter’s order last year.
The problems are linked: the lack of a sufficient supply of affordable housing means an otherwise tolerable disruption in family, health or finances can result in loss of permanent shelter. Once experiencing homelessness, many people use drugs to cope with negative feelings and daily conditions while others may develop mental illness. They are different in the nature of the stresses on the household but definitely related.
The issues of homelessness and housing affordability intersect more than they are linked. Homelessness is an issue with many moving parts; mental health issues, drug addiction, early prison release, unemployment, lifestyle choice, and housing affordability. Of course we need to build more affordable and transitional housing that not only gets people off the street, but also helps individuals and families get to a place where they can survive on a day-to-day basis on their own. We could build shelters and transitional housing everyday for decades and it will not solve or eliminate the over arching problem of homelessness.
Do we need more affordable housing? The answer to that is, of course we do. But this is a problem that needs to be approached from many angles and even then, there will still be a large group that either will not or cannot live a life off the street.
Numerous studies have linked the increase in housing costs and the decline in housing affordability to the rise in homelessness. Indeed, data indicates that, in general, homelessness has risen more in the areas in which housing is less affordable and not as much in areas where housing is more affordable. However, correlation does not, in and of itself, equal causation in all instances.
As defined by the federal government, affordability is a function of whether an individual or family spends more than 30% of their income on shelter. No matter how high or low that income. Not the cost of the housing. Homelessness can be temporary, episodic or chronic. There is no single profile for those who are homeless. People who have jobs or other income and are not homeless, but are low- or very low-income, are the most affected by housing cost increases or unexpected medical or personal expenses which can lead to homelessness.
The only way to end someone’s homelessness is for them to be housed. This requires permanent housing, not temporary housing such as shelters.
Historically government funding and programs have primarily focused on addressing affordability for low- and moderate-income individuals and families, those making less than 50 or 80% of area-wide median income. Homeless individuals or families usually make between 0 and 15% of median income. They are not able to take advantage of many of those programs. Most often they are only being housed through those programs which specifically target them. In that regard, housing affordability and homelessness are different.
“People” who are considered homeless are not monolithic. While housing affordability in most cases leads to transitional homelessness and in some cases chronic homelessness, it is not a straight line.The two differ in that housing affordability is primarily ebbing and flowing with the economy while homelessness can ebb and flow with uninformed policies like during the war on drugs!
The affordability problem is founded on an acute shortage of supply, which drives up rents and house prices. The public does not grasp the shortage because they don’t know why demand has grown so much. It is not from greater migration. Demand surged after 2010 the Millennials came of age and tried to form households. In addition, diverted homeowners from the drop in homeownership had the untimely effect of throwing more middle income people into rental competition. Despite the burgeoning demand and high prices, home building never fully recovered from the financial crisis and recession. It’s a pressure cooker. The link to homelessness is that rents on low-priced rentals have escalated out of reach, and also because the underlying shortage makes it difficult for service providers to find properties they can use to create housing for homeless people.
What is different between homelessness and affordability is that no one likes homelessness but a majority of owners actually welcome rising home prices and the lack of affordability because this increases their wealth as homeowners. Crying “affordability” does not motivate them to help find a solution. Another difference is that affordability problems may not be the principal cause of homeless status for most homeless people. Only a portion are living on the street in vehicles or “living rough” for lack of enough income to make the ever-higher required rent. There are many additional reasons for homelessness outside the housing realm.
Housing affordability is clearly a factor in today’s lack of housing for our homeless neighbors, but homelessness is much more complex than simply being about housing costs. Homelessness is also impacted by mental health, substance abuse issues, lack of available supportive services to help stabilize those on the streets, and a lack of public will to create suitable housing for homeless within neighborhoods throughout the region.
With that being said, housing affordability is directly linked to the lack of housing stock across the state. Current studies estimate an additional 1.5 to 3.5 million housing units are needed to meet today’s population needs. Therefore, until we build additional housing of all types – for families, seniors, individuals, and special populations – reducing housing costs and ensuring affordable housing for the homeless and low-wage earners will continue to be a challenge.
While a shortage in housing aggravates the problems of both homelessness and housing affordability, there are key differences. Anyone can find themselves temporarily homeless due to economic conditions. However, data shows that for many individuals experiencing homelessness, it is a chronic problem that often comes with challenges of mental and physical illness.
Democrat leaders’ pushes to change the justice system through laws like AB 109, which has forced an estimated 60,000 convicted felons out of prison, has also increased pressure on the system. Many of these individuals have difficulties with drug abuse and may avoid shelters so they can continue to use. A side effect of these early releases is that the state lacks adequate tools to connect them with treatment and services.
In linking housing with homelessness generally, the reality is that housing is not the only expensive aspect of living in California. The added cost pressures of excessive taxes on earnings, gas, businesses, and more, all compound the affordability crisis. A recent survey by Edelman Intelligence found 63 percent of millennials have considered leaving the state.
From top to bottom, people are being priced out, with the median home price approaching $600,000 and higher in more urban areas. This limits housing options that are close to places of work. As people are pushed to live further away from their jobs, commutes become longer and adversely impacts quality of life. If people do not have the opportunity to move up, the supply of more affordable housing, especially for first-time buyers, goes down. Because of overall scarcity, even housing that is freed up is more expensive than it once was.
Housing affordability, or lack thereof, is a major factor in the rise of homelessness throughout our region and California as a whole. The 2019 Homelessness Count showed a 12 percent increase in Los Angeles County and a 16 percent increase in the City of Los Angeles. Despite all the work our political leadership, non-profit organizations and voters have done with the passage of Measure H and Proposition HHH, which have allowed more than 20,000 to be housed, we are still unable to keep pace with the number of individuals falling into homelessness. In L.A. County, there are nearly 600,000 people spending more than 90 percent of their income on rent. These people are all one paycheck or health emergency away from losing the roof over their heads.
However, we cannot pin our entire homelessness crisis on housing. Mental health, trauma and substance addiction are also significant factors and require a different set of solutions than simply increasing affordable housing options. These individuals will require treatment and counseling in supportive housing-type facilities.
Housing affordability and homelessness are inexorably linked, which is why a key policy priority for the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing (SCANPH) is to dedicate resources to understanding and addressing emerging data about the fastest-growing segment of newly homeless persons in our region: low-income people who make less than 30 percent of area median income (AMI). This demographic is the fastest growing segment of economically vulnerable people, and therefore they are at the greatest risk of falling into homelessness because neither the free market nor subsidized housing is sufficiently addressing the housing needs of this population—a population comprised of working families who are spending nearly 80-90 percent of their incomes on housing in our region. Simply, put, they are the working poor who simply don’t make enough money to overcome an economically devastating occurrence, such as a missed paycheck or health ailment. This is evident in the latest point in time count for LA County, as 53% of people experiencing first-time homelessness cited economic hardship as the primary reason and 63% of unsheltered adults are on their first episode of homelessness.
Therefore, if we are to prevent more economically vulnerable people from falling into homelessness, then increases in the production and preservation of supportive and affordable housing are a proven solution.It’s clear that we must develop and support policies that create affordable homes for this fast-growing segment of homeless households who are non-special needs, extremely low income. SCANPH has long recognized that inclusive communities with access to opportunity for all people are contingent upon long term housing investments that truly address the systemic vulnerability of low-income households because achieving progress on homelessness means fixing the root of a problem rather than merely symptoms.
Housing affordability has several factors that contribute to the ratio of cost to income. The laws of supply and demand state that as supply dwindles or demand increases the price of anything goes up. This happens despite short time fixes that local, state and federal agencies implement to make it appear as though action is being taken.
Homelessness has even more factors involved in creating a subset to society. Mental health issues, substance abuse, loss of job and just bad luck can lead to living in a tent or worse. As rents become a larger part of one’s income, choices to spend on other things like food and clothing make living in your car or a shelter the only option. Also, parolees and veterans who are leaving guaranteed “housing” have a more difficult time transitioning into civilian life when an entry level apartment and it’s ancillary costs, (utilities etc.) take up more than half of a low end salary.
As more individuals and families find themselves in the ever growing tent cities in and near our urban centers and new suburban tracts are too expensive to build, our area will become something new to this generation. It is called poverty and it happens every time a government guarantees outcomes instead of staying out of the way of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and realtors.
Housing costs have soared while salaries have remained stagnant for years. California and several cities have sought to increase wages so people could provide for their basic needs which includes housing. Many families are living in crowded housing and in garages because they can not afford to find apartments or homes they can afford. When people get sick or lose a job and can’t work the first thing to go is their housing because it is the most expensive item in their home budgets.
Many of the immigrant families I work with are living precarious economic existences and we see homelessness of day laborers and low wage workers who are often not able to both pay for a roof over their head and pay for food and clothing. This is a real crisis. It is not just about those who are homeless now but how many more people are in danger of becoming homeless now.