Marin Independent Journal, June 29, 2020
By Marisa Kendall
Advocates optimistic as several big bills make progress
With millions of Californians out of work, and experts worried huge numbers could lose their housing as a result of the pandemic, state lawmakers are focusing on the homelessness crisis with new fervor.
Legislators are attempting to push through a wide range of bills this year aimed at helping those on the streets or on the brink — an effort with particular significance in the Bay Area, where high rents and inadequate housing contributed to staggering homelessness numbers even before COVID-19 hit.
One bill would require state and local leaders to develop a plan to essentially eradicate homelessness within eight years. Another would set aside $2 billion a year for shelter operations, homelessness prevention and other related services. A third would force local officials to make it easier to build homeless shelters in their cities.
“I get an email every night in my inbox from constituents … who are asking for help, and it’s story after story after story of I lost my job, I’m still waiting for my unemployment, I’m worried I’m going to get evicted from my apartment. It’s heart-wrenching stuff,” said Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. “For me, that creates a strong sense of urgency that my colleagues are hopefully feeling as well.”
Millions of Californians have been thrown into unemployment since coronavirus shut down the economy, and experts fear the state’s population of 151,000 homeless people could grow dramatically — further taxing resources already stretched thin. One study predicted an additional 30,000 Californians could lose their homes.
A measure that’s top-of-mind for many scrambling for solutions is Assembly Bill 3269, which would force the state and local governments to develop plans to reduce homelessness 90% by Dec. 31, 2028. The bill also establishes a Homelessness Inspector General, who can take legal action against the state or any local government that doesn’t submit an adequate plan or fails to follow their submitted plan.
Christopher Martin, a legislative advocate for Housing California, which co-sponsors the measure, called it a “pretty huge bill.”
“It would be the first in the country,” he said. “It’s definitely something that’s unheard of.”
The bill passed the Assembly and is awaiting its first Senate committee hearing.
But the state budget — gutted by the coronavirus-hobbled economy — may be the biggest obstacle to passing effective laws addressing homelessness this year. Lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom had to contend with a $54 billion deficit as they started budget negotiations this spring, and cuts are expected in everything from schools to social services.
A bill Wicks co-sponsored, Assembly Bill 3300, would take $2 billion from the state’s general fund every year and divert it toward solving the homelessness crisis. The bill made it through the Assembly, but as it faces the Senate, it’s unclear where that money would come from.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you,” Wicks said. “It’s difficult in our current budget climate.”
A bill that would have secured an ongoing revenue stream to fund homeless services — something experts say is sorely needed — died in the Assembly in May. AB 1905, which would have eliminated the mortgage interest tax deduction on second homes, could have raised about $500 million a year.
But state funding for homeless residents hasn’t completely dried up. After allocating $500 million from the state budget for local governments to spend on homeless services in 2018, and $650 million in 2019, the legislature green-lighted $300 million this year.
Another top priority for lawmakers is preventing a surge of newly homeless residents by extending eviction protections for people whose finances were hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. AB 1436 would give tenants up to 15 months after the public health emergency has ended to pay back-rent. SB 1410, which cleared the Senate on Friday, would give tenants until 2034.
Many cities have halted evictions for people impacted by the virus, but some of those protections are set to expire in the coming weeks. The state’s Judicial Council also has placed a hold on pandemic-era evictions.
The Bay Area could land in dire straights if nothing is done to help struggling renters once those protections end, said Ray Bramson, chief impact officer for San Jose-based nonprofit Destination: Home.
“Our work on homelessness and ending homelessness is going to be made exponentially harder if thousands and thousands of people are displaced in the months ahead,” he said.
Another bill focused on expanding the state’s shelter capacity scored a major win this week, passing its Senate floor vote and advancing to the Assembly. SB 1138 is the second attempt by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, to overhaul zoning for homeless shelters. Currently, cities are required to designate certain areas where shelters can be built. But in practice, much of the land cities set aside is unfeasible for a homeless shelter — it’s in the middle of nowhere, cut off from transportation and other services, or it’s already occupied by other buildings, Wiener said. His bill would change that by requiring land zoned for shelter use to meet certain standards.
“We need more shelter beds, but it also needs to be more geographically equitable,” Wiener said. “It’s not OK to have an entire county with no shelter beds, or shelter beds only open in the winter. It’s not OK that a homeless person has to travel two hours to get to a shelter.”
But in a world where COVID-19 continues to make people sick, shelters and other congregate living quarters are viewed as prime locations for the virus to spread. That’s why providing homeless residents with private spaces, and backing affordable housing bills, makes more sense than focusing on homeless shelters, Bramson said.
But Wiener argues his bill — if passed — will outlast the pandemic.
“Shelter can be done in a safer way,” he said. “COVID is not going to be with us forever.”