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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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Home Featured Can we actually solve homelessness?

    Can we actually solve homelessness?

    Sure -- but we have to seriously rethink our housing, economic development, and planning policies. Oh, and raise taxes on the billionaires. Why are we not talking about this?

    We can get homeless people into housing -- but not the way we are going now

    I told Audrey Cooper, the editor of the Chronicle, that 48hills would once again participate in the ongoing media series on homelessness in San Francisco. So (perhaps a bit late) I am joining in this week’s effort.

    I think it’s a good idea for the news media in town to all get together and talk about crucial city problems, and I’m glad Cooper is pushing this and focusing attention on homelessness. So yeah, I’ve said I would be a part.

    We can get homeless people into housing -- but not the way we are going now
    We can get homeless people into housing — but not the way we are going now

    We’ve talked about what homeless families really face. We’ve talked about the root causes of homelessness. We’ve published stories by people who actually understand the problem, at the street level. We’ve talked about the media’s big problem with homeless coverage.

    And now I want to talk about why this problem isn’t going to be “solved,” despite all the media coverage, until we (and this includes the Chron’s editorial page) decide that we are willing to take the only steps that might actually make a difference.

    I feel as if the media is doing the same stories and making the same suggestions, over and over – and the problem isn’t getting any better.


    Let me start off with a story.

    When I first arrived in San Francisco, in 1981, I met a woman who worked at the Haight Ashbury Switchboard, a community resource center where I also volunteered. She was disabled and living on SSI, and had a four-year-old son.

    The two of them lived in a flat on Fell Street, and they constantly took in people who needed a place to crash; we called it the “Fell Inn.” Her rent was $175 a month for the flat; her SSI income was about $800 a month. She also got food stamps.

    She wasn’t rich, but her kid had food and clothes and birthday presents and a safe, warm, secure place to come home to after (subsidized) preschool every day. There were homeless people in San Francisco back then, but not that many; at the Switchboard, we worked to help them find temporary housing, drug treatment, medical care, food stamps, welfare … and most of them were able to find actual housing.

    An SRO hotel room was cheap enough that you could get $350 a month in General Assistance (welfare) and food stamps and stay inside and eat.

    The last time I talked my old friend, she was living on the streets. She still got her SSI check – but housing became so expensive that there was no way someone on public assistance could afford it.

    In the meantime, under Gavin Newsom, the city got rid of General Assistance and created “Care Not Cash.” No matter: SRO hotels were soon way too expensive for someone on welfare.

    So the first problem is simple: Public assistance for people who (for whatever reason) can’t make a stable living hasn’t kept up with the cost of housing. Not even close. Under Bill Clinton, welfare was radically cut. It’s really hard to get on SSI without a lawyer. Federal support for affordable housing has almost vanished. So: People live in the streets. Is this any surprise?

    Next: Roughly 70 percent of the people who are homeless in San Francisco today used to have a home in the city. They are homeless because they got evicted (or couldn’t pay the rent).

    That’s a problem we can solve. But we have to fight the real-estate industry for it, and the Chron editorial page has never been in the lead on this.

    Next: For every ten affordable housing units we build, we lose almost seven to displacement. Again: Something we can solve. Again: How much of the local news media is part of that solution?

    Next: There are two sides to the “supply and demand” equation, and one of them is demand. San Francisco has created, by public policy, huge demand for housing, mostly by encouraging tech companies to locate here. The Peninsula has done the same. And everyone seemed to assume that by magic, the supply of housing would appear – fast enough to keep up with explosive job growth and a huge influx of people coming here from somewhere else to take high-paying jobs.

    The Chron supported the Twitter Tax Break.

    None of that is Audrey Cooper’s fault – the editorial page is distinct from the news sections. But seriously, we will never solve the homeless problem until we do some things that the Chron (and the rest of the local news media who wring their hands about homelessness) ought to be advocating for:


    Stop the eviction epidemic. Every daily newspaper that ever complains about homeless people on the streets needs to make reforming the state’s tenant laws the number one priority and issue in the next governor’s race and in every race for state Legislature. As long as the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins are on the books, landlords will evict low-income tenants so they can rent to richer people. Stop those evictions and 70 percent of the people who are now on the streets might still be in their homes.

    Require developers to pay for housing. The biggest beneficiary of the Twitter tax break wasn’t Twitter – it was the Shorenstein Company, which owned the building that Twitter moved into. The building was never supposed to be used for office space, and when it was converted, the city lost $25 million in impact fees (which could have paid for a lot of housing).

    Growth should pay for growth. If you build an office complex for 10,000 employees, you should pay for the housing they will need.

    Tax the people who create the problem. A simple levy on vacant housing in the city would create tens of thousands of new units.

    Stop doing housing law backward. State Sen. Scott Wiener wants to force cities to build more housing. Instead, the state should tell cities to build less office space until there is enough housing for the new workers.

    Stop worshiping the “market.” Even if every zoning law were repealed and developers were allowed to demolish anything they wanted and build all the housing they could imaging in San Francisco, prices wouldn’t come down and people who are living on the streets wouldn’t be able to afford a place to live. That’s not how modern markets work. The minute prices softened, the financiers would stop underwriting new housing in SF. There is no way the market can solve a problem that we created with bad public policy.

    Pay up. Santa Clara County just passed a $950 million housing bond, with $700 million going to house existing homeless residence. San Francisco is a very rich city; we could afford twice that. How about every tech billionaire who made money by building a company in SF whose employs displaced existing residents and cause them to become homeless paid 10 percent of their exorbitant wealth to build housing for the homeless? If you just take the eight richest San Franciscans from the Forbes 2016 list, they are worth $89 billion. Most of that money is from tech.

    Ten percent. $8.9 billion. That’s housing for every homeless person in the city, easy. And Mark Zuckerberg will never miss a meal. There’s a pledge Mayor Lee could promote.

    Index public assistance of every kind to the cost of housing. Bring back GA; give people who are living on the streets enough money to pay the rent. Yeah, some of them will use it to buy drugs or alcohol, but a lot of people who are housed do the same thing. Housing First means first get people off the streets; the rest comes later.

    Rethink economic development. When Mayor Lee faced a high unemployment rate early in his term, he did what so many other mayors do: He tried to attract high-paying businesses to town. What that did was bring in high-paid employees from other parts of the country, who forced out existing residents, drove up costs for everyone, and created spin-off service sector jobs that pay so little that the workers can’t live here.

    Imagine if he had done the opposite. Imagine if he had done a labor-pool analysis, looked at who the unemployed San Franciscans were, what skills they had, what training they needed – and worked to create living-wage jobs for them, first?

    Take drug and alcohol addiction seriously, and accept modern methods. There is no “treatment on demand” in San Francisco. There are nowhere near enough critical psych beds, and there haven’t been for years. A wet house and safe injection sites are obviously part of the answer, and Mayor Lee hasn’t been held accountable for refusing to support those ideas.

    Take seriously the “demand” side. Why, when we have a horrible housing crisis, is San Jose about to approve a plan to let Google build office space for 20,000 workers – and nowhere near the housing they will need? At what point do was ask, as David Talbot did several years ago, “How much tech can San Francisco take?

    The crisis in homelessness isn’t going to be solved with new navigation centers. I support those efforts, but they will never be enough.

    We need to seriously rethink our housing, economic development, and planning policies. Starting now. Or we will all be doing these same stories next year, and the year after that.

    It’s the price we pay for vast economic inequality and great wealth. We can fix that, too. But not the way this city is going.


    1. Your math is laughable. The 8% would be part of the 40% and should not be added to it. The mental gymnastics that some engage in to refute this figure are hilarious.

    2. Yes, like that underutilized housing that currently serves as pie de terres and investment vehicles for the world’s elites and kleptocrats while our own citizens and residents huddle in asphalt lots under tarps??????????

    3. And if it turns out that housing in SF and the greater Bay Area is a veblen good, then building more will not lower prices, likely, the opposite. Thank you to Mr. Chamberpot for whom I must give credit for introducing me to the concept of a veblen good and how that might explain a mechanism for induced demand in our region’s housing market.

    4. The figure for “once housed in City” figure is found in the Point-in-Time count for SF (http://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017-SF-Point-in-Time-Count-General-FINAL-6.21.17.pdf). And its actually 69%.

      IF you consider that a further 8% answered that they’d been in SF less than one year (like maybe one week?!) before moving to the streets, then that brings the total up to almost 40%. From elsewhere.

      I”d be interested if someone could do a review of other cities and see if their ‘from elsewhere’ numbers are anywhere near our.

    5. I checked your linked article that says “70 percent of the people living on the streets were once housed in this city” The link gives the same 70% figure, but no source. Where do you get that figure? The Chon’s article on homelessness today describes a boy from Reno and another from Los Angeles. Please cite your sources for that 70% figure.

    6. Hi Tim,

      I’ve been reading you work for the past two years or so. I usually disagree with your opinions, but I respect your writing and acknowledge that your work resonates with a large number of SF residents. I’d appreciate if you could send me a link to think piece you’ve written on prop 13, and if that doesn’t exist, I’d appreciate if you could write one!

      RE: “growth should pay for growth”. I usually hear this term to mean things like levying impact fees on new units to pay for new [schools, roads, infra, transit]. It seems like you mean something different, that companies should pay for housing. Can you elaborate on your stance? I might not disagree with you on this, and interestingly google and FB are building housing down on the peninsula right now.

    7. While the situation of welfare, SSI, or GR being sufficient to support a housed lifestyle in SF(and for multiple people !) was true in ’81, the economic reason behind that was “White flight” had decimated SF. That flat was probably in one of the many dilapidated and crumbling Victorians I remember seeing when driving on Fell. That wasn’t sustainable. Those houses would have been red tagged or leveled. But today, they’re all renovated and likely been sold, maybe several times.

      I think focusing on homelessness is really the wrong starting point for the discussion which is really about people living in horrigle conditions in public and very visible. My contention is there would be little outcry if people living in the same circumstances werenot in sight. Hence the many calls for the “solution” being “send them somewhere”.

      The real focus should be on lack of education, poverty, mental illness/deficiency, antisocial disposition, and substance abuse. Those are intertwined in a personal knot for each affected individual. Untangling every individualized knot is a mammoth undertaking. Its not clear we even know how to do it as a large scale project. Essentially, it amounts to remaking society that was unmade over decades by Reaganomics, Friedman monetary policy, Viet Nam, Baby Boomer Me generation, and the “new” White Flight from economic support to public institutions. I admit, I agree with Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again”. But not at all in the way he envisions it. We need a Governor like Pat Brown, and even more a public that would elect him.

    8. Hi, Funny: As you would know if you have been reading my work for, oh, 37 years, I have ALWAYS been a fan of repealing Prop. 13. I still think growth should pay for growth.

    9. I work professionally in commercial real estate. Good luck (I agree but business interests won’t let it pass).

    10. But it’s dishonest to imply that growth isn’t already ‘paying for growth’ when by state law new housing is, on average, taxed at a (much) higher rate than older housing. That is my point.

      Also, I have donated to evolve CA, the prop 13 reform that appears to have the best chance of success.

    11. I had a young colleague who could afford either the outer sunset or Novato. He chose Novato for better weather, bigger yard, better schools and less crime. It didn’t take that much more time to get home from work than it did when he lived in the outer parkside, and sometimes less; and a lot more comfortable on the GG transit bus (he could read or sleep) compared to overcrowd Muni.

      Most poor people don’t want to live with other poor people. If they apply themselves and work hard, they too can be rewarded by moving to a nicer neighborhood. When rich people move to a poorer neighborhood it is called gentrification.

    12. I bought last October so I am paying the full rate. My point is that it is not a personal choice to pay lower taxes after a period of time, it is a California state law. If you don’t agree with it, work to repeal it.

    13. If you’ve owned property here for more than ~5 years, the assessed value of your prop that you pay tax on will be much lower than if your property were assessed today, thus new comers pay a much higher effective tax rate. For people here since the 70s, their prop tax bill on their 2m dollar house might be 1.5k/year, ludicrous. Someone who would buy their house today would be paying closer to 25k/year. So pay your tax bill, it is already already lower.

    14. If this were the crisis of WW2, Tim’s house would probably be home to at least 2 additional ‘in-laws’ – hopefully populated by artists instead of campers – cuz the campers should be housed by … Republicans?

    15. OF course, most of the homeless are not commuting. Anywhere. They need access to medical care, food stores, and yes, perhaps a future job. But I think transit is the key.

      After all, even if you live in the Sunset, you’ve got a 45 min trip to get to most jobs/doctors’ offices/govmint services etc. A high-speed alt could make that origination place Stockton or Modesto.

      Critics may say “ghetto-ization of the poor”. Well, what are the tent camps? Being a poor person in a rich place is better than being a rich person in a poor place, or a poor person in a poor place. But maybe I’m confused about how compassionate San Franciscans really are. I’ll know when they volunteer to host a Navigation Center on their block, or house a camper in their bldg. Until then, its all long-distance compassion (paid for by someone else safety/comfort/aesthetic).

    16. Then repeal it. It is a Statewide law that also applies to commercial properties. Also, please pay my little to no tax since you are subsidizing me. Where do I send the bill?

    17. Endless free housing for everyone who wants it – paid for by just a few (notice Tim never includes himself as a participant in these solutions, other than by offering them).

    18. I recall that most people lived with less space prior to 1950. I think when families moved to the suburbs and had homes with twice the space or more it changed expectations. Before the 50’s a family of four found 1,500 square feet luxurious. Now they think 3,000 square feet is cramped. My wife lived in a walkup in the lower east side in Manhattan where the bathtub was the kitchen table and the hallway was a bedroom. They moved to New Jersey where each child had their own room. They had more space than furniture.

    19. That’s true. I have been looking at the Census around the turn of the century. Many lived in boarding houses, were borders with a family, or there were two family households. Micro units in Modesto? Over 80% of the jobs in the Bay Area are not in San Francisco, so the commute may not need to be very far.

    20. WAY open minded people will disrupt the outmoded concepts of “private property”, “rent” and “landlords”!

    21. The other thing was that there were a lot of people living in SRO type housing . Its been estimated that by WWI, 20% of americans lived in residence hotel type accommodations – the nicer ones often with a dining room on the premises; and yes bath down the hall. Considering that half of americans lived in rural areas, that sez a lot about the urban environment. A lot of those have been torn down. .

      Seems like the best solution for homeless and poverty-level citizens is arrangements somewhat on that order. The idea of ‘micro units’ with the cost of all the added plumbing/appliances/etc just adds to the cost. Just give ’em a 10×12 or 12×12 room and share accommodations – and make it cheap enuf for SSI income level. Of course, there’s no need to place them on pricey real estate. But close to transit would be helpful. Perhaps we need to extent transit to places like Brentwood or Modesto or Stockton.

      That transit would probably be cheaper than those $900k BMR units on South Van Ness.

    22. I recently looked at a studio unit for sale. It was in a “duplex” Vict. The 3-R report said that it had seen a reduction from 10 units to 4 sometime in the 60s.

      This is a bldg in WA that was probably cut up during the War into spare apts for workers. So, by 1950, SF had the largest pop ever, and didn’t get larger til the 00’s. Meanwhile, housing units have gone up ~50% (from 265k to 385k today), while the pop from 1950 (775k) to 2015 (850k) has only increased ~10%

      Maybe we should force people to double and triple up. I know I’d start with single family dwellings, but that’s just cuz I’m a b’tard.

    23. According to the Tenant’s Union 64% of those evicted remain in SF and 80% within the Bay Area. Many stay in their neighborhood. Only 2.8% became homeless. Their sample may not be representative of all who were evicted. I would guess they are more likely to be lower income.

    24. I would not even believe the 60%. The survey was not valid. But for those who are not chronically homes but temporarily down on their luck, the 60% could be accurate and even higher.

    25. The concept has nothing to do with property tax. It say employer should provide housing.

    26. If there were free rent wouldn’t we eventually run out of units unless surrounding counties also provided free rent? And there would be homeless again. That is, unless we had a law limiting the square feet per person. We could take over large homes in Seacliff and house dozens. However, if taxpayers are going to pay their rent we should only pay if they moved to a small studio in Fresno.

    27. Prop 13 applies to employers? How so? Prop 13 is cap on prop value assessment for property taxes.

    28. True … and yet … housing that is being produced today (INCLUDING “affordable”) costs too much for the vast majority of the demographic that lives here.

      The cost of housing (or building, if you’d prefer) is like the cost of medical care – too damn expensive for the average person (even if they have insurance).

      The Fed has pumped too much money into the economy and this is what we get. Maybe the Govmint should tax it all back.

    29. There is no basis to say that if we stop those evictions and 70 percent of the people who are now on the streets might still be in their homes.

      There only basis for that statement would be if we blocked evictions for non-payment of rent. There aren’t enough no-fault evictions in San Francisco to explain 70% of the homeless.

      So if you changed the law so that a tenant could pay a small fraction of the rent, or no rent then yes… you would have fewer homeless.

    30. Its really more like 60%, since 31% admit being homeless elsewhere before coming here to flop, and another 8% admit have been here less than a year before becoming homeless (were they planning to be homeless?).

      Of course, those are just the admittals; but only about 1-in-6 cite Eviction for their homeless plight.

      If you believe one needs $150k a year to live in SF, not many of us will remain for long.

    31. So many stories about the homeless in San Francisco are heavy on complaints. It is refreshing to read one that includes some suggestions for remedies.

    32. What’s wrong with that concept? It applies to employers not long-time property owners.

    33. The high-paying business were attracted by the existing talented labor pool. They did the labor-pool analysis. Most young talented people were attracted by lifestyle not the job. Blue collar and white collar middle-class jobs have been leaving the City for decades. No amount of training and job creation will bring them back.

    34. According to the rules landlords can’t re-rent Ellis or OMI units. So they don’t evict low-income tenants so they can rent to richer people. In any case, how do you know the income of Ellis and OMI evictees? I am sure that long-term tenants in rent controlled units are evicted because of rent control. But we really don’t have a good measure of their demographics. Many may be high income. The highest percent of these evictions are in White, educated, more affluent neighborhoods with rising property values. There are hardly any in the Bayveiw.

      I would take the data on who the homeless are with a grain of salt. It is based on a non-representative sample of 1,000 of 7,000 homeless. The organization that did the survey is a social advocacy group. They did not reveal the method, the interview schedule, operational definitions, or the qualifications or training of the surveyors.

      There is no basis to say that if we stop those evictions and 70 percent of the people who are now on the streets might still be in their homes. That is total nonsense. Even the survey done by the Tennant’s Union of their clients, not representative and geared to the lower income, don’t show that. Some stay in the neighborhood, some change SF neighborhoods, and some leave the City.

    35. Interesting to note: BARF and the YIMBYs were nowhere to be found at last Monday’s Land Use hearing where the legislation to end illegal OMI evictions was heard. Dozens upon dozens of community members and housing rights organizations spoke. No sign of Sonja Trauss or Laura Foot Clark and the barfbots and yimbots though. Why? Because they and their organisations are wholly funded by venture capitalists, developers, realtors and those who profit from evictions.

    36. But you miss the point: There are areas in the US with NO housing crisis that have homeless populations. More homes fewer homeless people.

      The problem is our economic system and a ridiculous health systems that seems to ignore mental health altogether and only seems to exist to make very wealthy people even more wealthy.

      And that same economic system is such that the only way we can reduce unemployment is by giving money to billionaires. Oh and those billionaires pressure governments and employees to accept less money for more work or more risk because those billionaires are pigs.

      Hell, we can no longer help a single mom with 8 kids whose house burned down without giving money to billionaires who own GoFundMe and other similar platforms.

      Sorry, the problem isn’t the homeless. It is the oligarchy and the wealthy.

    37. You are obviously driven by emotion and an irrational devotion to (failed) ideology rather than rational, fact-based analysis.

      Accordingly, my comments are not intended to convince you, but rather appeal to more open-minded readers who are actually interested in solving the problem of housing scarcity and, therefore, homelessness.

    38. No, it just shows up your facile supply-and-demand argument to a very complex issue as a false analogy.

    39. According to your sick/facile/ad nauseum “logic”, its therefore simply a matter of reallocating surplus housing from elsewhere where there is an abundance of it — say Detroit — to San Francisco/Bay Area and the problem is solved.

    40. I love when long time property owners make statements like “growth should pay for growth” while they have sweet prop 13 deals so they basically pay little to no tax and everyone else is subsidizing them.

    41. Yes, the homeless crisis nationwide is due to real and imaginary policies in San Francisco that supposedly restrict housing.

      Let’s try this: Presidio Heights and Sea Cliff have the some of the lowest density in the city. Let’s put your ugly highrises there first. It is only fair.

    42. Christ, give it a rest. You’ve made your build-till-we-choke argument clear about three hundred comments ago. Obviously there are other arguments to be made as well.

    43. Tim,

      Just a little, but necessary, correction (IN ALL CAPS) to your faulty text/”analysis”:

      “San Francisco has created, by public policy, A huge SHORTAGE OF housing, mostly by DISCOURAGING AND PENALIZING ITS CREATION OVER THE PAST 40+ YEARS.”

      This chronic and continuing stifling of production is the fundamental reason that housing is so expensive and is the underlying cause of homelessness.

      Accordingly, “People live in the streets. Is this any surprise?”

      Apparently to you it still is.

      We need to encourage and accelerate housing production throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area — and not “double down” on your “ever-increasing/never-ending subsidy approach” that will never produce adequate amounts of housing and will never solve the housing crisis.

      True housing advocates and activists would start with this first principle and then proceed from there — Production first and Subsidy — only to the extent necessary — second.

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