Politics & Government

Are liberals to blame for California’s homeless? GOP solutions resemble Newsom’s

Political leaders from both sides of the aisle have been trading blame over California’s surging homeless population since President Trump kicked off a round of finger-pointing during his September visit to the state.

“We can’t have our cities going to hell,” the president said as he threatened to slap San Francisco with environmental violations for its homeless waste. His administration, meanwhile, issued a report suggesting liberal policies were to blame.

Conservatives, California Gov. Gavin Newsom countered recently, “don’t have the right prescription to solve” the crisis in the state, which has seen a spike in homeless populations over the past year, particularly in big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even though they say they’re at odds, political leaders of both parties are actually pursuing similar policies on the ground in California to help people get off the streets, and eventually, transition into permanent housing.

The Democrats just ask for more money,” Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield told reporters in Washington, D.C. on the heels of Trump’s visit, contrasting that with moves San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer has made to address the problem.

Democrats’ policies do involve spending more for short-term shelters and longer term affordable housing and don’t include a bigger law enforcement role, as Trump has advocated. But they also include cutting local regulations that slow housing construction and drive up costs, the types of policies Republican leaders are endorsing to address the state’s housing shortage.

In Sacramento on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill aimed at preventing cities from making it harder to build housing. It would prohibit what’s known as “downzoning,” when local jurisdictions reduce the number of units that can be built in a particular space. It would also limit cities’ ability to impose new building standards that drive up construction costs.

Earlier in the week, he signed a measure capping yearly rent increases at 5 percent plus inflation.

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Housing supply and affordability are central to reducing California’s homeless population over the long term, said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “If you have more people than you have places for people to live a bunch of the people are not going to have places to live, it’s that simple,” Berg added.

By the state’s own estimate, it needs to build millions more homes to keep up with population growth in recent decades and contain both home prices and rent increases.

That reality is now resonating across the state. The same day Newsom signed the “downzoning” law, the city of San Diego unveiled a new homelessness action plan. Among other things, it calls for $1.9 billion worth of investment over a decade to expand access to supportive housing, services and rental assistance for homeless people.

The proposal, which has yet to be evaluated by the city council, comes on the heels of a push by Mayor Faulconer to create new shelter space for the city’s homeless population as well as more mental health and addiction services. Faulconer has also come out in support of a 2020 ballot measure that would raise San Diego’s hotel occupancy tax and use part of the proceeds to help fund its homeless response.

And in the Central Valley, the Republican-dominated Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors voted last week to authorize negotiations with the Salvation Army to open a new homeless shelter in Modesto. The county also voted to establish a Division of Housing and Homeless Services within its Community Services Agency.

Newsom’s homeless commission, which is led by Democrats Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, visited Modesto last month to get a look at the programs in the Republican-led county.

Steinberg at the meeting noted “all the impressive, impressive work we have heard here today.”

Even McCarthy, who complained in his D.C. press conference that Democrats were making it harder to tackle the homeless crisis, convened a forum in Bakersfield in September in which he emphasized that, “The only way to solve this problem is to bring everyone together.”

The House Minority Leader also talked about the need for both short-term solutions, like providing additional shelter beds, and longer-term ones. Citing local voters’ approval of a sales tax increase in 2018, McCarthy said that, “with Measure N funding going forward, this resource can help to actually develop a long-term facility.”

Berg, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the recent moves by elected officials across the state, on both the short- and long-term responses, is “a good sign that, despite some of the partisan sniping going on, it looks like people are really trying to make some progress,” said Berg. “If people focus on what they agree on … then you can make progress.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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