California Senate makes big move for affordable housing
A homeless man sits at his street side tent along the Interstate 110 freeway along downtown Los Angeles' skyline on Thursday, May 10. Thousands of homeless people sleep on the streets of Los Angeles County while many shelter beds go empty. Southern California Public Radio station KPCC reports problems ranging from bedbugs and rats to harassment and lax medical care can make shelters unpalatable. | Richard Vogel / AP

In a dramatic move to ramp up California’s ongoing efforts to end homelessness and increase low- and moderate-income housing, a group of state senators last week unveiled a new package of measures to build on important housing legislation passed last year and harness some of this year’s unexpected extra revenue.

When Gov. Jerry Brown released his revised $137.6 billion General Fund spending proposal for 2018-19 earlier this month, he projected a surplus of nearly $9 billion in revenue—some $3 billion higher than had been projected in January.

Brown’s new “May Revision” opens the way for several weeks of intensive activity in the state Senate and Assembly, as well as negotiations between legislature and governor, ahead of a mid-June deadline to finalize the budget.

Warning, as he has before, that leaner times may lie ahead, Brown called for using the new funds to further strengthen the state’s reserves, while earmarking billions of dollars in one-time surplus spending on fighting homelessness, improving mental health services, and rebuilding infrastructure.

Specifically, he proposed that $359 million in 2018-19 funds be dedicated to the fight against homelessness.

But state Senators Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who drafted the new proposal, projected a much broader vision at a May 16 press conference. There, they called for dedicating some $5 billion over four years to a far-reaching program addressing the state’s overall housing and homelessness crisis. The program would add one-time surplus amounts to funds already committed to housing through legislation passed last year and signed by Brown.

Skinner, chair of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee, told the press conference their proposal would “create a circumstance where we are capturing some of the one-time-only hard revenues, augmenting what’s in the May Revise, augmenting those actions we’ve taken in the past, so that we have for the first time possibly ever, a very sizeable and significant investment to address California’s homelessness crisis and affordable housing crisis.”

Beall, who heads the Housing and Transportation Committee, declared it would be “unconscionable” not to use the surplus funds “to house the growing numbers of seniors, families, people with untreated mental illness, who spend night after night on the streets. If not now, then when? And I say we do the right thing and help them now.”

They were joined at the press conference by six other senators, all Democrats and all chairs of Senate committees. The proposal is also supported by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Some $2 billion would be spent on affordable housing construction, and another $2 billion would fund programs to address short- and long-term homelessness. The rest of the funds would come from Sen. Atkins’ Senate Bill 2, enacted last year to use recording fees on real estate documents and property transactions to build affordable housing and combat homelessness.

California, with some 135,000 homeless people—up 14 percent in the last year alone—has one of the country’s highest rates of homelessness, and the rate is rising here while it has generally declined elsewhere. And nearly 30 percent of renters pay over half their income for housing.

Sen. Richard Roth, from Riverside, chairs the Budget subcommittee dealing with housing. Noting that he himself spent 32 years in the military, he pointed out that while California houses 10 percent of the country’s veterans overall, it has 30 percent of its homeless veterans.

“Surprisingly, they say that in Los Angeles, 76 percent of the homeless veterans are unsheltered,” Roth said. “That is outrageous!” He said Skinner and Beal’s “innovative proposal” together with earlier legislative and administrative actions, “will go a long way toward solving that crisis … Frankly, it’s the least we can do for those who have given so much to all of us.”

Sen. Jim Bradford, who represents parts of Los Angeles County, called for examining priorities: “Everything we deal with in this building is important, but sometimes we have the priorities wrong. I think some of us are more concerned at times with saving the tree than we are with the person who sleeps under the tree. Now it’s time to make sure those people under the tree have a house and a roof over their head.”

The rising population of homeless youth was Sen. Scott Weiner’s focus. Weiner, based in San Francisco, said his city’s Unified School District has 2,200 homeless students, while one in 10 California State University students, and one in five L.A. Community College students, are homeless. “It is a moral failure that we have allowed that to happen,” he said. “We have to get these kids off the streets and get them on track.”

If passed, a bond measure the legislature put on the November 2018 ballot could also provide $4 billion for affordable housing. The measure, passed as SB 3 in last year’s housing package, was authored by Sen. Beall. The California Housing Loans, Grants, and Programs and Veterans’ Loans Bond would provide funding for a variety of programs helping low-to-moderate income people and veterans purchase homes or find affordable rentals and help fund housing for farm workers.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.