Opinion: I’ve covered California’s homeless since before the word was used. This is what I learned

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In 1980, I reported on Sacramento’s “public inebriates.” Most of them, a few hundred in all, lived in flophouse hotels. But some slept “in the weeds.”

I walked the wooded banks of the rivers that converge in the capital and found just a few dozen spots where men had bedded down on simple mats of cardboard or newspaper. There were no tents or camps.

The word “homeless” was rarely used then. It didn’t appear in my article for the Sacramento Bee.

By 1982, amid a recession, newcomers who had lost their jobs began to appear in the weeds. In 1985, after three years of reporting on the subject, I co-authored one of the first books on contemporary homelessness. In 1988, I spent a week walking 10 miles of Sacramento riverbank and found 125 elaborate camps. This was new.

I returned to Sacramento more recently amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the tent cities in the woods along the rivers stretched as far as the eye could see, rivaling those photographed by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. The most recent federally mandated survey found more than 5,000 unsheltered homeless people in the city.

I can trace several of our modern “doom loops” to the 1980s. The roots of our continuing struggles with police brutality and sexual violence were present in stories I covered then. Meaningful gun control measures could have prevented the proliferation of mass shootings over the past four decades. And pro-housing policies could have negated the presence of today’s tent cities.

I’ve long despaired about the homelessness crisis in particular. In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election, I blamed conservatives for abandoning the poor. I thought my journalism and others’ could change policy, perhaps even inspire a New Deal-style response equal to the challenge. Such was my naiveté.

The blame, I eventually realized, also belongs to people we might call “good liberals.”

By 1980, baby boomers were in their first decade of homeownership in places such as Silicon Valley and the New York City suburbs of Westchester County. They rapidly became NIMBYs, vehemently opposing affordable housing in their neighborhoods. Many were Clinton Democrats. They went on to plant “Black Lives Matter” signs in their lawns. The message was hollow: We support you; just don’t live near us.

Boomers, especially if they were white, got to buy houses, and then they zoned everyone else out. They watched their lawns and home equity grow. I was one of them.

In 1981, at 24, I bought my first house. At a price of $70,000, it cost less than three times my annual salary of $25,000, which was roughly the median income in Sacramento County. If adjusted for inflation alone, the home’s value would be $218,000 four decades later, and my salary $78,000.

The median household income in the county today is about $84,000, not far from what inflation would predict. But Zillow estimates that my former home is now worth $578,000, more than double what can be attributed to inflation. My annual wages would need to be more than $190,000 to afford the house as easily as I did then. This is what the children and grandchildren of boomers face.

Much was made of the more than 60 housing bills passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. The legislation will streamline approval of housing in cities that aren’t meeting their goals, limit the use of environmental laws to block affordable housing, allow developers to build more densely when they include affordable units and let faith-based organizations build housing on their land, among other measures.

But it’s not nearly enough. Politicians have to get more aggressive in wresting control of zoning from cities.

Starting in 2018, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) repeatedly tried to advance bills that would have overridden local zoning to allow taller, denser apartment buildings near public transit and job centers. His fellow Democrats blocked them.

Even less ambitious housing-friendly bills often face a similar fate in Sacramento. Last year, state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) proposed legislation that would have eased approval of small “starter homes” in areas restricted to single-family housing. That provision was stripped out of the bill.

It’s the same story on the East Coast. Last year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed legislation to override local opposition to housing. Fierce blowback came from largely white, relatively affluent “good liberals” in places such as Westchester County, where Joe Biden got 67.6% of the vote in 2020. As in California, Democrats opposed to the plan used code language: “local control,” “overcrowding,” “traffic.”

New York state Assemblyman Phil Ramos cut through the euphemisms: “It doesn’t matter what kind of incentive you give them,” he said at a rally. “A wealthy community, before they allow Black and brown people in, they’ll walk away from any amount of money.” Hochul’s plan was defeated in the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

Republicans, for their part, haven’t gotten any better on these issues. A podcast by the right-wing Cicero Institute suggested that instead of calling people “homeless,” we revert to words like “vagrants,” “bums” and “tramps.”

Such vilification is proved off the mark by the fact that poverty-stricken Mississippi has relatively few homeless people. Los Angeles County has six times as many unhoused people per capita as metropolitan Jackson. Why? An average apartment in the Mississippi capital rents for around $900, compared with $2,750 in L.A.

The Biden administration recently released a report calling for more housing, but the feds have limited power here. “Ultimately,” the report stated, “meaningful change will require State and local governments to reevaluate the land-use regulations that reduce the housing supply.” That largely means undoing single-family zoning.

Sen. Wiener’s push for apartment buildings in transit corridors had it right. Would this make parts of Los Angeles a little more like Manhattan? We can only hope so. If New York City is any guide, it would mean more vibrant neighborhoods and higher property values.

As the struggle over housing continues, tent cities have been normalized in California and beyond. Last year, a student of mine looked puzzled when I explained that homelessness of this kind hasn’t always existed. I couldn’t be frustrated with her, though: This crisis has lingered — and worsened — for more than twice as long as she’s been alive. It didn’t have to.

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