Housing the unsheltered in office space vacated due to pandemic would help far more in less time than new construction
Thomas D. Elias | Contributor
The spate of heavy rainstorms that swept across California during January’s early weeks exposed a lot of problems: weak bridges, inadequate reservoir capacity, poor drainage on many city streets and helplessness in the face of inevitable mudslides, to name just a few.
The rains revealed nothing more starkly than the failure so far of California’s many programs to help most of the homeless, a failure that exposed how useless most of the more than $11 billion allocated for homeless aid over the last year has been. One video, shot in the stormy early morning hours of Jan. 5, says a lot about this (you can see it on YouTube at youtu.be/xBuOZExJZ8Y).
The video shows homeless individuals huddled in sleeping bags with water lapping at them. It shows people huddled under soaked blankets and in barely covered alcoves leading to building entrances. Most of all, it shows that in one city with a budget of tens of millions for “homeless services,” no one served the unhoused when they needed it most. The official death toll among California’s more than 172,000 homeless was just two, both killed by branches that the storms knocked off trees and into their tents.
No one knows how many more might perish from aftereffects of extreme exposure to cold and wet conditions. Many Californians write off the state’s homeless as some kind of human detritus because many are mentally ill or suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and are often not very functional. That doesn’t matter, as no one deserves the misery inflicted on the homeless this winter.
Some of California’s most prominent and powerful politicians often say they recognize this. New Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, whose city has more than 56,000 homeless residents, declared a state of emergency over their situation on her first day in office last month. She wants to humanely eliminate some tent cities, but so far has moved only a few dozen people indoors.
Gov. Gavin Newsom put more than $10 billion for homeless services into the current state budget and billions more into his next planned budget. California has more homeless people today than when the 2022-23 budget passed and far fewer shelter beds than before the coronavirus pandemic.
One thing you can safely bet: No executive heading any of the more than 50 state and local government programs for which big money is ticketed slept in the rain Jan. 5. One state report indicates this year’s $10 billion allocation is a pittance compared to what it will cost to house all the currently homeless. That assessment held that it will take more than 30 times as much, or $300 billion.
This sum could house many thousands, but there is no sign even that much money can end the problem. At today’s reported average cost of more than $830,000 per one-bedroom apartment, it would pay for less than 3,600 new one-bedroom units, far from enough to permanently shelter even most of today’s homeless. Yet use of hotels and motels bought up by state and local governments as temporary and permanent quarters for the unhoused did not solve the problem.
Here’s an idea not yet in the anti-homelessness portfolio: Use part of the huge government allocations to buy or lease some of the hundreds of millions of square feet of vacant office and commercial space that now dogs many California property owners, the result of changes in working conditions for white collar workers. Studies indicate about one-third of the state’s former office workers will now likely operate permanently from their homes.
So far, California has seen only about 11,000 conversions to residential units permitted from that vast space, makeovers state law now says can go forward without zoning changes. How about using some of the billions allocated to homelessness for this? It would allow far more units and take much less time than new construction.
Just as it’s time for a complete rethink of the overall housing crisis, where state officials announce new and different need estimates every few months, it’s also time for this kind of fresh thinking about housing the homeless. While no one knows when or where the next big chain of storms may strike hardest, it’s impossible to overstate the misery they’ll cause if California continues hosting as many unhoused individuals as it now does.
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