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Housing shortages and NIMBYism driving homeless crisis, says new report

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“While voters are frustrated by the lack of places for the homeless to go, many vocally oppose locating homeless shelters in their own neighborhoods”

Homeless man sits on railing outside of San Francisco church. Photo by Joe Benning

Homelessness across the nine Bay Area counties is getting worse not only due to a dearth of development, but because most counties neglect affordable housing while allowing NIMBY interests to scare off potential solutions.

Those are some of the conclusions that the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a think tank “focusing on economic and policy issues facing the Bay Area,” came to in their report on the homeless crisis released Wednesday, titled Bay Area Homelessness: A Regional View of a Regional Crisis.

The report covers homeless issues across all nine counties in hopes of offering workable solutions for many different related communities.

Institute researchers credit consultations with “35 experts and practitioners, including county and city officials, nonprofit providers, philanthropic leaders, healthcare professionals, advocates, and homeless individuals themselves” for informing their conclusions.

The broad gist of the results is that the Bay Area is not only failing to build enough housing but that most cities specifically neglect the sort of housing that would best address the problem.

A few highlights:

  • The homeless crisis grows worse even as we invest more and more to fix it: “Between 2011 and 2017, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area slowly grew. This trend occurred even as the region was growing its inventory of homelessness support assets, including permanent supportive housing units and rapid re-housing programs. While jurisdictions have been successful in moving more homeless individuals and families into stable housing, a larger number of people are experiencing homelessness for the first time.”
  • The burden does not fall equally across all demographics: “The Bay Area’s homeless population is disproportionately comprised of single, male minorities over the age of 25. A relatively high percentage (25 percent) identify as LGBTQ+. The Bay Area’s homeless population is also mostly comprised of long-time residents: 56 percent have lived in their county for 10 or more years.”
  • Housing shortages are, of course, a major contributor to the crisis: “Faced with the combined shortage of deeply subsidized housing units and short-term shelters and transitional units, the majority of the region’s homeless population goes unsheltered each night. This dynamic has forced Bay Area cities and counties to grapple with homelessness on dual fronts.”
  • To be most effective, development needs to focus on the right kind of housing: “Addressing homelessness at its earliest stages requires more effective diversion and prevention programs to keep individuals and families in their homes. An expanded housing supply available to extremely low-income households can be achieved through incentives targeted to units reserved for households earning between zero and 30 percent of area median income.”
  • Cities are building more but neglecting affordable housing: “While the region permitted 99 percent of its market-rate units recommended by its 2007-2014 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) targets—the process by which the state allocates future housing needs to regions—it only permitted 29 percent of the very-low-income units for households earning less than 50 percent of area median income.”
An apparently homeless man sits in front of a cyclone fence, with Muni buses behind it. Photo by David Tran Photo/Shutterstock
  • NIMBYism is in full effect: “While voters and public officials are frustrated by the lack of places for the homeless to go, many vocally oppose locating homeless shelters in their own neighborhoods. In March 2018, residents in San Francisco’s affluent Forest Hill neighborhood blocked an affordable-housing project that would have included permanent supportive housing units for the homeless. A San Jose plan to shelter up to 80 homeless people in three ‘tiny home’ villages took over a year to pass in the face of neighborhood opposition.”
  • Homelessness is regional, but solutions tend to be city-bound: “Until very recently, homelessness was considered the problem of individual cities and counties. For a metropolitan region like the Bay Area, which is divided into nine counties and 101 cities, this approach fails to meet the needs of an intraregionally mobile homeless population.”
  • To address the breadth of the problem, the state should be more involved: “The state could play an active role in homelessness solutions by consolidating its efforts into a State Homeless Services Agency that can offer flexible funding for housing construction and services.” Right now California promotes homeless relief through seven different state outlets with wildly different funding sources.

The full report is available here.