Responding to a request for help with California’s homelessness crisis, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week saying that California’s problem is of its own making — so forget about an increase in rent assistance for poor people. That’s not a huge surprise, given that few elected officials or homelessness advocates here expected much actual help from the administration despite the sudden interest shown by President Trump in recent weeks.
The president has mostly decried the sight of homeless people (“living in … our best highways”) like a grumpy homeowner on Nextdoor complaining about having to drive by a homeless encampment yet again. Trump’s complaints continued during his fundraising sprint through the Golden State this week, as he blasted Los Angeles and San Francisco’s handling of the crisis while praising the work of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (a Republican, naturally). On Carson’s own whirlwind tour, he at least met with L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore and visited the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row. Nevertheless, Carson appeared to come away with no better understanding of the problem than before, advising Newsom that the solution wasn’t more federal aid, but rather a deregulated housing market and stronger law enforcement.
In fact, California leaders would be the first to tell Trump that the state desperately needs more housing for people at all income levels and that cutting the red tape on housing development could help with that. Deregulation could spawn a boom in market-rate housing, easing the shortages that are driving rents up and tenants out. But even if that were to happen, the state in general, and Los Angeles in particular, would still not have enough housing for low-income and homeless people.
Deregulation doesn’t magically make for-profit developers build subsidized housing for very low-income people on the brink of homelessness or people who are already homeless. That segment of the market cannot be addressed without tax credits, subsidies or other forms of financial help; otherwise, developers can’t make those projects work financially. What’s most profitable for developers is building market-rate and luxury housing. If you take away all regulations, that’s what they would want to build.
Even Trump acknowledged this back in 1987 when he appeared on the talk show “Crossfire.” According to a recent piece in the Atlantic, Trump said “You can’t … build low-cost housing at a profit and I wish you could. You can build it efficiently and economically as long as you have assistance and help from the government.”
When Newsom asked for 50,000 more housing vouchers to help low-income renters, Carson responded that there were already numerous veterans in the state with vouchers in hand, unused. Carson is right, and here’s why: Landlords prefer not to take vouchers from a homeless person of any kind. That’s partially because of the requirements the federal government imposes on landlords in order to accept vouchers. And it’s also because it’s a landlord’s market. Why run the risk of renting to a homeless person, even one who comes with guaranteed rent and a case manager? That’s why Newsom’s letter also asked the government to create a program to incentivize landlords to work with voucher holders.
Meanwhile, the state is trying to ease the rules on housing developments. A bill that exempts L.A. homeless housing projects built with state or city funding from extensive environmental review has already passed the Legislature and awaits Newsom’s signature. Other forms of deregulation, such as getting rid of zoning restrictions, have met fierce resistance from communities that don’t want more density or don’t want the character of their neighborhoods changed by large apartment buildings.
The most exasperating part of Carson’s letter is the contention that the proliferation of homeless encampments is the result of weak law enforcement. If there are 27,000 unsheltered homeless people in the city of Los Angeles and roughly 9,700 available shelter beds, then their presence on the streets is not a failure of policing. It’s a failure of housing. And what do people think happens if homeless people do get arrested and put in jail? That they stay there for 8 to 10 years? There are no long sentences for violating loitering laws. Homeless people are released within days and return to the streets.
There are no silver bullets for solving homelessness, but there is a role for the federal government to play. It’s time for the Trump administration to play it.