I have been treating the homeless in California since before the word was used. This is what I learned

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

I have been treating the homeless in California since before the word was used. This is what I learned

Op-Ed, California Politics

Dale Maharidge

April 7, 2024

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

I walked along the wooden banks of the rivers that converge in the capital and found only a few dozen places where men had laid 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.

In 1982, during a recession, newcomers who had lost their jobs began appearing 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 walked 10 miles along the Sacramento riverfront for a week and found 125 elaborate camps. This was new.

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

I can trace some of our modern doom loops back to the 1980s. The roots of our ongoing struggle against police brutality and sexual violence were present in the stories I told then. Meaningful gun control measures could have prevented the proliferation of mass shootings over the past four decades. And pro-housing policies could have wiped out the presence of today’s tent cities.

I have been particularly desperate about the homelessness crisis for a long time. In the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s election, I blamed conservatives for abandoning the poor. I thought my journalism and others could change policy and perhaps even inspire a New Deal-style response that could rise to the challenge. Find some of my naivety.

Ultimately, I realized that the blame also lies with people we might call good liberals.

In 1980, baby boomers were in their first decade of homeownership in places like Silicon Valley and New York City’s Westchester County suburbs. They quickly became NIMBYs and strongly opposed affordable housing in their neighborhoods. Many were Clinton Democrats. They then posted 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, were allowed to buy houses, and then they left everyone else out of the equation. They saw their lawns and the equity in their homes grow. I was one of them.

In 1981, at the age of 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 about the average income in Sacramento County. Adjusted for inflation alone, the house would be worth $218,000 four decades later, and my salary would be $78,000.

The median household income in the county is currently 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 salary would have to be over $190,000 to afford the house as easily as I did back then. This is what the children and grandchildren of boomers face.

Much attention was paid to the more than sixty housing bills passed by the legislature and signed by the government. Gavin Newsom last year. The legislation will streamline housing approvals in cities that don’t meet their targets, limit the use of environmental laws to block affordable housing, allow developers to build closer together if they include affordable units and let faith-based organizations build housing on their land, they include other measures.

But it’s not nearly enough. Politicians must become more aggressive in wresting control of zoning from cities.

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

Even less ambitious housing-friendly bills often meet a similar fate in Sacramento. Last year, Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) proposed legislation that would have facilitated the approval of small starter homes in areas limited to single-family homes. That provision has been removed from the bill.

It’s the same story on the East Coast. Last year the governor of New York. Kathy Hochul proposed legislation to override local opposition to housing. The fierce pushback came from largely white, relatively affluent, good liberals in places like Westchester County, where Joe Biden got 67.6% of the vote in 2020. As in California, Democrats who opposed the plan used coded 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 let black and brown people in, will walk away from any amount of money. Hochul’s plan was defeated in the Democratic-dominated legislature.

Republicans, in turn, have not improved on these issues. A podcast from the right-wing Cicero Institute suggested that instead of calling people homeless, we fall back on words like bums, bums, and hobos.

Such vilification appears to be unfounded due to the fact that poverty-stricken Mississippi has relatively few homeless people. Los Angeles County has six times as many unhoused people per capita as metro Jackson. Why? An average apartment in Mississippi’s capital costs about $900, compared to $2,750 in LA

The Biden administration recently released a report calling for more housing, but the FBI has limited power here. Ultimately, the report said, meaningful change will require state and local governments to reevaluate land use regulations that reduce housing supply. This largely means that the zoning plan for single-family homes will be abolished.

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

As the battle for housing continues, tent cities have become normalized in California and beyond. Last year, a student of mine looked surprised when I explained that this child’s homelessness did not always exist. But I couldn’t get frustrated with her: this crisis has been going on for more than twice as long as she has been alive. That wasn’t necessary.

Dale Maharidge is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book

American Doom Loop: Dispatches from a Troubled Nation, 1980s and 20s

from which this has been adapted.


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