White House says it knows how to cut San Francisco’s homeless population in half

Originally published in The Sacramento Bee on September 16, 2019


President Donald Trump’s advisers say in a new report that California could cut San Francisco’s homeless population in half by making the city’s building codes more like the ones in development-friendly Arizona.

The report, called the State of Homelessness in America, urges California and other Democratic-majority states to deregulate their housing industries in the interest of building more affordable homes.

“The president’s very concerned with the homelessness crisis in California,” said Council of Economic Advisers acting chairman Tom Philipson. “The Trump administration is working to reverse the failed policies of the past.”

The council released the report a day before Trump is scheduled to visit California. It also says Los Angeles’ unsheltered homeless population would fall by 40 percent if the city follows its recommendations. The report offered broad criticisms of California housing policies but did not offer a specific pathway to fixing what it considers “heavy regulation.”

Democratic leaders expressed skepticism about the White House report and its timing. They’ve been working to free up money for shelters and affordable housing in addition to nudging cities to allow more construction.

“I’m suspicious of their findings, and even more suspicious of their motives,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is chairman of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s council on homelessness. “It’s easy to pop in from thousands of miles away and point fingers, but there are many reasons why housing is expensive in California. Yes, we know we need to make it easier for affordable housing developers to be able to build, but there’s a lot more to it.”

The White House notes four of the five U.S. cities with the highest rates of homelessness are in California, and nearly half of all unsheltered homeless people are found in the Golden State.

California was home to about 130,000 homeless people in January 2018, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The report contends that other warm-weather states, such as Florida and Arizona, have “low” homelessness rates in contrast to California.

The Trump administration blames California’s crisis partly on police tolerance of people “sleeping on the street.”

Trump’s solution to the problem: undoing regulations of the housing market that are driving up home prices and encouraging local law enforcement to crack down on “street activities.”

The document describes problematic housing regulations as rent control, “excessive energy and water-efficiency mandates,” maximum-density allowances, historic preservation codes and “cumbersome” permitting processes.

Relaxing those restrictions, the council argues, would ease burdens to construction and lead to lower housing costs.

“Deregulating housing markets with excessive regulations would result in major reductions in homelessness in a number of key metropolitan areas,” Philipson said. “Homelessness would fall by 54 percent in San Francisco. It would fall by 40 percent in Los Angeles.”

The president’s team has teased a policy rollout addressing homelessness over the last week. Aides to the president have held high-level meetings on the issue, and a fact-finding team has been on the ground to examine the problem firsthand.

Elizabeth Benson Forer, CEO of the Venice Family Clinic, said she met with one of the administration officials who was touring Los Angeles last week to learn more about the homelessness crisis there.

The network of health clinics and “street medicine teams” that Forer runs serves more than 27,000 low-income people, about 4,500 of whom are people experiencing homelessness. Successfully combating homelessness in California “will depend not only on funding for homeless programs but on all programs that serve those in need – from affordable housing to the continuation and extension of Medi-Cal coverage,” Forer said in a statement.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, one of Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic opponents, echoed the need for a more wholistic approach in a statement Tuesday. The former California attorney general said the White House’s suggestion to enlist the help of law enforcement “is counterproductive and ignores the fact that long-term solutions are required to successfully reduce homelessness.”

“If the administration is serious about addressing this issue, they would not be pushing for $9.6 billion in cuts to critical Federal housing programs while rolling back Obama-era policies designed to increase shelter and housing for vulnerable communities, including our veterans,” Harris continued.

The glossy 41-page White House report also clashes with policies proposed by the state’s Democratic leaders. The Legislature last week passed a proposed law that would cap rent increases, for instance, and Newsom has indicated he would sign it.

The governor called on Trump to provide more federal aid and housing vouchers on Monday.

In a letter, Newsom urged the president to provide 50,000 vouchers for low-income Californians and to increase the value of those subsidies to account for high rental costs in big cities. He also asked Trump to launch a program that would reward landlords who work with voucher holders.

“I hope he’ll take very seriously our call for 50,000 housing vouchers and consider the most important part of that request, and that is to do rent modifications based upon cost of living, which is the biggest challenge the state faces as it relates to the existing allocation of vouchers,” Newsom said at a news conference on Monday.

Newsom added that Trump could eliminate veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness in California and substantially reduce family homelessness by approving the vouchers.

”That’s a pretty remarkable opportunity if they’re sincere in their desires,” Newsom said. “If they’re insincere, and this is, god forbid, about something else — politics not good policy — then they’ll reject it outright.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration boasts in its report that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has “improved federal homeless assistance programs by providing flexibility for communities to utilize service participation requirements and more strongly encouraging self-sufficiency.”

The Trump administration’s efforts to examine homelessness are likely to form the basis for a new line of attack from the president targeting California, a state with which he has repeatedly feuded over immigration policy, environmental regulations and issues of federal power.

The report differentiates between sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and then compares the rates of unsheltered homelessness in warm-weather states.

According to their findings, rates are higher on the West Coast than in more conservative states, such as Arizona and Florida; and four of the five American cities with the highest rates of homelessness – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Rosa, and San Jose – are in California.

Philipson declined to comment on reports that the administration had sent aides to California to look at federal facilities as potential housing units for the homeless. He also declined to respond to Newsom’s statement to the president on Monday.

Emily Cadei contributed to this report.

This story was updated to include Sen. Kamala Harris’ reaction to the White House report.