A few days after Governor Jerry Brown delivered his proposed state budget, 60-year-old Barbara Brown died of exposure on a Los Angeles skid row street during an El Niño storm.
More than the coincidence of a common last name links the two individuals. As a terrible storm killed this unfortunate woman, Gov. Brown once again ignored California’s worsening housing crisis and instead called on the state to squirrel away $2 billion on top of required state reserves to save the excess funds for an economic “rainy day.”
For homeless Barbara Brown, every day was a “rainy day.” The fact that more than 100,000 Californians are living on the streets, that millions more are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and that soaring housing prices deter companies from investing in California, all seem to be lost on our Governor. Orange County is once again one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S.
Every time housing prices increase, so does homelessness. As reported February 4 in Voice of OC, “The number of deaths among Orange County's homeless population has skyrocketed over the past decade, driven largely by a surge in fatal overdoses, according to a Voice of OC analysis of county Sheriff-Coroner data.
“From 2005 through the end of 2015, the annual number of homeless deaths in the county tripled -- going from 53 per year to 164, the data show. And most of this startling jump in deaths occurred while the number of homeless has actually gone down in recent years, according to county estimates based largely on homeless counts.”
According to the Orange County Register in a recent article, “Those people died on streets and in public places such as strip malls, the Santa Ana riverbed, the armories, train and bus stations, parked vehicles and railroad tracks. Some died in hospitals, others in motels and other people’s residences.”
The county’s homeless population was estimated last year to be about 4,500 people, and health experts expect the death rate in that group to continue to rise. The homeless population does not discriminate; it is made up of men, women, veterans, children sleeping outside, in cars, in rundown motels, with relatives, and, if available, shelters.
WHAT IS THE GOVERNOR THINKING?
A lifelong public servant, what is Gov. Brown thinking? Asked by a reporter whether surplus state funds could be invested in affordable homes to help address these increasing housing and health issues, the Governor retorted that the budget “is not a candy store.”
A candy store!
When a safe and affordable home can literally mean the difference between life and death, such flippant comments reflect, at best, an insensitivity to those affected by California’s housing affordability crisis. At worst, they show an administration willing to let the potential of a widespread human disaster grow worse.
Meanwhile, rents for apartments – the primary shelter for most lower income families and individuals - have skyrocketed statewide. Orange County and Los Angeles are at the top of the most-expensive-places-to-live list. After climbing almost 5 percent in 2015, Orange County apartment rents are expected to increase 4.5 percent more this year to an average “effective” rent of $1,900 per month, according to a report in the OC Register. But even inland regions such as Riverside and San Bernardino counties are now seeing rents rise as more people move into those lower cost areas.
Unfortunately, even though business leaders including the Orange County Business Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group have been sounding the alarm bells for years — naming workforce housing affordability as a major threat to the state’s economy – action has been hard to come by. In fact, state investment in affordable housing has plummeted, due primarily to the elimination of redevelopment agencies in Brown’s third term, and the expiration of state bonds that leveraged federal dollars and drew billions in job-creating private investment to the state. According to Chapman University’s annual economic forecast, California is viewed as the most business unfriendly state in the U.S.
Attempts to increase funding have been made, only to be thwarted by Gov. Brown at the end of the proverbial day. When the Legislature passed AB 35 (Chiu) in 2015, homeless advocates, affordable home builders, and business leaders alike were encouraged that the expansion of the successful state tax credits credit program would help get affordable developments off the ground and leverage $1 billion in federal money that we as a state are now leaving on the table.
A DIFFERENT IDEA
Unfortunately, Governor Brown has a different idea. In his veto message for AB 35, the Governor wrote, “Tax credits, like new spending on programs, need to be considered comprehensively as part of our budget negotiations.” The Governor has said that he is focused on saving for a rainy day, even if it means holding the line on worthy programs in the short term while homeless people such as Barbara Brown die soaking wet on an LA street.
We wonder what more will it take for Gov. Brown to see it’s raining now?
Perhaps there is still hope. Recognizing the urgent need to curb homelessness, build workforce housing, and the opportunity to create jobs by bringing federal housing investment to the state, representatives in both houses of the Legislature have called for renewing investments in affordable housing. The State Legislature must continue its full-court-press campaign to secure funding for the homeless and other residents in dire need of stable housing.
It’s a critical conversation that must begin now, and one in which the Governor’s leadership is sorely needed. Failure to do so at this time of monetary surplus will ensure that the burden of growing homelessness and the disappearance of affordable housing will make those surpluses vanish just as surely as Barbara Brown vanished from the living.
The California Housing Consortium is a non-partisan advocate for the production and preservation of housing affordable for low- and moderate-income Californians. Executive Director Ray Pearl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org