Bramson: Budget cuts that leave scars 
A homeless encampment amid flooding is pictured in San Jose. File photo.

I often wonder why funding for building affordable housing seems like the first thing to go when budgets get tight.

Despite being the single most effective tool to improve the lives of so many people for decades now in the United States, affordable housing continues to be the first victim of fiscal austerity. And in recent years it has been no different, despite a worsening crisis where half of the country can’t pay its rent and hundreds of thousands of Americans sleep outside every night.

You can start at the top and work your way down to see what I mean. Last year, the federal government spent less than 1% of its total budget on housing assistance. It’s been that way for some time and even when funding was finally proposed to make a substantial change in how we might help our poorest residents, it barely lasted through the first round of negotiations before being summarily dismissed. And, while we’re on the feds’ shortcomings in this arena, the mortgage interest deduction is still by far the largest housing subsidy offered, which doesn’t reach the folks who need help the most.

In California, it doesn’t get much better. When Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved the Redevelopment Agency in 2012, he killed a source that provided approximately $1 billion annually for the production of affordable housing, with no replacement plan in sight. And it wasn’t until a new governor arrived in Sacramento almost a decade later that any meaningful funding was committed to restart this work. But now, just a few short years after the state began investing again, a solution to solve the 2024 deficit would take the apparent path of least resistance by gutting affordable housing and homelessness grant programs. There’s a glimmer of hope that we can save some of these dollars, but it’s still amazing how fast the tide can turn against us.

Locally, we have tried to do better. In 2016, Santa Clara County voters approved a $950 million affordable housing bond, Measure A — by the slimmest of margins. In 2020, San Jose voters showed up again to pass Measure E, a property transfer tax with a spending plan that devoted 90% of the revenue to affordable housing development. In both cases, we’ve put that money to good use, with over $1 billion in local investments over the past eight years to fund more than 6,000 new homes.

But Measure A will be fully expended this year, and by the looks of things, almost all of the Measure E housing money will be redirected elsewhere in the city of San Jose’s new budget. With dozens of great projects in need of funding to create homes for aging elders, working families, honorable veterans, disabled adults, and so many others who are already homeless or just one paycheck away from it, seeing almost no money left on the table for this work seems devastating and wrong for too many reasons to rattle off here.

So I really wonder why we’re so quick to abandon the dream of an affordable future for all?

The answer might come from the fact that the people who this matters to most don’t have the time to make their voices heard. They’re too busy working four minimum wage jobs to barely pay their bills. They are too tired from looking hopelessly for a place where they can afford the rent. They are too terrified by the grim specter of life on the streets that haunts their doorways every night. And they are too devastated when they tragically, but all too frequently, end up without a home. In this relentless cycle, making it to the next day is all that matters. No one has the breath left to even consider asking for anything more.

I don’t really know what to do about that or what comes next at this point. There’s going to be a big regional housing bond on the ballot this November. And those who do care deeply about this issue and actually have the time and energy to get the word out are going to be needed now more than ever. They will have to knock on every door and rally every resident to have even a chance. And people will need to show up and vote not just for themselves but for the health, stability, and vitality of our community as a whole.

Because if the bond doesn’t pass, the cuts that we are making now are going to leave deep scars that will last for a long, long time.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

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