When a problem is sketched out on a piece of paper, it’s easy to feel as though it’s manageable. The housing crisis is not one of those problems. It’s complicated, with different problems that seem to exist in separate silos—each on their own piece of paper—and each with seemingly different solutions.
Some of the solutions can invite tunnel vision, especially when so many people in our communities are demanding swift action from their elected leaders regarding the challenge of encampments and blight. Two words which are uncomfortably becoming the ones that are alleged to define the problem of the housing crisis.
But increasingly, we are defining the problem incorrectly. It’s not about what we see—the dilapidated motorhome, the encampment, the makeshift shelter on a street.
The problem is how our neighbors and their children are living. Children should not live in tents or in shelters. Children should not live in tiny “homes.” Children should not live in RV parking lots.
Shelters, tiny homes and safe parking sites are tools that have a place in the state’s housing crisis tool kit—but they aren’t the long-term solutions we need and our obsessive focus on these camouflaging efforts lulls us into thinking they are the actual solution.
Santa Clara County voters passed the Measure A affordable housing bond in 2016 with the intent to invest $950 million in building permanent, deeply affordable housing. So far, the measure has built more than 4,300 new apartments across 47 developments in nine cities. It has also helped renovate more than 680 units of affordable housing.
When you have an opportunity, talk with a person who was able to move into an affordable home after living in tents, abandoned commercial buildings, motor vehicles or under overpasses. There is nearly always some measure of elation at being able to do the simplest things: charging phones, refrigerating food, showering whenever they like and in total privacy, and not worrying about what will happen to their belongings if they leave for the day.
The sense of permanency goes hand in hand with a sense of stability—not just in where you live, but the knowledge of having consistent neighbors, knowing where the local transit stops and parks are and where to buy food. When we lean too heavily on temporary or interim shelters—and when we shy away from creating permanent homes for people to live in—we not only deny those families and individuals that feeling of security, but we deny ourselves a better city, a better county, a better state for all of us.
While the recent point-in-time count from Santa Clara County and San Jose showed a welcome slight decrease in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness, it also reported a striking increase in families experiencing homelessness. Our neighbors in Alameda, Solano, Marin and Napa counties posted similar figures.
The 2020 data from the state shows 52% of people experiencing homelessness comprised households with children.
Not unrelatedly, California also lost several hundred thousand residents over the past few years—and a congressional seat. San Jose recently dropped out of the top 10 most populous cities in the country, losing 40,000 of its residents in the last three years.
Building more deeply affordable housing—not interim shelter, however cleverly designed—and thinking creatively about finding faster ways of doing so, is the foundation upon which all these problems appear together on a single sheet of paper.
Our state doesn’t have a path forward if our residents continue to move outward.
Susan Ellenberg is board president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Preston Prince is executive director of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority.