Perry: Addressing homelessness in the June 7 elections
A homeless encampment established on the corner of Branham Lane and Monterey Road in San Jose. File photo.

More than any other issue, the upcoming June 7 primary elections in Santa Clara County are revolving around what to do about homelessness. The explosion of this humanitarian crisis in the richest area in the world has made it impossible to ignore, and since the majority of the unhoused are people of color, it is also central to our quest for racial equity. Although unfortunately, few candidates’ platforms get to the root causes of homelessness, some of them are definitely better than others.

Most people running for office this year can be more or less divided into two camps. One group accurately emphasizes the only solution is the creation and preservation of permanently affordable housing. They point to the success of Santa Clara County’s Measure A, which is on track to build 4,400 affordable housing unit, primarily for formerly unhoused families and individuals.

Measure A is in fact the single most impactful policy ever enacted to address homelessness in Silicon Valley. Every single permanent supportive housing unit made available to an unhoused person is life-changing and a victory for our community and our humanity.

The problem with candidates in this camp is that they do not go far enough. Their solutions are incremental, whereas the crisis is systemic. Homelessness in Silicon Valley has become a tidal wave engulfing our communities. It is a disaster that continues to get worse and worse.

Unfortunately, while they appear to recognize the seriousness of the problem, the other group of candidates would take today’s terrible situation and make it worse. By de-emphasizing permanent affordable housing, they reject the clear and obvious path out of the catastrophe. One of them actually claims that lack of affordable housing “is not the main reason most people end up on the streets”—despite the fact San Jose continues year after year to only meet a tiny fraction of its state-designated goals for affordable housing.

Another candidate claims that despite Silicon Valley’ eye-popping riches, we cannot afford to provide decent housing for our people, and instead should build barebones temporary units. These will apparently be so unpleasant the candidate says the city will have to force people to move into them.

The candidate claims he can enforce city no-camping laws without criminalizing people, but has not explained how that can be done, and in fact has made expanding the police force a central plank in his platform. He even advocated extralegal detention centers for unhoused people with substance abuse issues, a proposal that fortunately would not stand up in a court of law.

The idea that temporary housing can solve a permanent affordable housing shortage is the opposite of common sense. Interim housing is fine as a temporary solution, but with no plan for permanent housing it is not a plan at all, just a scheme to recycle people on a treadmill to nowhere.

Another City Council candidate has advocated for “relocating” unhoused people, but without specifying where. Many of the candidates in this group have also pointed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “CARE courts” for the severely mentally ill as a solution to homelessness—despite the governor’s explicit warning that CARE courts, even if successful, would only assist about 5% to 8% of California’s unhoused people.

It is not an accident the leader of this “housing is not the problem” group is a lobbyist for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors—because, alongside the major tech corporations, the real estate industry is at the heart of the problem. The time has come to question the entire structure of America’s land and housing ownership system. Only 23% of California households can afford to purchase a median priced home, and tenants today are suffering from rents that according to a recent AP report are rising to “insane” levels all across the country.

As real estate columnist Jonathan Lansner wrote, “If California is truly serious about affordable housing—and I’m becoming convinced that it’s not—then somebody in the real estate world must accept less than what they have right now.”

We cannot solve the affordable housing crisis as long as all the dominant players in the industry are committed to endlessly increasing property values and rents. And we cannot address the shortage in our housing supply by relying on developers who deliberately refuse to build until rents and prices rise even higher than they are already.

In the same way, we cannot solve the structural racism in the housing system without putting homes in the hands of the people of color excluded from homeownership for hundreds of years. These reparations should be paid by the same billionaire banks and investors that profited from the decades of segregation in the first place.

These measures will require social transformation. Establishing and building a nonprofit social housing sector organized around meeting human housing needs instead of corporate profit is the place to start. But on June 7, we have to vote for candidates who are at least committed to do no harm.

The homelessness issue comes down to two opposite ways of framing the problem. Either our current housing system is fundamentally flawed, and we have to correct it by moving toward permanently affordable housing for everyone. Or else the problem is simply bad or defective people, and the solution is detention or some form of relocation.

The main issue on June 7 is who we really are as a city and county, and what are our values. The problem is not people. People are the solution. Human life—and all life—is sacred and precious, and deserves to be treated with dignity. The problem is in our thinking, and in the unjust and racist systems we have constructed. The time has come to prioritize the creation of caring communities over personal economic gain.

Sandy Perry has been a volunteer and advocate serving San Jose’s homeless and low-income people for over 30 years.

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