California Lawmakers Propose Host of Bills to Help Low-Income Renters and the Homeless

A homeless camp lines a street in downtown Los Angeles on June 25, 2018. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers in Sacramento kicked off the new legislative session this week with a handful of proposals to help low-income residents avoid homelessness, and help get the tens of thousands of Californians without shelter off the streets.

Legislators and advocates are encouraged by the presence of an incoming governor focusing on homelessness and low-income renters, but acknowledge that shelters and supportive and low-income housing will have to compete for state dollars with other top priorities.

"I think the biggest thing is around the budget," said Sharon Rapport, associate director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing. "We are hoping to get ongoing funding to address the affordable housing crisis and homelessness."

Last year, a group of 11 big-city mayors rallied for the inclusion of $1.5 billion in the state budget for emergency housing and homeless services. The final budget included only a third of that amount, which would be sent to local governments and nonprofits on a one-time basis.

"It was much more directed towards those who are already homeless," said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

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And while the $500 million was a historic expenditure, advocates are hoping for longer-term funding this year that can help pay for the construction of low-income housing.

And they see promise in two ideas that incoming governor Gavin Newsom voiced support for on the campaign trail.

Assembly Bill 10, from Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, would increase the state's Low-Income Housing Tax Credit by $500 million.

Another bill from Chiu, Assembly Bill 11, would bring back redevelopment, a program formerly used by local governments to capture billions of dollars for low-income housing.

Gov. Jerry Brown ended redevelopment when he took office in 2011, and vetoed a previous proposal to expand the tax credits available for affordable housing developers.

"We are coming out of an eight-year period with Jerry Brown where it didn’t seem like he wanted to address this on the investment side," said Tyrone Buckley, policy director for Housing California, which is sponsoring the tax credit expansion. "We want to take advantage of a new energy in the horseshoe."

Additional investments in low-income and supportive housing are also on the way with the passage of Propositions 1 and 2 in November, which will launch billions of dollars in construction bonds.

But even before those developments get underway, Skinner said she wants to make it easier to build low-income housing. One idea she has is to suspend minimum parking requirements, which can often add costs and delays to a housing proposal. Another proposal from housing groups includes pushing to ease local energy-efficiency rules, like solar panel mandates, for low-income housing.

And because supportive and low-income housing construction can take years, some lawmakers are also focusing on prevention: making sure more Californians do not slip into homelessness to begin with.

"One of the very important things for us to do is keep people from being displaced," Skinner said. "The main reason individuals become homeless is they couldn't pay rent."

One of the permanent supportive housing complexes in downtown Los Angeles, which rely in part on rental subsides for formerly homeless tenants.
One of the permanent supportive housing complexes in downtown Los Angeles, which rely in part on rental subsidies for formerly homeless tenants. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

More than half of California renters are "rent-burdened," meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing.

Senate Bill 18, introduced by Skinner, would use state funds to pay for rental and legal assistance for tenants facing eviction.

It's still unclear, however, if lawmakers will attempt to take on what is perhaps the most controversial form of eviction protection: rent control. Proposition 10, a  statewide ballot measure to expand rent limits, was resoundingly defeated in November, and efforts to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act failed in the Legislature last session.

Skinner said she thinks some conversation around eviction protection laws will still happen next year.

"Maybe they are not necessary statewide," she added. "Maybe they are more targeted."

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who authored last year's failed Costa-Hawkins repeal, has introduced "intent" legislation, which would "stabilize rental prices and increase the availability of affordable rental housing."

A spokesman for Bloom said it's still being determined whether Assembly Bill 36 would include proposals to change rent control law.

For Californians currently living on the street, an ambitious proposal is taking shape to mandate a "right to shelter."

State Sen. Scott Wiener, author of Senate Bill 48, acknowledges that the proposal is in its early stages.

But establishing that right could be a way to expand shelters to areas of the state that currently don't have them.

"It's important that we not have local communities opting out of providing support to homeless people," Wiener said. "The state, of course, has to be part of that solution because there are many communities that don't have the resources to do what they need to do."

Wiener and supportive housing advocates caution that any proposal around a right to shelter must avoid what has happened in New York City.

There, a court-ordered shelter obligation has forced the city to continually appropriate millions toward temporary housing.

"The problem is that if you have a right to shelter it means you are spending all your money on shelters," said Rapport, from the Corporation for Supportive Housing. "We don’t have enough permanent housing, so are you going to prioritize shelters over permanent housing? People are still technically homeless when they are living in a shelter."

Proposals for homeless and low-income Californians will also have to compete for oxygen with Wiener's much-discussed bill to require denser development, as well as ongoing discussions about reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which some blame for impeding construction of housing.

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