Here Are the Most Important New Laws Targeting Homelessness in California

A homeless man sleeps under a blanket on University Avenue in downtown Berkeley on Aug. 19, 2019. (Matthew Green/KQED)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed into law a hefty package of legislation aimed at addressing California's mounting homelessness crisis.

The 13 new laws give cities and counties across the state greater leeway to build supportive housing and shelters at a faster, more efficient pace, and in some cases, allow exemptions to existing regulations.

The bills will "give local governments even more tools to confront this crisis," Newsom said in a statement. "State government is now doing more than ever before to help local governments fight homelessness, expand proven programs and speed up rehousing."

Three of the bills exempt certain new supportive housing and shelter projects from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a 50-year-old regulation requiring state and local agencies to assess the environmental impact of new construction. Although defended by many environmental groups, critics have argued that CEQA is too often weaponized to delay development of new projects, including shelters and affordable housing.

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"Supportive housing and shelters aren't being built quickly enough, and as long as Californians are struggling to survive in our streets, we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to provide the shelter and assistance they need to get back on their feet," said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat, whose bill provides CEQA exemption for supportive housing and shelters in the city of Los Angeles.

Several bills in the package signed by Newsom aim to increase the number of emergency shelters throughout the state. One law will allow the use of vacant armories as temporary shelters for homeless people during hazardous weather. Another authorizes Caltrans to lease its property to local governments at a cost of $1 per month for emergency shelter use.

One new law, authored by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Democrat from Orange County, adds Orange and Alameda counties, and the city of San Jose, to the list of places that can declare emergencies and build shelters on publicly owned land, while allowing the temporary suspension of state health, planning and safety standards. It builds on a 2017 law that lets Berkeley, Emeryville, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Santa Clara and San Francisco declare similar crises.

The spate of new legislation comes as California faces its worst homelessness crisis in more than a decade, the most visible outcome of a statewide housing shortage that has sent rents and home prices soaring. From 2016-2017, the homeless population increased 14% statewide, according to estimates from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department.

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“Our state has more than 1.7 million low-income households spending more than half their income in housing costs,” Ben Metcalf, director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, told CalMatters. “When you’re paying that much for housing, with so little left over, even a minor shock can start a cycle of homelessness.”

With 33 homeless people per 10,000 residents, California has among the highest rates of homelessness in the country. On any given night in 2018, there were nearly 130,000 homeless people statewide — accounting for about a quarter of the national total — based on HUD's latest count. Nearly 70% of that population live in unsheltered conditions.

Newsom's action also comes amid President Trump's ongoing criticism of California's handling of the issue, including recently laying blame on homeless people for water pollution. In response, Newsom has accused Trump of politicizing the issue and has called on the federal government to provide more aid to get people into housing.

Additional reporting from Kathleen Ronayne of the Associated Press