Sacramento Mulls a New Homeless Strategy: Legally Mandating Housing

The mayor called for a “right to housing” law as the homelessness crisis intensifies in cities across California.,

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SACRAMENTO — The mayor of Sacramento on Wednesday announced a plan to legally obligate California’s capital city to house its growing homeless population, a policy shift that would open a new front in the state’s struggle to address what has become a signature California social ill.

Californians “are becoming homeless faster than we can get people the help they need,” said the mayor, Darrell Steinberg, as he proposed a municipal “right to housing” and a parallel “obligation” for homeless people to accept shelter when it is offered.

If passed by the City Council, the measure would be the first of its kind nationally, and would impose a legally enforceable municipal mandate to deal with a humanitarian crisis that has spread in California as the state’s median home value has soared and rents have exploded. It could also help the city comply with federal court rulings, such as those in Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho, that have made it increasingly difficult to enforce laws against homeless encampments if officials do not provide alternatives to sleeping outdoors.

A “right to housing” mandate has been long sought by progressives, who argue that public funding and compassion are wasted without the power of law to force cities to supply adequate housing. At the same time, state and local governments have been leery of the financial implications of singling out housing as a legal right.

Housing advocates have also expressed concerns that such a law might be used to intensify police crackdowns, potentially giving cities free legal rein to sweep encampments of homeless people as long as they first offer some form of shelter.

Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, D.C., said Mr. Steinberg’s plan to couple housing rights with a parallel duty by homeless people to accept a bed if it is offered ran counter to the spirit of the “right to housing” concept.

“The right to housing is based on the inherent dignity of the individual, so a straightforward obligation to accept whatever is offered undermines that,” Mr. Tars said.

A mandate requiring homeless people to accept housing could be difficult to enforce in California, where laws severely restrict civil commitments and forced treatment for mental illness. Mr. Steinberg, a former state lawmaker who for decades has been a leading Democratic voice in California on homelessness and mental health policy, acknowledged the state’s history of embracing the civil rights of homeless residents, but said that “sometimes the pendulum swings too far.”

He added, “There is no liberty in dying alone on the street.”

ImageA homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center in August.
A homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center in August.Credit…Gregory Bull/Associated Press

More than a quarter of the nation’s homeless population resides in California, where the number of people sleeping in freeway shantytowns and sidewalk tent cities has risen steadily over the past decade to more than 160,000 from Eureka to San Diego. Sacramento County’s homeless population was estimated at nearly 6,000 before the coronavirus pandemic, despite years of effort and expense. The mayor said the county has housed more than 13,000 homeless people over the past four and a half years.

But the mayor said cities in California were not required by law to provide housing and services for people without shelter, which often allows humanitarian efforts to devolve into political infighting and blue-ribbon commissions rather than solutions. A right to housing would create a legal cudgel, he said, that would force cities to take the often politically difficult steps of constructing affordable housing.

“It is far past time to address the root of this dysfunction rather than the symptoms,” Mr. Steinberg said. “Name another area of major public concern where everything government does is optional.”

The right-to-housing movement, which dates to the New Deal, has drawn particular attention since 2018, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping, finding that it was cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping outside if appropriate shelter was unavailable.

That decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, greatly limited the enforcement options available to local governments to deal with encampments of homeless people, which during the pandemic have spread to cover parks, sidewalks, freeway underpasses and beaches in many California cities.

In 2019, a task force appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and co-chaired by Mr. Steinberg recommended that the state pass a “right to shelter” law, similar to one in New York that helped create the legal urgency to move that city’s homeless people off the sidewalks.

But the governor argued that such a law would be too costly. Last year, Mr. Newsom vetoed a statewide right not only to shelter but more generally to housing.

Since the pandemic, California has been awash in surplus state revenues and federal money, and the judicial and political pressure has compounded.

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Sixty-three trailers were set up in Sacramento last year for homeless people who tested positive for the coronavirus.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

“Increasingly, big-city mayors are going to be judged by what they do on the homeless,” said David Townsend, a veteran political consultant based in Sacramento. “It may not be fair, but it’s the issue on all of their citizens’ minds.”

Los Angeles also is considering a municipal right-to-housing ordinance. That proposal, like Sacramento’s, would be broader than “right to shelter” laws in New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., which housing advocates say are insufficient because they place people in shelters rather than appropriate and adequate housing.

Mr. Tars compared the Sacramento proposal to a right-to-housing law in Scotland, where cities are required to offer homeless people at least two adequate options for housing before the public obligation to shelter them expires.

This spring, a federal judge in Southern California issued an order calling for the city and county of Los Angeles to offer housing and support services to everyone on Skid Row by October as a prerequisite to clearing the homeless encampments that now block the city’s downtown streets. City and county officials are appealing the decision, which if upheld will have broad legal implications.

“I would rather have Sacramento bravely lead than follow,” Mr. Steinberg said. “Let’s do it ourselves without a court order.”

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