Tents Aren't Enough

By C.R. Mills

Mayor Darrell Steinberg recently announced he wants to put up three large tents in Sacramento to provide shelter for homeless people. Steinberg described the structures, which can each fit 200 people, as temporary, a step on the road towards receiving city services and ultimately permanent housing. Yet without a parallel effort to build thousands of affordable homes throughout the region, these tents simply provide a way for city leaders to push a major public problem out of sight without actually addressing it.

A dire need exists for immediate shelter for Sacramento’s homeless population. Temporary locations where unhoused people can rest out the elements and get connected to city and nonprofit services can certainly help people in their plight towards safety and stability. But without a permanent home to go to once their time in the tent expires, homeless people will leave without housing, the one thing they need the most. It would be as if they’d gone to the doctor in need of a heart transplant and were sent home with a bottle of aspirin instead.

So far, City Hall has not provided a real vision for how to address Sacramento’s severe and growing lack of affordable housing. Efforts to combat the issue under Mayor Steinberg, including his idea to build a thousand tiny homes with private sector help, as well as the recent announcement that local health care giant Kaiser will fund some supportive housing, all suffer from two fatal flaws. First, these efforts rely heavily on donations from private businesses that could come and go at any time, creating an unsustainable and fickle source of funds. Second, Steinberg’s solutions lack anywhere close to the ambition and scope necessary to meet the needs of a city in which nearly 43,000 people recently applied for just 7,000 available units of subsidized housing.

Visions for how cities can provide the large amount of affordable housing people need do exist. But they require the boldness to propose them and the commitment to see them through.

The People’s Policy Project recently outlined one such vision. The basic idea is simple: local governments should begin constructing publicly-owned housing on vacant lots immediately (a map of the 96 city-owned vacant lots is here). Financing would come from loans obtained at the lowest possible interest rate.

The city would then set a base rent for each unit at whatever monthly amount it would cost to pay back the construction loans and maintain the building. Some tenants would pay higher than the base rent, subsidizing lower-income tenants who would pay less than the base rent.

Once the city pays off the loans used to construct the units, additional rental income would go directly back towards building more publicly-owned affordable housing. Vienna, which uses a similar model of affordable housing development, has proven this model can work - three out of five residents there live in houses owned, built, or managed by the city government.

Surely obstacles to such an approach exist. In particular, Erika D. Smith has it exactly right that all neighborhoods would need to accept the construction of new housing units, including those well-heeled areas likely to oppose such developments. Housing would also need to be run by the tenants themselves to ensure they can manage and care for their homes in the way they see fit. Care must be taken to avoid the disastrous legacy of failed U.S. public housing efforts in the past that often segregated developments, then neglected their upkeep until they became unlivable.

The specific approach outlined here surely isn’t the only way we can make housing a human right locally. The Sacramento Housing Alliance, for example, has called for expanding revenue to local jurisdictions’ housing trust funds to address the lack of homes here. But whatever solution we choose, it’s become clear we can no longer pretend that combinations of market-based solutions, private donations, or half-steps like tents will ever fully address Sacramento’s housing needs.

We need bold solutions of large enough scale to solve the problem, solutions that drastically expand the amount of decommodified housing - that is, housing built to provide the basic human need of shelter, rather than to create profit for the private sector.

Without such solutions, and the strength and determination to see them implemented, we will continue to be forced to accept new and innovative ideas - ideas such as tents - to move a problem around instead of solving it.

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