Bernie Sanders Visits the Heart of America’s Homelessness Crisis

Ronen Tivony/Sipa USA/AP

“A great nation does not allow 500,000 people plus to sleep out on the streets or in emergency shelters," said Bernie Sanders.

The man at the Star Apartments in the section of downtown Los Angeles known as “Skid Row” wasn’t used to being canvassed by any politician, let alone having a bank of news cameras greet him at his doorstep. He flashed surprise when he opened the door. Then he focused on the white-haired man in the sport jacket, smiled, and said, “Bernie, I was just watching you on TV!”

Senator Bernie Sanders was touring the Star Apartments, a facility providing permanent supportive housing to over 100 formerly homeless individuals, as part of a day of campaigning in southern California focused on affordable housing and homelessness. Skid Row is not a typical stop on the trail; aides could not recall if Sanders visited during his 2016 presidential run. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did tour Skid Row last year.) But if you want to understand the heartbreak of our housing policy and the promise of how it can be improved, you have to come here.

“It is painful to know that we are the wealthiest country on Earth, and there are people a few feet away from us here who are sleeping out on the street,” said Sanders at a press availability shortly after the visit, which included two permanent supportive housing facilities and the Dr. David L. Murphy Sobering Center, which provides recovery services. “We have for too long ignored this growing crisis. Everybody thinks it’s somebody else out there until it happens to them.”

Despite significant attention and a recent injection of new funds, Los Angeles has struggled to get its homeless problem under control. For years, services for the homeless have been centralized on Skid Row, with people funneled downtown from across the city. Here, you see the most callous side of America, with its neglect of human beings unable to secure basic shelter, and also the hope of America, with non-profits and medical professionals serving the population. Often it’s formerly homeless people doing the outreach, giving a helping hand after being helped themselves.

The Sobering Center is a perfect example. Instead of hauling off drunk or addicted homeless people to expensive emergency rooms, only to be pushed back out onto the street, they can enter the center and get treatment, with access to a medical clinic nearby. “This is a humane, common-sense approach of treating people who are out on the streets as human beings who have the possibility of a good future in front of them if we do the right things,” Sanders said yesterday.

The concept of leading with permanent housing and wraparound services to rehabilitate lives and reduce the strain on legal, law enforcement, and medical services has worked in places like Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, it’s done little to slow down the problem in Los Angeles.

Thanks to a sales tax increase passed in 2017 and a 2018 homeless housing bond, more homeless residents are being housed than ever before, over 20,000 across L.A. County. Those numbers reflect a $600 million commitment in just the past year. But despite these efforts, the homeless population went up in 2019 to nearly 59,000 in the county (up 12 percent) and over 36,000 in the city (a 16 percent increase).

This has stunned city leaders and led to a sense of hopelessness about the enterprise. At the press conference, I asked Sanders what the best approaches could be if even hundreds of millions of dollars failed to make a dent in homelessness. And he highlighted a key source of the increase in desperation: the exorbitant cost of housing in the city.

“It’s not just the homeless population is going up but also that rents are going up,” Sanders said. “When you make 10, 12, 14, 15 bucks an hour, you know L.A. better than me, but it’s pretty hard to find a decent apartment when you’re making that kind of wage.”

The day’s events connected homelessness to the affordable housing crisis that has afflicted many coastal cities, whose disproportionate share of gains in our winner-take-all economy have been tempered by runaway cost of living increases. As Sanders pointed out, in addition to the half-million homeless in America, 18 million Americans spend 50 percent or more of their earnings on housing, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

At a town hall on affordable housing in the San Fernando Valley city of Northridge on Tuesday, Sanders heard stories from tenants whose rent nearly doubled in one shot and those who had to leave due to the burden of excessive rent hikes. Under the Costa-Hawkins Act, most California cities are barred from enacting rent control ordinances. An effort to overturn that law at the ballot box failed last year, amid tens of millions of dollars of opposition from developers and landlords.

While Sanders has yet to unveil a formal housing plan yet (he did in 2016), his approach had three prongs. First he wants to build millions of units of affordable housing, including low-income units, which he sees as much as an infrastructure program (which will create construction jobs) as a solution to the housing crisis. He would expand the Section 8 program to grant rent subsidies to those who need it. And he wants to give communities flexibility for dealing with gentrification and rising rents by allowing them to go forward with rent control if they choose.

The last idea is somewhat controversial in economic circles, where you consistently hear that rent controls reduce supply and degrades housing quality (as there’s no motivation to improve it). Sanders stressed that rent control decisions should be local, and that the country can learn from different approaches. But he also looked at it from a different angle—a personal one.

“You are talking to a United States senator who grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York,” he said. “My family never had much money, but one thing we did have by living in a rent-controlled apartment, we had a roof over our heads and there were always modest rent increases. And the landlord survived, I’m sure that the landlord survived, made money. It’s just that we were not thrown out on the street, we did not have to move from one apartment to the other.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which bankrolled California’s rent control proposition in 2018, is trying again in 2020, hoping a more liberal electorate will help boost the measure. The new initiative exempts new construction and up to two single-family homes owned by a landlord, and it allows increases by up to 15 percent when a tenant leaves. “When you poll people in California, the number one issue is housing,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Sanders’s housing plan is not yet as developed as some other candidates in the 2020 race, who have proposed large increases to the Housing Trust Fund (which helps build and maintain affordable housing), first-time homebuyer assistance, larger rental subsidies, and spurs to reform zoning rules holding back supply. But what Sanders does have is an insistence that the right to shelter should be fundamental in a wealthy, industrialized country. Going to Skid Row and seeing the breadth of depravity in a prosperous city like Los Angeles can concentrate the mind on that.

“A great nation does not allow 500,000 people plus to sleep out on the streets or in emergency shelters,” he said. “There is an enormous amount of work to be done, but perhaps the first job is to recognize the severity of the crisis.”

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