Mapping the Housing and Homelessness Crisis in California: Root Causes and Philanthropic Opportunities (Policy Summit Blog)

Last month, Philanthropy California virtually convened over 600 funders from across California for a day dedicated to philanthropy's role in strengthening our democracy and civic engagement during this unprecedented moment. Now, we are excited to launch our Post-Policy Summit Blog Series in order to elevate key learnings from the Summit and to further the conversations we began to explore. 

At over 108,000 individuals, more than half of all people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the United States live in California. With such staggering numbers, California is quickly approaching a breaking point in our affordable housing and homelessness crisis, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to amplify inequities.  

At the 2020 Philanthropy California Virtual Policy Summit, we invited a panel of experts including Andrea Iloulian, Senior Program Officer, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Elizabeth Kneebone, Research Director, Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley; and Jazmin Segura, Program Officer, Common Counsel Foundation, to discuss the housing and homelessness crisis in California and how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating this crisis, These leaders mapped the root causes of the housing and homelessness crisis in California by sharing decades worth of data to illustrate the trends and the scale of the current needs and elevated key opportunities for philanthropy to take action. 



California has seen significant economic growth since 1980 as wages and jobs have increased across the state. At the same time, however, housing production has slowed considerably and has not kept pace with demand. Additionally, when California did see some growth in housing supply over the past few years, the houses built tended to be larger, single-family homes, which were generally more expensive. As of 2018, in the San Francisco Silicon Valley area, the typical price of an entry-level home was over $760,000. In Los Angeles, the typical entry price was approaching half a million dollars. These trends demonstrate that homeownership is increasingly out of reach for more and more households across California.


The less attainable homes become, the more pressure there is on the rental market. The fastest-growing segment of the rental market in recent years are households making over $100,000. As higher-income households have demanded more rental stock in recent years, there has been tremendous upward pressure on rents. In short, California is not building enough housing and is also losing stock that was once affordable to lower- and moderate-income households, creating a mismatch between supply and demand. Today, the average asking rent for a two-bedroom house in California frequently outstrips what the typical renter’s income could afford without becoming cost-burdened. 


It is becoming increasingly difficult for extremely low-income households to pay rent. These households are the most vulnerable and at high risk of becoming homeless because of their economic challenges. These households often dedicate the majority of their income toward health and basic needs. Nearly 90% of these low-income households pay at least a third of their income to rent — nearly 75% of them paying more than half of their total income — designating them as a rent burden household. California has almost 1.3 million extremely low-income households and only 31 affordable homes for every 100 of these households. In total, California has a housing shortfall of 998,613 homes for this population. 


While California has seen wage growth and better economic performance in a number of regions, a lot of these gains happened at the top end of the income distribution. The wages of extremely low-income households have stagnated as price pressures and rental costs have increased. This housing and income gap is the underpinning of the homelessness crisis in California. Between 2017-2019, almost every county in California has experienced an increase in homelessness. During this period, Los Angeles saw a 7% increase in homelessness, San Francisco saw a 17% increase, and Alameda, Contra Costa, Orange, and San Bernardino County all saw a 40% increase. 


Mental health and addiction issues are often considered the primary drivers of homelessness. However, the magnitude of this crisis underscores how much homelessness is actually an economically-driven crisis. Disparities are omnipresent in the housing system from access to homeownership, to where affordable housing is located, to long-standing patterns of economic and racial segregation. These challenges disproportionately impact people of color. The homelessness crisis is also increasingly affecting seniors and people over 55, many of whom are experiencing homelessness for the first time. 


There are many households, which may not have been housing insecure before COVID-19, are now facing vulnerabilities because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. There are about 1.2 million households, who were not cost-burdened before, are now at risk of losing jobs and wages because of the economic impacts and responses to COVID-19. As the stay-at-home order continues and the moratorium on evictions end, these households will become increasingly impacted.


The COVID-19 crisis is having tremendous health impacts across the homeless population. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than other populations and are also more likely to have underlying health conditions. This issue is especially urgent for the older populations that are homeless. Additionally, frontline workers and providers are often at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many of these essential workers, who staff grocery stores and delivery services, often also live in low-income households that face overcrowding and could cause rapid exposure to the virus. 




In Los Angeles, there’s currently a coalition of over 250 organizations and small businesses that have been working with the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors to move forward on renter protections and moratoriums on evictions. In the Bay Area, groups are demanding that unhoused communities get placed into empty hotels and for moratoriums on sweep encampments. This strong, urban mobilization is also beginning to emerge in areas where tenant protections used to not be feasible such as Fresno, Tulane, Murcia, or Riverside. On a statewide scale, a diverse coalition of stakeholders from many sectors is coming together to articulate the need for affordable homes and set bold but achievable goals. Housing California and the California Housing Partnership have teamed up on California’s Roadmap HOME 2030, an initiative to develop a "Marshall Plan" that will set the course to advance policy solutions that shift funds and create structural and systems reform at scale. As this momentum continues to build, philanthropy can step up by facilitating these connections and helping to ensure that local governments are moving forward with these protections for renters and unhoused communities. 


Organizations often do not have the data integrity to identify and target people who are at a high risk of becoming homeless. This is caused by a lack of data integration across the housing continuum and jurisdictional boundaries. Insufficient coordination and access to data reduce an organization's ability to use predictive analytics to identify high-risk individuals and accurately funnel preventive service dollars. Last year, the state legislature passed a resolution that allows County entities to share data around these high-risk populations. Moving forward, the challenge will be finding a platform that can successfully integrate cross-jurisdictional data systems and ensure that privacy is protected. Philanthropy can help explore what this tool or system looks like to better connect jurisdictions across the state and share data more fluidly. This integrative platform also has the potential to help regions share institutional capacity and avoid competing for funds that can instead be used collaboratively. 


Community partners working to address the housing and homelessness crisis are being stretched very thin as they urgently work to respond to increasing safety-net needs on top of their day-to-day organizing, civic engagement, and advocacy work. In particular, this pressure is affecting organizations working with the most impacted communities, such as the reentry population and undocumented individuals. To support, philanthropy can continue to practice flexibility as community-based organizations continue to respond to emerging needs while having to re-strategize and pivot on a daily or weekly basis.



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