When the initial report of the “point-in-time” count of the homeless population in Alameda County was released last May, one fact garnered all the headlines: County-wide, the number of homeless persons had risen from 5,629 in 2017 to 8,022 in 2019, an increase of 43 per cent.
Predictably, this fact produced much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. We even recall public speakers at Council meetings citing it as evidence for prohibiting no-cause evictions and capping annual rent increases in the City of Alameda.
At the Merry-Go-Round, we wanted to withhold comment until the final report, which would break down the County-wide numbers by city and present the results of a survey, conducted at the same time as the point-in-time count, that inquired, among other things, about the causes of homelessness. (Incidentally, “point-in-time” means that the count occurred during specific hours on a specific day: in this case, from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. on January 30, 2019).
The final report now has been made public by EveryOne Home, the organization that oversaw the count and survey. And it makes for interesting reading.
Let’s start with the geographical breakdown. The report contained the following table:
One neutral conclusion can be drawn from this data: the homeless population in the City of Alameda has grown in the last two years – 27 more people were homeless in 2019 than in 2017 – but not nearly as much as it has gone up in other East Bay cities. The percentage increase for Alameda is 13.2%; the percentage increases for its nearest neighbors – Oakland and San Leandro – are 47.4% and 283.5%, respectively.
Beyond making this observation we hesitate to venture.
We suppose one could argue that the City isn’t experiencing a homeless “crisis” when there are only 22 more people living on the streets in Alameda – that’s the “unsheltered” category in the table – now than there were two years ago. But that’s a tricky conclusion to draw, since the data consists of two snapshots and doesn’t show what happened in the meantime. Of the 204 people who were homeless in 2017, some undoubtedly found housing over the next two years – and their places in the ranks of the homeless were taken by others who had been housed in 2017. The data simply doesn’t reveal how many people became homeless between 2017 and 2019.
In any event, we find ourselves agreeing, to a large extent, with Doug Biggs, executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, that the primary focus shouldn’t be on the numbers. In an interview with the Mercury News when the initial point-in-time report came out, Mr. Biggs put it more eloquently than we could: “It’s not numbers — these are people,” he told the paper. “These are mothers with kids. They’re brothers, they’re sisters, they’re parents, they’re grandparents that are living in conditions that nobody in this country should be allowed to live in.”
Now to the survey.
To us, the most important question is the one that asked respondents to “identify the primary event or condition that led to their current homeless experience.” As a general rule, if one doesn’t know the cause of a problem, one won’t be able to devise an effective remedy for it. In this case, knowing why people became homeless will inform what a local governmental body like the Alameda City Council can, and can’t, do to prevent (or at least reduce the extent) of homelessness within its borders. (We note that the issue of what services should be offered to those already experiencing homelessness is distinct from the issue of how to prevent homelessness in the first place).
Here’s the chart of the top six responses from the entire survey group of 1,681 people about the primary causes of homelessness:
In addition to the top six, the report also noted that significant causes of homelessness cited by respondents included family or friends not being able to afford to let them stay (7%) and family or domestic violence (6%).
The report further broke down these responses by “sub-populations.” (According to the report, 93% of the homeless population in Alameda County consists of single adults; families with at least one adult and one child comprise the remaining 7%).
For single adults over 25 years old, these were the primary causes of homelessness:
For families with children, these were the primary causes:
What are the policy implications of this data for the City of Alameda?
For one thing, it seems to us that there isn’t much a local governmental body like the Alameda City Council can do to prevent a person from becoming homeless for any of the three reasons most often cited by the survey respondents: job loss, mental-health issues, and substance-use issues. A city can’t guarantee a job for each of its residents (unless it enacts the Green New Deal – uh oh, we shouldn’t be giving our “progressive” Council members any ideas). Nor does it have the resources, or expertise, to provide mental-health and substance-abuse treatment. If these are indeed the top three causes of homelessness, the homeless, like the poor, may be always with us.
Likewise, it’s not clear how much a local governmental body can do prevent a person from becoming homeless for the fourth most-often-cited reason: eviction/foreclosure.
The report doesn’t elaborate about what this category encompasses, but we suspect that the event most frequently giving rise to evictions or foreclosures is failure to pay the rent (for tenants) or the mortgage (for homeowners). A city, of course, might institute a program for stepping in to make the payment on behalf of the tenant or mortgagor in such circumstances. But our Council has not adopted such a program, and the “just cause” amendment to the rent stabilization ordinance it passed in May will have absolutely no effect in this subset of cases, since failure to pay rent remains a permitted reason for terminating a tenancy.
Indeed, we think it is legitimate to ask whether the “just cause” amendment will have any significant effect on preventing homelessness in Alameda compared to the prior version of the ordinance.
As originally written and adopted in 2016, the law entitled a renter whose tenancy was terminated for “no cause” to receive financial “relocation assistance.” As the name suggests, this payment was intended in part to give such a tenant the opportunity to find another home or apartment rather than resort to living on the streets. According to the June 2019 report issued by the Alameda Housing Authority, there were 39 “no-cause” terminations in Fiscal Year 2018-19. The average relocation-assistance payment (for “active cases”) was $6,345. (This figure includes all cases in which tenants were eligible for relocation assistance, not just no-cause terminations).
Unfortunately, AHA does not track what happens to a tenant who has been evicted for “no cause,” so it’s impossible to determine how many of these 39 households found other housing, either in Alameda or elsewhere. But we have to believe that the relocation-assistance payment enabled at least some of them to obtain new housing. Only those who didn’t ended up living on the street. And it is only that group whom a “just cause” ordinance would have kept out of homelessness.
Now we come to the fifth most-often cited reason: a rent increase. This is, at last, a cause for homelessness that a local governmental body can do something about, and, in fact, our Council has done something about it: At its last meeting before the August recess, Council passed another amendment to the rent stabilization ordinance limiting annual rent increases to 70% of the increase in the Bay Area Consumer Price Index.
But as a strategy for preventing homelessness, this amounts to shooting in the dark.
We say that because no one knows just how much of a rent increase will force a tenant out of her home or apartment and onto the street (rather than into less expensive housing, here or elsewhere). Indeed, we suspect that coming up with a finite rule wouldn’t be possible because every case depends not just on the amount of the rent increase but on the financial circumstances of the tenant: a rent increase of as low as 2% may be more than a low-income family with children can bear, but it would take a 20% increase to cause pain for a single adult with the same income. And in both cases the availability of replacement housing will affect whether the tenant is left with no choice but to live on the street.
Unfortunately, neither the EveryOne Home report nor AHA’s June 2019 report supplies much guidance on this issue. The former refers only to a rent increase, without specifying the amount. The latter shows the proposed rent increases submitted by landlords in FY 2018-19 – 135 in the greater than 5% and lower than 10% category and 98 in the above-10% category – but it does not address how many tenants responded to these increases by going to live on the street rather than by accepting the higher rent or by finding a less expensive home or apartment. (We should note that, under the original ordinance, all of these proposed rent increases were subject to review by the Rent Review Advisory Committee, and at least some of them were reduced as a result. In any event, the data doesn’t support the conclusion that every tenant who got a rent increase of more than 10% ended up homeless).
Thus far, we’ve been approaching the issue from the viewpoint of a hypothetical policymaker. But the EveryOne Home survey also contained a question that solicited the views of homeless persons themselves about “support that might have prevented homelessness.” Here’s the chart of the top five most-cited items:
When the survey data was broken down into sub-populations, “rental assistance” also topped the list for single adults, 32% of whom stated that such assistance would have helped to prevent them from becoming homeless.
In addition to the top five, other frequently cited support items included legal assistance (14%), help obtaining resources after leaving a hospital, jail or prison (11%), and family counseling (10%). (In case you missed it, post-hospital-discharge care is one of the services the new Wellness Center on McKay Avenue will provide for homeless patients). Rent control, in whatever form, didn’t make the list (although we don’t know whether the survey suggested it as a possible response).
At least one of the support items the respondents say would have helped them to avoid homelessness now is available in Alameda: in June 2018, Council voted to appropriate $100,000 to provide legal aid to renters. But the No. 1 item on the list – “rental assistance,” which we understand to mean cash to be used for paying the rent – hasn’t made it onto any Council agenda. Are we the only ones who wonder how many tenants would benefit – and perhaps even stay out of homelessness — if Council had voted to give those renters in need of assistance the $3.73 million it chose to spend over the next two fiscal years on new personnel for the fire department?
We’ll end with one other question from the survey. This time, the respondents were asked: Suppose new money for funding to end homelessness in Alameda County became available; how would you recommend spending it?
Here’s a chart of the top six responses:
We have to say, the agenda chosen by the homeless respondents sounds like pretty sound public policy to us. William F. Buckley Jr. once famously remarked that he’d rather be governed by the first 400 people listed in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard College. When it comes to homelessness issues, we’re tempted to echo Buckley by saying that we’d rather have the policy decisions made by the 1,681 homeless people who responded to the survey than by the five members of the Alameda City Council.