The housing debate here on the coast has been brewing for years. There are some among us, including Quinn Ebert, the author of last week’s opinion piece, who oppose opening a homeless shelter. No doubt those same people have been vocal opponents of the affordable housing development proposed for Moss Beach.
As a local housing attorney for more than 20 years, I have a different perspective — a perspective that takes into account the systems and policies that have led to the current housing crisis that leaves thousands of unhoused or underhoused people living among us here, in one of the wealthiest regions in the world. Does a local business owner have a duty to serve a homeless person who is belligerent or fails to wear a mask during this pandemic? Of course not. But that question posed in last week’s opinion piece misses the mark.
Every day, I see clients who have become homeless or housing unstable through no fault of their own. I have worked with foster children who have aged out of the foster care system and landed in homeless shelters because they have no family or government support while they attend college or work menial jobs. I have worked with agricultural laborers and hotel cleaning staff whose only option is to share a rat-infested, converted barn with strangers. I have clients who have been evicted by their landlords after they refused to engage in sex. These are the real stories of the homeless.
The forces that drive homelessness in the United States know no borders. The housing meltdown of 2008, growing wealth inequality, discrimination, and NIMBY-ism have created a monster of housing instability that extends from Half Moon Bay to Tulare, San Diego to Eureka, and all places in between. San Mateo County and the United States as a whole were shaped by biased government policies that created segregation and discrimination, such as redlining — the practice of excluding majority non-white areas from mortgage loans, homeowners insurance and utility services.
Our own Coastside was not immune from these forces. Parts of La Honda had restrictive covenants limiting home sales to “whites only” until 2007, when a lawsuit officially struck them down. A local mobile home park required higher qualifications from Latino applicants than white applicants until they were sued for discriminating. Discrimination against people of color in rental housing and mortgage lending translate into lower average wealth for African-Americans and people of color, as African-Americans and Latinos are much less likely to own property they can pass on to their children. The racial wealth gap increased over 50 percent between 1992 and 2016, when the median white family had more than 10 times the wealth of the median Black family.
On the coast and elsewhere, local attitudes against affordable housing and zoning regulations have resulted in the development of little to no multifamily housing in our area, which is the type of housing more likely to be within the budget of lower income families who cannot afford to purchase a house. San Mateo County has consistently failed to meet its legal obligations to provide affordable housing to people who already live and work here. From 1988 to 2014, the county issued permits for only 34 percent of the low- and very low-income housing required under state law.
Government policies and our collective “not-in-my-back-yard” attitudes have put the squeeze on those left out of the economic boom. With the median home price at an eye-popping $1.7 million, and median rents for a two-bedroom apartment exceeding $2,700 per month, the cost of housing is beyond reach for all but the very wealthy. Those left behind crowd in with friends or relatives, live in garages or cars, or sleep in homeless encampments.
Our eviction laws and the premium value that our society grants to property owners add insult to injury for renters. Most evictions result from rent arrears of one month or less, with most tenants unrepresented by counsel in court. A renter can be thrown out of their home for owing what amounts to less than a month of Starbucks or Peets for you and me. An eviction stains a renter’s credit for years to come, making it even harder to find stable, decent housing. This can be disastrous for an entire family, creating a domino effect of frequent moves, substandard housing conditions, and school instability.
The giant holes in our societal safety net leave little protection for average families who are priced out of the housing market. A job loss, car breakdown, or catastrophic medical bill can send a low-wage family into the ranks of the thousands of homeless in San Mateo County. Untreated mental health disabilities and substance abuse disorders may increase the likelihood of losing housing, because our nation has failed to prioritize funding for treatment. Only 12 percent of those who have a substance abuse disorder have access to treatment.
I support homeless shelters and affordable housing here as one part of a countywide effort to stem the tide of homelessness. Other services to assist the homeless, including mental health treatment and employment search assistance, must also rise to the top of the priority list. Homeless shelters and affordable housing will not decrease our property values or increase crime rates. On the contrary, long-term studies consistently show that having a mix of income levels in a community and a wide range of supportive services benefits everyone without reducing property values.
The relevant question in this debate is not whether a business owner should have to serve a belligerent person, homeless or otherwise. The relevant question is whether we have the moral compass and compassion to recognize injustice in our midst and do our part to rectify it.
Liza Cristol-Deman is a nationally recognized fair housing attorney who lives and works on the coast.