California leaders have not owned the scale or vastness of the housing crisis | Opinion

It is nothing short of a crisis when a family struggles to afford a place to live. For too many Californians, sky-high housing costs eat up more than half of their income, leaving little for other basic needs like food, utilities, transportation, childcare and healthcare. On any given night, more than 171,000 Californians experience homelessness.

Low-income people, people of color, seniors and other marginalized people are disproportionately harmed, but the problem impacts all of us.

While the California Legislature and local governments have made some strides on housing, our state policymakers and government institutions have not owned the scale, vastness and insidiousness of the problem.

State leaders need to embrace housing as a foundational component of our social contract. Californians need to afford the roofs over their heads in order to partake in the economy and prosper. Ending this crisis feels intractable, but solutions are within reach and making substantial progress will yield profound economic, public health and social benefits for California.


According to federal data, half of all Americans living on the streets live in California. Homeless service and housing providers have radically increased the number of people they serve, but their progress is undermined as new households fall into homelessness because rents outpace wage growth and affordable housing production is stifled.

State leaders have an imperative to protect economically vulnerable Californians from the threat of displacement and homelessness. During the pandemic, expanded safety net programs had nearly immediate impacts on household well-being. Between 2019 and 2021, California’s poverty rates dropped by a third and child poverty was cut in half, pulling nearly 1.7 million children out of poverty. California should learn from this and strengthen our safety net with direct cash assistance, rental assistance and other programs that put money in the pockets of low income households. Combined with policies to limit unfair rent increases and evictions without cause, this would provide stability to millions of families and other struggling people who can’t wait for us to build new affordable homes.

California will have to spend $18 billion a yearabout what we spend on prisonsover the next decade to build the 1.2 million homes necessary to meet urgent housing needs. The state has increased housing spending, but after years of minimal investment, current funding reflects a fraction of the need. Scaling up will take creativity and courage, including ongoing investments from our state general fund and the adoption of new revenue measures to support housing and homelessness programs. Current efforts to put statewide housing bonds and a proposal to lower the voter threshold for local housing bonds on the ballot in 2024 are a crucial step forward.

Scaling and streamlining existing affordable housing programs would allow developers to save money and work faster. And removing archaic discriminatory policies that make it difficult to build multi-family housing in opportunity rich communities, or require voter approval to build publicly funded housing, would create savings and new opportunities to build affordable homes. Providing funding to local governments, non-profit affordable housing providers and community land trusts to purchase housing on the private market to preserve as permanently affordable would ensure these homes stay affordable even as neighborhoods change.

All of this must be done with a focus on addressing deep racial inequities in our housing system. For decades, we have ignored the legacy of explicitly and implicitly racist policies that lock people of color out of ownership opportunities, create and reinforce neighborhoods of deep racially concentrated poverty and contribute to widespread housing anxiety for people of color. A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the gap in home ownership rates between Black and white families is at a 120 year high. And research by the California Public Policy Institute shows that since the COVID pandemic commenced, Black and Latino Californians have lost considerable ground on home ownership rates relative to whites.

Housing policies must be designed to explicitly address racial inequities driving these outcomes and move us toward a housing system that repairs past harms and uplifts marginalized people.

Government leaders are stepping up to the challenge and have enacted some new budget commitments, policies and programs to provide affordable homes and supportive services to more Californians. These actions should be celebrated, but they are not enough. It is time for our leaders to double down on their commitments and adopt bold solutions that match the scale of the problem.

Chione Lucina Muñoz Flegal is the executive director of Housing California , a statewide advocacy organization based in Sacramento. Chris Iglesias is the CEO of The Unity Council , a non-profit social equity development corporation with over 50 years of history in Oakland. The authors are leading participants in an Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy-supported network of California leaders committed to inclusive economy and governance innovations.