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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, head of the BIG City Mayors, discusses the homeless problem after the group met with Gov. Gavin Newsom, fourth from right, at the Governor's office, Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif.Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press

In the midst of the worst crisis of homelessness in recent U.S. memory, the mayor of California’s capital city is proposing a radical solution: declaring housing a right for people who live here.

That right, written into an ordinance now working its way through Sacramento city hall, would obligate the city to provide at least two housing options – including locations designated for tents – to those on the streets, and empower the homeless to sue if options aren’t offered.

In return, the right would let the city prohibit camping by people who refuse offers.

If it passes, the ordinance would establish Sacramento as a leader in a state – and a country – where homelessness has become a visible expression of economic and social failures to provide basic necessities for large numbers of people. The Sacramento area alone now counts roughly 11,000 people without homes, double the pre-pandemic number.

But the push to make housing a right has now thrust the city into one of the most fierce debates on what the U.S. owes its vulnerable, and what it can demand from them in exchange. Advocates for the homeless call the proposed right a disguised effort to corral the homeless. Business interests, meanwhile, worry the ordinance will bring the city to its financial knees.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg likes to brandish a yellow notepad with a handwritten list of obstacles and requirements to make his plan reality. The obstacles alone “could fill multiple pages,” he says in an interview. They include NIMBYism, overregulation, excessive local control, lack of sufficient housing and insufficient innovation.

But Mr. Steinberg is a political veteran who spent more than 15 years in California’s state legislature, including as Senate president, and his record includes creating a state millionaire’s tax to fund mental health care. He likes to speak about the system of government as if it were an unwilling beast of burden. “There needs to be a prod – a heavy prod – to make the systems work more urgently and effectively,” he said. Existing rules in California obligate local governments to plan for sufficient housing, but contain no requirement to actually build it.

“What really happens in real life is that we don’t come close to meeting production, because all those obstacles, they win out – too many times – over the obvious need,” Mr. Steinberg says. “Because there’s no countervailing force.”

So he set out to create that force, which he brought to city hall last week as the Mayor’s Proposed Right to Housing Ordinance. By Jan. 1, 2023, the ordinance, and the rights it confers, would apply to “every unsheltered resident who was previously housed for at least one year in the city limits.”

In Sacramento and elsewhere, homelessness has become a core element of civic life and a central problem confronting political leadership. Across the U.S., the number of people on the streets is up by 30 per cent since 2015. Nationwide statistics aren’t yet available for this year, but urban officials and homeless advocates say the increase has been considerable. About 226,000 people in the country lived without shelter in December, 2020. Roughly half were in California.

In Sacramento, tents dot parks, freeway shoulders, sidewalks and the heart of downtown. At night, dozens of homeless people gather around City Hall, bedding down on sleeping bags and blankets as rats scurry past the main entrance.

In the city’s River District, an estimated 1,500 homeless live in less than four square kilometres. Jenna Abbott, a Canadian who is the district’s executive director, keeps on her phone a folder with images of fires that have charred cars and consumed tents. “We average seven fires a day,” she says.

“Many of the property and business owners here have PTSD because of the things they have seen,” Ms. Abbott says, describing sexual assaults, murders and open-air drug markets. People in the district are “compassionate, but they’re over it,” she adds. “We have to help these people. And we have to be helped ourselves.”

But she counts herself among the many who have lined up to question the mayor’s proposed right to housing. She points to a nearby affordable housing project that is building units at US$450,000 a door. “It’s ludicrous how much it costs,” she says. How, then, can the city afford to house 11,000 people currently on the streets?

“The way the ordinance is written, I worry it could bankrupt this city,” she says.

Others call the “right to housing” disingenuous, a misnomer for a policy that would let the city sweep homeless off the streets and place them into temporary shelters – a category that includes tents at designated spots. The draft ordinance says such temporary shelter can only be used if there’s a plan to give someone permanent housing. But it does not affix a timetable, nor does it require the provision of suitable housing, such as for people with pets or partners.

“When Mayor Steinberg says ‘right to housing,’ what he means is they want the right to force you, if you’re homeless, to go wherever they tell you to go,” said Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union. Shelters and safe ground spaces – where people can erect tents – are questionable solutions, given past experience with those that impose curfews and other limitations on personal freedoms. Such facilities can amount to mass internment, Mr. Prince said. Sacramento’s “right to housing” is “a spoonful of sugar that makes the poison go down,” he said.

James Guidi, a homeless Vietnam War veteran, straps a tarp onto his tent along a bank of the American River in Sacramento, Calif., on March 22, 2017.JIM WILSON/The New York Times

Pandemic-related job losses have made homelessness more acute across the U.S., but so have court decisions that changed how cities can treat people sleeping rough. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling – called Martin v. Boise – that found measures criminalizing homelessness to be unconstitutional. Mr. Prince is already planning a lawsuit against Sacramento for its proposed ordinance.

Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, warns of national implications if the ordinance passes. “I do see the reframing of what ‘housing’ actually means as dangerous,” he said. “And this is groundbreaking in that way, to legally redefine encampments and shelter as housing.”

In the absence of firm plans to build new homes – for example, a pledge for 5,000 units in three years – Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, fears the city’s right to housing stands simply to place many people in designated encampments, in conditions he likens to “domestic refugee camps.”

The debate is taking place largely out of view of those it will most affect. On a recent evening, Albert Schadwill was among those taking shelter outside Sacramento City Hall. He first experienced homelessness at 24. He’s now 48, and recently back on the streets after 16 months in jail for a parole violation. He had not heard of the proposed right, but recoiled at the concept of a rule that empowers the city to clear away the homeless. “Are you serious?” he said. “That’s totally not cool.”

Still, he and others said they would welcome a more secure place to put a tent. “To me, it sounds like a good idea,” says James Hartwell, who became homeless after he was hit by a car, leaving him with extensive medical bills. But, he said, “we do need housing here.”

Mr. Steinberg has made some concessions to critics. He has written the ordinance to ensure police are not used to clear away the homeless. And allowances had to be made for some people who aren’t ready for permanent housing, he said. “The question and the challenge is how quickly can we create more permanent housing?”

The city is equipped with more money than ever before, roughly US$100-million from grants and surpluses, with an expectation it can obtain another US$100-million from federal Build Back Better funds. Even so, at a US$450,000-a-door cost for affordable housing, “we’re not going to meet the volume” of housing required, Mr. Steinberg acknowledges. The city needs to look at manufactured and tiny homes, he says.

But even if a right to housing is no panacea, it stands to propel the system to help more people, Mr. Steinberg argues. For him, that includes maintaining the provision to move homeless people from the streets. “It is not a civil right to be living in the worst conditions imaginable,” he says.

“We all want the same thing. We all want to help people,” he adds. “Nobody thinks it’s right for people to be living in such squalor, in ways that are unhealthy – that are unsafe and that is harmful to the community as well.”

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