Affordable housing is critical to solving homelessness

The high cost of living, image by William Potter

OPINION – Living unhoused is isolating, terrifying, and takes years off your life. I know this because I’ve lived it.

Today, I have the opportunity to help lift people out of housing insecurity through the Homekey Program, established by Governor Newsom to help solve California’s homelessness crisis by bringing affordable housing to the market quickly. I’m incredibly proud of this work, but I’m increasingly worried that our progress is being undermined by the state’s neglect of workers like me, which has led to turnover, vacancies, and stalled work.

A groundbreaking and startling new report shows California is losing the battle to bring people out of homelessness because living in our state is simply unaffordable. Too many families and seniors are living a reality I’m all too familiar with – they are just barely eking out their rent payments; one blow to their budget – having their hours cut at work, or having their car break down – forces them into living in an RV, a tent, or beneath an overpass.  It was exactly these circumstances that led my partner and I to spend months raising our baby out of a car.

Homekey supports local governments in building affordable housing or converting hotels and motels into affordable rentals. My team helps finance the construction and then monitors projects to make sure that the housing is going to the people who need it and that people applying to live in these buildings don’t face discrimination.

We’re working to address the biggest crisis in our state, and we are proud that Governor Newsom holds up our work on Homekey as a model nationally. But what most people don’t know about this transformative initiative is that many of us who work in the program are struggling to afford our own housing.

A groundbreaking and startling new report shows California is losing the battle to bring people out of homelessness because living in our state is simply unaffordable.

Wages are so low that we can’t keep critical positions filled. The agency that oversees California’s housing programs is operating with just 60% of its staff, according to recent data from the State Controller’s Office. And the stakes are high. Severe understaffing means it takes longer to open buildings, which means we can help fewer people and those awaiting housing are forced to live on the streets longer.

Getting the doors to affordable homes open quickly is critical for California’s families and communities.

But like all my co-workers, I’m grappling with the reality that our low wages–ironically–make it hard to afford our own housing. I still qualify for affordable housing now–which is the only way I can get by. And many of my coworkers make even less, so they go to food banks and churches to have enough food each month. This isn’t sustainable for us, and it’s not sustainable for Californians.

Critical state services from parks and consumer protection to fire response are facing a similar exodus of staff who just can’t afford to stay in state service any longer.

Together with my co-workers and my union, SEIU Local 1000, I’m pushing for a new contract that pays state workers enough to provide the basics for our families, like healthy food for our kids. But making state jobs good jobs is bigger than state workers and our families – it’s about the Californians who depend on us.

State workers’ contract expired June 30, and things won’t get better until Governor Newsom’s administration comes to the table on a contract that respects, protects and pays the people who keep our state running.

For Governor Newsom’s groundbreaking initiatives – on homelessness, climate adaptation, and public health – to succeed, he must first ensure that the people serving California can afford our own shelter and survival in this great state.

Krystal Coles works for the Department of Housing and Community Development and is a member of SEIU Local 1000.

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