With the number of homeless individuals rising ever higher in California, one might think that policymakers would seek to ensure that taxpayer funds earmarked for affordable housing will be put to good use. However, a recent report highlighted one city’s grossly ineffective and potentially wasteful efforts at housing the homeless — a symptom not just of a lack of accountability, but a failed approach to tackling its homeless crisis.
Last week, the Oakland auditor released a detailed report regarding that city’s spending on affordable housing. In many respects, the auditor’s conclusion that nearly $69 million in taxpayer funds led to “mixed results” provides a euphemistic understatement. Because the city failed to track how many participants ended up in permanent housing, Oakland officials have no way of knowing whether its sole goal for the homeless — permanent housing placement — was accomplished.
The dysfunction doesn’t end there. The audit also noted that the city does not have an accurate count of the number of shelter beds available at any given time. And yet, amidst all the inadequate and incomplete data, the audit could definitively conclude that Oakland “was delivering homelessness services in proportion to the racial make-up of the City’s homelessness population.” Apparently, city officials prioritize quantifying racial equity in the distribution of taxpayer funds over assessing whether those taxpayer funds get put to good use.
The Oakland report seems shocking but given the state’s failed history on its affordable housing and homelessness crises, it’s not altogether surprising. In November 2020, the state auditor issued a report criticizing the “mismanagement and ultimate waste” of $2.7 billion in bond funds intended to support affordable housing efforts.
The auditor issued an eerily similar audit in 2021 condemning the mismanagement of homelessness in California, maintaining the state continues to have the largest homeless population in the nation “likely in part because its approach to addressing homelessness has been disjointed.”
“At least nine state agencies administer and oversee 41 different programs that provide funding to mitigate homelessness, yet no single entity oversees the State’s efforts or is responsible for developing a statewide strategic plan,” the audit says.
As with many government-centric programs, lack of an overall plan and duplicative efforts result in bureaucratic red tape and largesse, with beleaguered results.
Both reports, however, describe a solution that has been hiding in plain sight for years. The state needs a comprehensive approach to homelessness and affordable housing that allows for local flexibility, innovation and accountability to tackle the state’s homeless crisis.
If the Oakland report didn’t provide enough evidence of the need for reform, the old axiom about the definition of insanity — doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results — should focus officials’ minds. Until lawmakers in Sacramento, and in town halls across the Golden State, change their approach, scandals like those in Oakland will happen again and again.