No Obligation

Mayor’s housing promise is worst idea yet

By R.E. Graswich
January 2022

Now we know how Darrell Steinberg’s political story ends. The mayor doesn’t fade away to cheers from sports fans thankful for the soccer stadium he coaxed into existence. There is no stadium. He doesn’t salute a revitalized embarcadero along the Sacramento River. There is no new waterfront.

But there are 11,000 homeless people.

After years of parliamentary gamesmanship, passionate speeches, tax hikes and wasted opportunities, Steinberg will be remembered for one thing—how he took Sacramento and turned it into the capital of homelessness.

The mayor’s “Housing Right and Obligation Act” is the final act for a politician obsessed with homelessness and his inability to end it. Consumed by the nightmare of grimy tents, trash piles and schizophrenics speaking in riddles, Steinberg has lost the ability to think straight.

Thankfully, his “Housing Right and Obligation Act” is dead on arrival. City Council members itemized the problems: Huge legal exposure. No funding. No staffing. No alignments with current programs. No county participation.

“To say that the city must create housing for 11,000 people simply isn’t going to happen,” Councilmember Jeff Harris says.

“There’s no way for us to provide these services,” Councilmember Angelique Ashby says.

“We need a good understanding about how we’re putting ourselves out there and what our risks are,” Councilmember Jay Schenirer says. “We can’t do this by ourselves.”

But Steinberg is relentless. He believes free housing is the best way to free the sidewalks of tents. In theory, he’s right. But as a practical matter, he might as well offer local homeless people 11,000 new red Teslas.

The “Housing Right and Obligation Act” comes in two parts. Steinberg claims the pieces fit together in synergy—a carrot and stick to entice homeless people in from the rain. But he’s disingenuous.

The two parts don’t fit together. There’s no conjunction between the mayor’s housing right and the obligation of homeless people to accept it. For homeless people, there are no obligations.

Steinberg claims he would evict street campers who refuse city-sponsored housing. But there’s no mandate to bulldoze illegal settlements and the squalor and crime they promote. Sidewalk evictions are merely a suggestion.

The mayor pretends the word “obligation” applies to homeless people, but his proposal puts the legal weight exclusively on the city’s shoulders. If Sacramento fails to provide free housing for 11,000 homeless people, plus those en route, Steinberg creates a glide path to litigation. He invites the unsheltered to sue. And he leaves the city nearly helpless to defend itself.

To steer his free housing scheme away from Fantasy Island, the mayor adds a tissue-thin condition of residency. The condition is almost funny.

Steinberg wants shelter-seekers to present evidence that they spent a year in Sacramento before claiming their free home. What sort of evidence? Well, whatever. Cardboard scraps scribbled with street addresses should work. The mayor provides no guidance on how or who will validate such documents.

To qualify for free housing, a person must simply give “the name or locations where the claimant has lived for the 12 months preceding the date of the claim.” Sacramento will become a promised land for people living rough from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Finally, the mayor provides no duties for people who enjoy free housing. There are no obligations for sobriety, treatment or even non-violence. There is certainly no pressure for anyone to find a job.

The mayor doesn’t know where the city will find the billions to power his proposal. He expects other people to pay, taxpayers near and far. From his report to the City Council: “Unprecedented state and federal resources are available to reduce unsheltered homelessness, making now the time to act.”

Speaking of time, when Steinberg was elected in 2016, Sacramento was vibrant and emerging and shedding its reputation as an overgrown cow town where state workers raise families and retirees escape the Bay Area. No one who visits Downtown today will call it vibrant or emerging.

The mayor didn’t cause homelessness, anymore than he caused the pandemic. So this is how his story ends: His timing was awful. His ideas weren’t much better.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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