John Hardin / @ 7:18 a.m. / Op-Ed

HARDIN: Let’s Dump ‘Housing First’ and Declare a Housing Crisis


Everyone knows we have a housing crisis in Humboldt County. Landlords love it, and couldn’t care less. Now that the marijuana industry has taken over much of the residential housing in Humboldt County, landlords can, and do, charge a lot of money for anything with a roof. Most of the rental housing is already sub-standard, especially here in SoHum, because most landlords know that it is easier to find new tenants than fix problems that tenants complain about.

For tenants, it’s a nightmare. Many people pay half or more of their monthly income in rent, just to have a roof over their head. The high rent prices in Humboldt County eat working people alive. Business people complain about how hard it is to find good help around here, but it’s damn near impossible for working people to find a place to live, and greedy landlords use that shortage to drain the workforce. Local landlords wreck the workforce because by the time you’ve been fucked over by a few Humboldt County slumlords, you’ve learned how to live in the woods without water, electricity, heat, a roof over your head, or money in your pocket, for extended periods of time. Once you’ve gotten used to that, why do you need a job, or a home?

The housing crisis is real, working people feel it a lot, and it hurts. To landlords, it just feels like a big sloppy wet BJ. Business people complain about not finding good help, but they complain even more about people who prefer not to work, or pay rent, hanging around in public shopping districts. We have a whole complex of social problems, which cause an enormous amount of suffering for the people of Humboldt County, all triggered by an acute shortage of affordable housing. That’s what we mean by the words “housing crisis,” and a “housing crisis” is what we have here in Humboldt County

For some reason, the Board of Supervisors seem reluctant to declare it. They know that we have all of these problems, and they know that the shortage of affordable housing causes all of these problems. They’ve talked about it a lot, but so far, all they’ve done is hire the consulting firm: Focus Strategies. Focus Strategies have been selling them on the “Housing First” concept. These consultants have advised the county against declaring a housing crisis, and against spending any money on solving the housing crisis, except through their “Housing First” program.

I know that “Housing First” sounds like a great idea, or slogan, or something. I can imagine it on a bumper sticker. But what does it mean?

“Housing First” got a lot of attention as the strategy that Utah used to find housing for all of their homeless people. Utah is a funny place, and most of what made “Housing First” successful in Utah does not translate well to Humboldt County.

In Utah, it’s hard to overestimate the influence of the Mormon Church. Mormons have a strong tradition of compassion, and for helping the poor. Very few places, other than Utah, have such well funded, and well intended churches, and few churches do as much to help people in need, directly, as the Church of Latter Day Saints. Mormons, however, do not tolerate drugs or alcohol. Because of this, unrepentant drug addicts consistently fell through the cracks in Utah, and ended up on the streets, while others got the help they needed from the church.

This is the crux of the “Housing First” strategy. Under Utah’s “Housing First” plan, the government hired caseworkers to put homeless drug addicts into subsidized housing, so that at least they would have a room to abuse drugs in, and other people wouldn’t have to see them abuse drugs in public. “Housing First” created a taxpayer subsidized program to put homeless drug addicts into apartments that did not require people to quit drugs as a condition of receiving help. Once Utah did that, their homeless population disappeared, but only because everyone else got help from the church.

I kid you not! That is the whole crux of the “Housing First” biscuit. “Housing First” means “Subsidized Housing for Drug Addicts.” It means that landlords will get reliable monthly checks from taxpayers for letting drug addicts crash in a hovel on their property. “Housing First” gives landlords the option of taking a guaranteed monthly check from the government, rather than renting to working people who might have their hours cut, get laid off, or have other financial difficulties before their lease expires.

“Housing First” does not create any new housing. “Housing First” does nothing to relieve the housing crisis. In fact, “Housing First” will exacerbate the housing crisis by putting subsidized drug addicts, with caseworkers, in direct competition with working families for the already scarce available housing.

In Utah, thanks to the Church of Latter Day Saints, they have a compassionate community of organized people who want to help. The challenge, for them, was to get around the church’s objection to helping unrepentant alcoholics and drug addicts. That’s not our problem here. Here in Humboldt County, thanks to the black-market marijuana industry, we’re all unrepentant alcoholics and drug addicts, and we don’t give a fuck about each other. The challenge for us is greedy, well organized landowners who control our local government and consistently use that power to suck ever more blood out of overtaxed and overburdened working people.

In Utah, “Housing First” helped a compassionate community overcome its prejudice against drug addicts, which allowed their well established, commonsense approach to homelessness to succeed more completely. Here in Humboldt County, “Housing First” helps greedy landlords exploit a drug-addicted community more effectively, by smothering compassion and common sense beneath a big fluffy pillow labeled “Housing First,” and then creates an expensive bureaucracy that drains county coffers, drives rent prices through the roof, and makes life harder for poor and working families in Humboldt County.

Don’t ever forget that the people who control our Board of Supervisors are the very same developers and landowners who created this housing crisis to begin with. They make their living by screwing over poor and working people, and all they want is more for themselves. If the Board of Supervisors implements “Housing First” in Humboldt County as they plan, the only way you will ever find an affordable place to live is if you quit your job, stop bathing and make a chronic nuisance of yourself in a public shopping district. “Housing First” is a cynical scam designed to put the taxpayer’s money in landlords’ pockets and sweep the chronically ugly off of the streets, while it drives rent prices up, makes it harder for working people to find a place to live, and insures that more of the people who live and work in Humboldt County suffer hardship and poverty.

It’s time to dump “Housing First” and declare a “Housing Crisis.” The Supes should stop wasting the taxpayer’s money on consultants from out of town, and instead, do everything they can to empower local organizations like AHHA with compassionate, commonsense solutions to Humboldt County’s housing crisis. We need housing solutions that work for our community, because, thankfully, Humboldt County is not dominated by do-gooder Mormon teetotalers , and the solution that worked in Utah will never work here.

We need a homegrown, grassroots solution to our housing crisis, not some fatally-flawed, cookie-cutter clone. We need more than just housing; We need to find a better way to live. We have a proud tradition of alternative, owner-built housing here in Humboldt County. We should continue and expand on that tradition of innovation by making space for people to build human-scale homes for themselves. Everyone needs a place to live, and everyone needs a place to live that they can afford. If developers won’t provide that for the people who live here, then let the people who live here do it for themselves.

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John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.


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