7th and H Sacramento

Sacramento Makes Plans to Mandate a Right to Housing

In his State of the City address this summer, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made national headlines with an ambitious promise.

“I propose that our city be the first to enact both a legal right to safe shelter and housing, and a parallel obligation for unsheltered people to accept that shelter and housing when it is offered,” said Mayor Steinberg in his speech. “No city or state has paired such a right and obligation together.”

Steinberg’s proposal comes as a response to tragic numbers of California residents living unsheltered on the streets – numbers that have, in many cities, seemed to increase during the pandemic. With the availability of new pandemic-related federal and state funding, municipalities are seeking forward-thinking solutions that comply with 2019’s landmark Martin versus The City of Boise ruling. In Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit declared it unconstitutional for cities to “sweep” encampments if displaced residents aren’t offered somewhere else to live.

Proponents of Steinberg’s proposal feel that a legal requirement to provide shelter is a crucial step towards housing Sacramento’s homeless population. Creating sufficient interim or permanent supportive housing to meet the rising need will be a massive undertaking, requiring significant funding, time, and political will, and a legal mandate might be necessary to keep plans on track. While Los Angeles and other cities have been sued to expand shelter and housing capacity, Sacramento would instead be taking a proactive stance in offering housing to each of its unsheltered residents.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Concerns about the proposal are generally focused on the mandate that people offered shelter or housing must accept it. The means by which this mandate would be enforced are not yet clear. Steinberg asserted that refusal to accept an offer would not lead to criminal charges or monetary fines (which would be hard to collect from a group of people with very little income). Experts agree that criminalizing homelessness would fail to achieve intended outcomes and create even more barriers to people becoming housed.

Advocates for homeless people’s civil rights also have questions about the quality of shelter or housing that Sacramento will be able to deliver, some of which were addressed in the City’s new siting plan. While demand for interim shelter space far outstrips supply in many California cities, people can be hesitant to move into shelters that prohibit pets, separate them from their partners, or don’t provide secure spaces to store possessions. Steinberg rebutted this sentiment in his proclamation, saying, “There is no liberty in dying alone on the street.” The dire health impacts of homelessness have been heavily cited, and many agree that the government must intervene to save as many lives as possible.

Mayor Steinberg and the Sacramento City Council began to implement their ambitious plan on August 10, with the approval of funding and locations for twenty new shelter sites. As the state’s stubborn homelessness crisis continues to worsen, many more lawmakers will likely seek to pick up the pace in the fight to get Californians housed, and all eyes will be on Sacramento to see if this bold strategy gets results.

Watch for updates on this story in future issues of the MHC monthly e-news.