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October 2023, Volume 29, Number 4

California: Water, Housing

After three dry years, California received record rain and snow in 2022-23, over 33 inches, ending drought conditions. Tropical Storm Hilary brought a rare burst of summer rain to southern California in August 2023. There were also fewer wildfires in 2023 than in previous years.

The federal government does not regulate the pumping of groundwater. California enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which gives local water districts responsibility for not over drafting aquifers. Most midwestern states do not regulate the extraction of groundwater, which means that the Ogallala Aquifer could be drained by center pivot irrigation systems that irrigate circular fields from Kansas to Texas.

California provides benefits to its estimated two million unauthorized residents, including driver’s licenses, K-12 education, in-state tuition at public colleges and state financial aid, and Medi-Cal health insurance for low-income unauthorized children, young adults, and seniors. California’s 1.1 million unauthorized workers are eligible for tax credits, meaning that they can receive state payments to augment low earnings if they file taxes and have children.

In 2024, the state will make Medi-Cal benefits available to all low-income residents regardless of immigration status, and in 2025 the state will provide food aid to the unauthorized. Several pending bills would provide state unemployment insurance benefits to laid off unauthorized workers.

Housing. California has 12 percent of US residents and almost half of US homeless people, some 170,000, including 115,000 who sleep on the streets, often in tent encampments. Over $20 billion was spent on homelessness between 2020 and 2023 as the number of homeless people increased, in part because many homeless people reject city-offered shelter.

Oakland razed the Wood Street homeless encampment with 200 residents and moved half of the residents to community cabins and an RV camp. The other half rejected six month stays in city-run shelters because they wanted to keep their belongings with them.

In 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Boise could not clear homeless camps and criminally charge campers unless it could offer adequate housing. Grants Pass, Oregon challenged this Ninth Circuit decision before the USSC, and leaders of states and cities in September 2023 filed briefs in support of Grants Pass, arguing that the Ninth Circuit decision was making parts of cities unlivable.

Flannery Associates spent about $1 billion over five years to buy farmland near Fairfield 60 miles northeast of San Francisco to create a new city. Silicon Valley tech executives want Solano County voters to allow the land to be rezoned for cities.

California is a story of growth, from very few people in 1848 to almost 40 million with a $3.6 trillion GDP in 2020, giving the state the fifth largest economy in the world after the US, China, Japan and Germany. After decades of growth, California’s population slipped to 39 million during covid, and is projected to remain at about 40 million over the next decade.

The state’s revenue, which depends heavily on income taxes paid by the top one percent of earners, is unlikely to grow fast enough to finance the state’s $310 billion a year budget. With Texas, Florida, and other states adding people, California will likely lose Congressional seats.

San Francisco and its 808,000 residents are struggling. The 26 percent office vacancy rate in downtown San Francisco in 2023 is higher than the 19 percent average vacancy rate in US cities. Many downtown San Francisco anchor stores closed, as did the largest downtown San Francisco mall. Tech firms are giving up office space as more of their employees work remotely to avoid homelessness, open drug use and street crime.

Across the US, many office workers are in their offices only Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

SF is also in the vanguard of cities suffering from organized theft rings that target retailers, taking goods worth hundreds and sometimes injuring employees and shoppers; stolen items are often sold online on Amazon or Ebay. A third of the $110 billion in annual “shrink” in retail stores is attributed to external theft including theft rings. Many cities have made thefts of less than $1,000 misdemeanors, which retailers say invites theft.

SB 403, which would ban discrimination by caste in California, divided Indians. Immigrants from India and their descendants who are Dalits or untouchables say the anti-discrimination bill is needed, but other South Asians say that SB 403 is an attack on the Hindu religion and that current laws that ban discrimination on the basis of religion and ancestry are sufficient.

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