Mar 14, 2023 - Podcasts

Homelessness drives local politics in the Western U.S.

Homelessness increased nationwide in 2022. Nearly 600,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2022, according to a HUD assessment. All of this is having a big impact on local elections in Western cities.

  • Plus, the markets react to the Silicon Valley Bank fallout.
  • And, the Biden administration tries to balance energy and the environment in Alaska.

Guests: Axios' John Frank, Kim Bojórquez, Matt Phillips and Ben Geman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, March 14.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the markets react to the Silicon Valley Bank fallout. Plus, the Biden administration tries to balance energy and the environment in Alaska. But first, homelessness drives local politics in the Western U.S. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

Homelessness drives local politics in the Western U.S.

NIALA: Homelessness increased nationwide in 2022. Nearly 600,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January in this country. That's according to one HUD assessment. The lack of affordable housing and homelessness is having a big impact on local elections around the country, especially on the West coast.

Ballots went out yesterday in Denver's Mayor's race where Axios’ John Frank has been covering this. We're also joined by Axios Salt Lake City's Kim Bojórquez, where this is also playing out. Hey John. Hi Kim.


JOHN FRANK: Good to talk to you.

NIALA: John, how is this issue playing out in Denver right now?

JOHN: Well, homelessness and crime, because they're so entangled, is the number one issue in the Denver mayor's race. All the candidates are talking about it all have fairly different ideas on how to solve it for that matter. And what we're really seeing here that's reflective of the national tone. A policy shift that is moving toward enforcement, as the main way to solve this and not a more compassionate road about getting services to vulnerable populations.

That change is incredibly significant here in Denver, and we're seeing at least four mayor candidates who support involuntary commitment or the arrest of people that won't go into shelters.

NIALA: Kim, are those conversations also happening in Salt Lake City?

KIM: Yes, and homelessness is the focal point in this year's Salt Lake City mayoral race. A state report last year said the percentage of people experiencing homelessness for the first time rose by 14% between 2020 and 2021, and officials said it was most likely because of high rent costs and housing.

NIALA: And so in Salt Lake City, are they also having conversations about getting tougher on enforcement around people who experience homelessness?

KIM: I've definitely seen both approaches. Sometimes you will have sweeping of encampments and city officials will say that it's necessary to avoid a public health hazard. And some housing advocates will argue that it's inhumane. But, you've also seen some pretty interesting proposals to solve homelessness. For example, the Salt Lake City Council last year approved a tiny home village, and that is currently in development. I have increasingly heard leaders say that in order to tackle homelessness, you really need to take a holistic approach. So it's not just affordable housing, but it's also mental health services, addiction services, and things like that.

JOHN: The main driver of homelessness, particularly in the West, is affordable housing. You know, these major cities have not had their housing stock keep up with population growth when they're talking about these new affordable housing solutions, whether it's the tiny home village in Salt Lake City, we have one of those in Denver as well, or a sanctioned campsite or even turning some hotels and motels into affordable housing. All of them include some kind of what they call wraparound services, which is mental health services, drug addiction services, other government services safety nets to help get these people up on their feet. It is all related, but it all starts with affordable housing or the lack thereof.

NIALA: So what do you all think these local races are telling us about how the entire country is dealing with unhoused portions of America?

JOHN: At the national level, this homelessness crisis is showing up much more as a crime issue, and that's what you're hearing a lot of the politicians talk about in D.C. because it's, it's a much easier talking point. What's interesting about homelessness it very much is going to factor into national politics. We're already starting to see it trickle into state races, governors, races, and so forth, cause it's not just a major city problem anymore, it's trickling into the suburbs. Even some rural areas of Colorado are having a significant homeless problem. So it's becoming a statewide issue and it's very easily going to move to the national level and how much the pandemic aid from the federal government is going to help solve this problem or not is very much gonna be an issue.

NIALA: Axios’ Denver reporter John Frank and Axios’ Salt Lake City reporter Kim Bojórquez. Thanks to both of you.

JOHN: My pleasure.

KIM: Thank you.

The markets react to the Silicon Valley Bank fallout

NIALA: All eyes were on the markets yesterday, for reaction to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on Friday and a weekend of extraordinary action by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the FDIC. Axios Markets Correspondent Matt Phillips explains what the markets told us Monday.

MATT PHILLIPS: The message from the stock market seems to be, this isn't quite over. Mid-sized banks really took a beating on Monday. Foremost among them is this bank, First Republic, which is sort of thought to be similar in some ways to Silicon Valley Bank.

It was down about 60%, but there was a handful of other regional banks, some of which are based in California, that were also down almost 30%. It seems to be that there are still significant jitters, at least among investors about the business prospects for these banks.

The only other thing I'd say I'm spotlighting is that there was a lot of money that went into super safe short-term U.S. government bonds, which suggests there's still considerable worries out there. On the other hand, the overall stock market was not that bad, so tech stocks were up. The S&P, the broad stock market index, was kind of a little bit down, you know, 0.2% down, so it's not quite over yet, but it doesn't seem like the stock market is freaking out, broadly.

NIALA: That’s Axios Markets Correspondent Matt Phillips.

After the break: Biden greenlights an Alaska drilling project.


Biden tries to balance energy and the environment in Alaska

NIALA: Welcome back Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

The Biden administration announced yesterday that it'll approve oil company ConocoPhillips Willow Project in Alaska, which is estimated to produce around 576 million barrels of oil over 30 years. This part of Alaska is one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas of America. Axios’ Ben Geman is here with the big picture.

Ben, what exactly is the president's strategy here, given both the energy and environmental concerns the Biden administration is dealing with?

BEN GEMAN: I mean, basically this is coming at a time in which the administration is under pressure to act more aggressively on climate change and sort of hasten the country's efforts to pivot away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, with the crisis in Russia, that has really put energy security and oil security at the forefront and put a lot more focus on that. So you had these sort of competing pressures on the administration and they've sort of tried to, in a sense, split the difference here, right?

I mean, the kind of headline, big picture is that they did approve this major project, although they approved it in a smaller configuration than ConocoPhillips had been seeking. On the other hand, they also announced a whole series of new protections to sort of prevent drilling in other areas of the Arctic, both onshore and offshore.

NIALA: The Department of Interior did an environmental analysis of the project you wrote, its carbon output is estimated to be just a tiny fraction of U.S. CO2 emissions. So is this more about the symbolism of allowing for more drilling in Alaska?

BEN: You know, I really think it's both. I mean, on the one hand, this would produce an estimated 180,000 barrels per day at its peak, and approximately 600 million barrels over the multi-decade lifetime of the project. Now, to put it in some context, the world uses about 100 million barrels of oil every single day. So from that standpoint, it is not necessarily that big of a deal. On the other hand, this is coming as the International Energy Agency and climate scientists have been very explicit and clear that the world needs a rapid, immediate, and sustained pivot away from fossil fuels to keep global climate goals from completely slipping away.

NIALA: Ben, so does this give us clues about future actions by the Biden administration when it comes to climate change as well as energy production?

BEN: You know, that is a great question. I was at a huge energy conference in Houston last week in which John Podesta, a top White House Energy and Climate official was essentially trying to say, no this is a sort of unique case, really, and doesn't carry necessarily any wider significance. At the same time, you've got an administration that is clearly struggling to balance its goals around domestic production and energy security while at the same time trying to, sort of walk the walk on its climate change commitments. So this was sort of very delicate and tricky all across the board.

NIALA: Ben Geman writes the Axios Generate newsletter. Thanks Ben.

BEN: Thanks for having me on.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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