America’s homelessness crisis is far worse in certain coastal cities. Seattle and San Francisco’s homeless populations per capita are five times that of Chicago and Detroit. Why is this? In their book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns,” University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and data scientist Clayton Page Aldern use detailed statistical analysis to explain regional variation in rates of homelessness across major US metropolitan areas. The title of their book is a spoiler as to what the data reveals: “regional variation in rates of homelessness can be explained by the costs and availability of housing.”
Many strongly held opinions exist as to the primary causes of homelessness. Popular ones focus on the personal attributes and behaviors of homeless individuals. The authors analyzed many of these factors, including poverty, labor markets, race, addiction and mental illness. The data shows that although individual factors may have led to a specific individual becoming homeless, there isn’t a positive statistical relationship as to the differences in rates of homelessness between regions.
For example, midwestern cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago have higher poverty rates but lower homelessness than coastal cities. The consequences of being poor in coastal cities is more profound. Also, coastal cities have robust labor markets, yet high homelessness.
Regarding race, Black people make up 13% of Americans, but 40% of the homeless population, largely due to historic (and current) racialized structural disadvantages in housing, lending practices, education, health care, employment, policing and incarceration. “Fewer things need to go wrong in your life for you to end up losing your housing if you’re Black.” But cities with high Black populations, such as Detroit and Baltimore, have lower rates of homelessness than coastal cities.
It’s “a persistent argument that certain cities have created a culture that encourages homelessness to thrive and persist — as a practice and a choice.” That is, when communities provide homeless people “ruinous compassion” in the form of support programs, the argument goes that you actually encourage homelessness. The data shows the opposite. Access to assistance programs reduces homelessness, and it’s uncommon for homeless people to move to cities with more generous assistance programs. Homeless individuals are actually far less mobile than housed people. Over 80% of people experiencing homelessness remained in the same community after becoming homeless. That’s not surprising, given the importance of community in helping a person exit homelessness.
Regarding mental health and drug use, studies indicate that “between 25 and 40 percent of the individual (i.e., non-family) homeless population has a substance use disorder and about a quarter of the single adult population experiences some form of mental illness.” Restated, the majority of people experiencing homelessness do not have these conditions. Also, “the vast majority of people with these conditions never lose their housing.”
It is true that the longer a person experiences homelessness, the more “scarring” they experience, and the harder it becomes for them to exit homelessness. It’s not surprising that the harsh and traumatic conditions of homelessness often drive people to use drugs and alcohol to cope. But mental illness and addiction don’t explain differing rates of homelessness between regions.
Where the data did explain the regional differences in homelessness is in vacancy rates and the cost of housing. Once the cost of housing exceeds 30% of household income, homelessness rises. Low income combined with high rents leads to homelessness. When rental property vacancy rates are low, rents go up accordingly. Thus, low vacancy rates join high rental costs “as the only variables that explain regional variation in homelessness.”
It’s not just a shortage of low-income housing; overall housing shortages drive homelessness.
Fast growing regions don’t necessarily have growing homelessness. Communities with growing population that build sufficient new housing don’t experience homelessness growth. Coastal cities tend to have geographical constraints, such as water or mountains, that limit new housing. These constraints are less common in the Midwest; thus, Midwestern cities are better able to build more housing to meet demand.
Seattle embodies the “perfect storm” for housing instability and homelessness: high population growth combined with restrictions on new construction have led to high housing costs and low vacancy rates. “Zoning regulations help explain why multifamily housing isn’t more abundant in Seattle.” In Seattle, multifamily housing is illegal on approximately 70% of the city’s residential parcels.
It’s not just Seattle. Many cities have complex regulatory approval processes that slow down construction. Land use restrictions, including “minimum lot sizes, height limits, setbacks, and open space requirements,” all work to limit needed new housing, both permanent as well as transitional housing, such as tiny homes.
The authors write that “if we understand homelessness as a housing problem, we can also understand it as solvable.” Instead, “much of the money spent on homelessness today constitutes a response to the crisis rather than an alternative to it.”
So, what’s the alternative? “The prescription is simple: policymakers must increase the number of affordable housing units and provide subsidies and rental assistance to households to ensure they can access housing.” To make this happen, the authors lay out multiple required steps.
“First, public perception of homelessness must change.” Media and policymakers must stop framing homelessness as an individual problem. The dehumaniziation of homeless people needs to stop. Instead, the authors encourage an understanding of homelessness “as structural in nature, as opposed to a product of bad decisions or social deviancy.”
We need effective new permanent housing programs. “Housing must be de-commodified.” A portion of the housing stock must be decoupled from the private market. Societal understanding of housing has to change, so we understand housing for low-income households as a public good. In our cities, we need to move away from the rule of single-family homes, which will take the support of “homeowners who are willing to advocate and vote for increased housing density; people who are willing to live with less space.”
We need far greater resources dedicated to homelessness from all levels of government. Currently, the federal government commits a relatively low amount of funding toward low-income housing, while sacrificing significant tax revenue through the mortgage interest tax deduction. This deduction could be eliminated and that revenue put toward an expansion of existing federal housing programs, including shelters, transitional housing, Safe Havens, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. At the state and local levels, we need expanded rental subsidies for households facing homelessness and investments in affordable and transitional housing. We also need zoning revisions that ease construction of affordable housing, allow for alternative forms of housing (such as tiny homes) and encourage new construction technologies (such as building blocks from recycled plastic).
Are all these changes affordable?
Actually, these needed investments could save taxpayers money. The authors quote studies from the US and Canada that “show annual costs of homelessness between $30,000 and $100,000 per person.” Costs associated with homelessness include “police, prison, probation, parole, courts, emergency department, hospital-admitted patients, ambulance, mental health, and homelessness services data.”
And don’t forget the cost to the people experiencing homelessness. There’s the financial burden of being poor, but being homeless also means you become sick more often and are “more likely to be victims of physical and sexual assault.” Homeless people also tragically die younger than the housed population. “Homelessness exacts a considerable toll on society,” both on the homeless as well as the housed.
Can we actually make these changes and significantly reduce homelessness in America? As proof that we can, the authors point to recent government action that, between 2009 and 2019, reduced homelessness amongst American veterans by 50%! To accomplish this, policymakers showed political will and resource commitment and mobilized several federal agencies.
That’s proof-positive that this can be done, if we just decide to do it.
Read more of the Sept. 13-19, 2023 issue.