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Book Review:
'Superstar' cities suffer homeless problems


Homelessness is a Housing Problem

Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern, 2022

Homelessness Is A Housing Problem by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern is the best ( by far) scholarly analysis I've read regarding homelessness in the U.S. Colburn is an Assistant Professor at UW, while Clayton is a policy analyst who lives in Seattle. Their book is a model for what careful scholarly analysis of an intractable social problem can achieve. Colburn and Aldern write with clarity and a minimum of rhetoric and personal attacks on opponents of their views. They support their analysis with outstanding data analysis, and their public policy recommendations follow directly from that analysis. They also offer a cogent explanation for why cities such as San Francis, Portland, LA and Seattle have been unable to reduce homelessness despite grandiose initiatives and growing public dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in reducing "rough sleeping,"  i.e., persons sleeping in unsheltered places and encampments. 


Colburn's and Aldern's goal is to identify structural factors that account for large regional differences in homelessness, not just in the number of unsheltered persons on a specific night. They maintain that rates of homelessness in various communities are many times higher than the rate of "rough sleeping" which has had such a large effect on the quality of urban living, and which excites the most intense public debate.  Prevalence rates of homelessness across decades is about 4-6% whereas less than one half of one percent of the US population is sleeping in unsheltered places on any one night. They find that the main structural factors affecting rates of homelessness are not differences in rates of poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, or social policies of cities and counties re how to respond to unsheltered homeless populations. The factors that increase the risk of homelessness for individuals are not the factors that explain differences in rates of homelessness among US cities and regions.  Developing more effective ways of dealing with unsheltered drug addicts and/ or the chronically mentally ill, while important, will not reduce homelessness, they assert. 


What has made homelessness an intractable seemingly "wicked" problem in many urban areas is that rates of homelessness have increased the most in prosperous boom "Superstar" cities such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco with far lower homelessness rates in cities that have not experienced a large growth in population and which have much higher poverty rates. Colburn and Aldern identify two main structural factors: (1) the absolute level of rents and (2) low vacancy rates of rental properties, which leads to more demand than supply, especially for units of low income housing. Both factors are exacerbated by what the authors describe as inelastic housing markets in which supply of housing does not increase much, if at all, in response to increased demand. Contractors in boom cities are far more interested in building homes and condos for persons with multi-six figure incomes than in building low income apartments or homes.  Colburn and Aldern argue that cities which have enjoyed rapid economic growth without a large increase in homelessness, for ex. Charlotte, N.C.,  have room to expand housing construction in a way that cities bordering large bodies of water or mountains do not. Regional differences in rates of homelessness are explained by differences in housing markets, not by liberal policies that tolerate encampments, drug markets, petty theft, etc. Cracking down on homeless drug addicts may be emotionally satisfying to some, and increase the safety and livability of specific neighborhoods or downtown areas, but it will not impact rates of homelessness, the authors argue. 


The authors describe the differences in how many Eastern and Midwestern cities have responded to homelessness with West Coast cities' policies and practices. New York City has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, but NY City also has shelter capacity for 70,000 persons on any one night. New York City is the only locality in the country in which homeless people have a legal right to shelter. Anyone who believes NY City's shelters are humane decent places to live should read Lauren Sandler's This Is All I Got , but it has been an effective means of reducing "rough sleeping." West coast cities have made lesser investments in shelters and greater investments in permanent housing units and rent subsidies, but at a scale that meets only a fraction of the need. Cities and counties face difficult choices in where to invest limited resources. For example, Los Angles County which has an unsheltered population of 60,000 on any one night, has made investments in permanent housing which can potentially meet only a small fraction of the need for affordable low income housing. Colburn and Aldern argue that LA County is "nibbling around the edges" with its billion dollar investments in housing, which have had limited effect due in part to ridiculous construction costs of several hundred thousand dollars per unit. It is difficult not to view costs of $500,000 per unit for low income housing as legalized corruption, a brand of politics practiced by both Ds and R's. 


The authors argue that regulatory policies affect the elasticity of housing markets, e.g., cities which use zoning laws to limit new construction to single family units, makes it difficult to expand housing to meet demand. But this is exactly what has occurred in Seattle and San Francisco where affluent home owners are resistant to any change in zoning laws which would likely reduce the value of their homes. Homelessness has become intractable because efforts to greatly expand housing by adding to the density of neighborhoods has elicited stiff political resistance. Homelessness is not a "wicked" problem so much as it reflects underlying economic inequality and the determination of "haves" to maintain their advantages. 


The authors argue that as long as housing is viewed as a for- profit commodity, there is no way to eliminate homelessness in cities with steadily increasing house prices. Governments have to make large investments in low income housing to affect rates of homelessness, and this they have been reluctant to do for reasons already discussed. Colburn and Aldern assert that under the most generous way of counting federal expenditures on homelessness and housing, the federal government currently expends about $55 billion dollars a year on homelessness. The federal mortgage reduction costs about $30 billion dollars per year in tax revenue.  Federal housing expenditures must be increased by a large percentage, but It's possible that local corruption and insider politics might defeat large new expenditures for homelessness. In the meantime, cities must also cope with the immediate needs and challenges of large homeless populations, which will continue to grow under current conditions unless cities, counties and states invest in prevention initiatives.  As formidable as all this sounds, the authors point out that major progress has been made in reducing homelessness rates among veterans and families. When there is a will, there will be a way found, and that strategy will involve large new investments in low income housing in "Superstar" cities and a determination to ensure that powerful special interests do not legally or illegally steal from well funded homelessness initiatives.   

-- Dee Wilson

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