If Homelessness is a Crisis, Why Isn’t Affordable Housing the Answer?

Housing Politics

Pearl River      New mayors, old mayors, big cities, small towns, it’s usually only a matter of time in minutes, days, or months before they decry homelessness.  It’s safe to say that almost no one stands before the podium, politician, citizen, businessman, or homeowner, and says, “I’m for homelessness.”   This is an issue that unites almost everyone.

An insightful article in The Atlantic underlines how large this popular consensus is:

In a 2021 poll conducted in Los Angeles County, 94 percent of respondents said homelessness was a serious or very serious problem. (To put that near unanimity into perspective, just 75 percent said the same about traffic congestion—in Los Angeles!) When asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how unsafe “having homeless individuals in your neighborhood makes you feel,” 37 percent of people responded with a rating of 8 or higher, and another 19 percent gave a rating of 6 or 7. In Seattle, 71 percent of respondents to a recent poll said they wouldn’t feel safe visiting downtown Seattle at night, and 91 percent said that downtown won’t recover until homelessness and public safety are addressed. There are a lot of polls like this.

Face it, these days it’s hard to get that number of people to agree that the sun is shining even when they are standing under it and shielding their eyes.

Yet, despite the agreement on homelessness, the policy response in city after city has been to hide it, rather than to solve it.  Call it a crime, and get the police to clear the streets.  Not enough police, use social workers and health care staff.  Go Denver and save money by putting some of them in housing units.  Some cities build more shelters, round people up, move them off the street, and even do so with care, as Tracy Kidder writes about one program in Boston in his recent book, Rough Sleepers.  Many cities have tried all of these programs, but at best they are temporary solutions, and really only work if partnered with the real solution:  affordable housing.

As the Atlantic points out, the rates of homelessness in city after city are directly proportionate to the cost of housing and the stock of affordable housing.  Coastal cities are booming, housing prices soar, and homelessness will accelerate.  Both locally and nationally, why do we persist in hiding the problem and blaming the victims, rather than have housing policies that build and locate permanently affordable housing units in cities, especially since it is so obviously the answer?

Of course, it would cost big bucks, but that’s also why it has to be a national solution.  The neoliberal policy of shifting the response from public to private and subsidizing developers who rely on market rate units or define affordability in relation not to need, but to price, will never work.  We need purpose-built housing with rent controls that maintain affordability.  Solving the affordable housing crisis which manifests itself in visible homelessness would also take time, lots of it, and that is a barrier to the election cycles of politicians, locally and nationally, which is why real national leadership, courage, and conviction is required.

Anger over homelessness is a clarion call for conservative politicians to blame the left and incite their base.  Surely liberals and progressives can recognize the way to respond preemptively before it gets worse?  None of this is easy, but the path to a real solution is clear and straight ahead:  build, baby, build!