On any given night in 2017, 554,000 people in the wealthiest country in the world were homeless. Of those, about 193,000 had nowhere indoors to sleep, sheltering instead in tents, under bridges, or on the street.
In my past three articles, I focused on affordable housing and homelessness in Colorado Springs, where uneven economic development and short-sighted public policymaking has led to a 24,000 unit affordable housing shortage. But in taking such a local angle to the problem, I ignored some of the national trends that have made access to affordable housing a major problem across the rest of the United States.
Homelessness declined over 30 percent between 2005 and 2016, and increased slightly from 2016 to 2017. This decline is a major accomplishment, and one that should be celebrated. Yet it is still shameful that in a country as rich as the United States, there are more than half a million people without a stable, comfortable place to call home. Given the enormous success accomplished by a few, relatively minor policy changes and programs between 2005 and 2016, there is reason to believe that ending homelessness in the United States is an attainable goal, and one that we have a moral obligation to try to achieve.
The decline in homelessness is primarily due to changes in federal policy under both the Bush and Obama administrations that have increased access and lowered barriers to affordable housing. In 2005, the Bush administration adopted the “Housing First” policy, which gives housing to homeless people as a first step, rather than requiring things like sobriety, employment, etc. as preconditions. The Obama administration created the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2010, which developed plans to end veteran and family homelessness through a variety of federal assistance programs.
Any increases in homelessness in the past 13-ish years, both those offset by other declines pre-2016 and those that caused the uptick in 2017, are likely the result of urbanization—particularly in big cities in the West—as more and more young, middle-class, white people have decided they want to live in urban environments. This influx of people has created supply shortages, spiking the cost of housing, and pushing longtime residents out of their homes. Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York have been among the hardest hit.
The various causes of trends in homelessness reflect the multifaceted nature of the problem. Any plan to end homelessness that touts a single policy or program as the solution to the problem is probably a farce. The solution to homelessness must involve federal and local government, and combine many different creative policy solutions.
The Federal Government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides rental assistance to low-income families, through what are known as Section 8 housing vouchers. Recipients of Section 8 vouchers spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. If their rent is more expensive than that, which for low-income Americans it almost certainly is, the Federal government pays the difference. These vouchers are very effective at reducing homelessness and evictions for those that receive them; the problem is that right now only 17 percent of eligible renters do. If the Federal Government was serious about ending homelessness, it would expand Section 8 vouchers to cover everyone who qualifies.
This plan would cost around $25–40 billion which, I’ll admit, sounds like a lot of money. But it pales in comparison to the $150 billion or so the Federal Government spends every year on homeowner subsidies, most of which benefit the top 1–10 percent of income earners. “The Mortgage Interest Deduction,” a clause in the tax code that allows homeowners to deduct the interest they pay on their mortgage, cost $71 billion in 2015, of which more than 80 percent went to households with six-figure incomes.
While federal rental assistance is hugely important, it won’t help people in cities if there is nowhere to live. Like Colorado Springs, cities across the U.S. are facing serious affordable housing shortages. In order to end homelessness, cities need to figure out ways to build more affordable housing.
One possible solution is inclusionary zoning laws, which require any new housing development to set aside a certain percentage of units as “affordable.” This helps prevent shortages from growing, because it ensures that as the city grows, so will its supply of affordable housing. Beyond implementing this requirement, it’ll be up to city leaders to come up with creative and politically brave solutions to the problem.
City leaders will have to reject nimbyism (the “not in my back yard” mindset) in all its forms, impose sometimes unpopular taxes—though voters in Seattle and Los Angeles deserve credit for recently voluntarily raising their own taxes in order to fund affordable housing—and stand up to developers whose projects would make the problem worse.
We can eradicate homelessness in the United States if we really try. That probably sounds like a radical statement to a lot of people, but I firmly believe that it’s true. And if I’m right, or really even if I’m wrong, I think we have an obligation to try.