Maybe you’ve seen the headlines: “Affordable housing in California now routinely tops $1 million per apartment to build” (that’s up a few hundred thousand from 2017, when we wrote “L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP“). At a million dollars a unit, not many units will be built, and California will continue to suffer from high housing costs in general and high levels of homelessness. The topic is, unfortunately, timely; I’ve been reading a book, Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns, which covers what you’d expect based on the title. Yet there’s a naive, common view that homelessness is primarily about “mental illness” and “drugs” and other potential contributors to homelessness; while those factors exist, the lower the cost of housing, the easier it is for someone on the margin of being housed or being homeless to stay housed. The lower the cost, the easier it is for family, SSDI, Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV, formerly called Section 8), and other income supports to keep a person housed. Intuitively, this makes sense: it’s easier to cover $750 in rent than $2,000 in rent, even for someone with mental illness and drug problems. As the cost of housing goes up, the number of people who fall from the margins of being “housed” to being “homeless” goes concomitantly up. While mental illness and drug abuse are factors, they’re secondary to housing costs, and they’re really red herrings relative to overall housing costs and ongoing housing shortages across America.
The homelessness problem is intractable without zoning reform and the removal of barriers to new housing construction, whether those barriers are height maximums, parking space minimums, or “neighborhood input” or “community input.” Those last two are functionally barriers to building anything, anywhere. We’ve worked on Los Angeles Prop HHH proposals, and, despite that Proposition raising $1.2 billion for housing, not much has materially changed. Why? California makes building anything, anywhere, astonishingly difficult. Until we can increase the supply of housing, we’re going to see homelessness problems.
Colburn and Aldern—the authors of Homelessness is a Housing Problem—write that “the roots of the homelessness crisis in many cities in the United States were being misdiagnosed, often to frustrating and harmful ends.” This is not a failing the Left can easily blame on the Right: the housing crisis is most acute in places like California, New York, and Washington State—all of them solidly to the left. Currently, however, “one of the [. . .] phenomena driving polarization in the country is a grafting of our political identities onto national (as opposed to local) politics.” The more local one gets, the more concrete the policy issues.
Most housing decisions are made at the local level, not the national level, of U.S. politics (which is a mistake). Colburn and Aldern cite data finding that “Seattle and San Francisco, for example, have roughly four to five times the per capita homeless population of Chicago.” Chicago is seeing its population decline, and the city is also building a lot of new housing, which alleviates the supply-demand mismatches common elsewhere. Mental illness and drug use seem to spread relatively evenly across the country—so why aren’t all cities seeing homelessness spikes? The answer: some are much less expensive than others. For example, “Charlotte [. . .] has grown as fast as San Francisco and Seattle, but because of a relatively robust housing supply response, the city has not faced the housing shortages that plague many coastal cities.” Drugs, mental illness, and other issues are simply far easier to deal with when the rent is lower.
The authors’ data shows little to no correlation among various cities’ levels of drugs, mental illness, and poverty relative to homelessness. “Regions with high rates of poverty and unemployment—like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore—have some of the lowest per capita rates of homelessness in the country.” Moreover, “For a highly impoverished household, it is likely easier to access housing in Detroit or St. Louis, where median rents are between $600 and $700 per month, than in San Francisco and Santa Clara County, where costs are three to four times higher.” Do see the graphs in the book.
Housing shortages are a policy choice, and Colburn and Aldern aren’t the only ones to notice the problems. Zillow Research finds that “Homelessness Rises Faster Where Rent Exceeds a Third of Income“—which, again, is exactly what one would expect. We can look abroad, too: “Finland ends homelessness and provides shelter for all in need.” This makes intuitive sense: if there is more housing available, and housing is cheap, it’s going to be much harder to be homeless for an extended period of time. Very few people, even those with drug and mental illness problems, “want” to be homeless. California and New York introduce numerous and complicated barriers to building more housing, and they see homelessness rates soar. Dallas and Houston are somewhat easier places to build housing, and, while they don’t have zero homelessness, they have a lot less. Houston “Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own.” L.A. and San Francisco can do the same any time they want. L.A. used to be zoned for ten million people, in 1960. By 1990, it was zoned for only 3.9 million people. I guess technology got considerably worse from 1960 to 1990, when transistor counts in computer chips dropped, as did the efficiency of gas-powered vehicles (this is sarcasm).
The immediate, emotional response to a person screaming on the street—”homelessness must be caused by mental illness”—is not always the optimal one. There’s typically a long backstory to that person winding up on the streets. A fair number of people writing online seem to have an inaccurate notion of how the price formation process works.
One sees other mistakes of cause, like people railing against “investors” who buy housing units. Investors recognize the obvious: if municipalities restrict the supply of housing, as demand rises, so will prices, allowing them to earn supernormal returns. If housing is a “good” investment, the cost of housing will be expensive. This is a poor local and national policy, but it’s one we’ve been collectively and foolishly pursuing for decades, and we should stop doing it. Making being alive affordable, instead of unaffordable, is good for human flourishing. Moving to the suburbs, exurbs, or the sticks is not a great answer, either, because then the housing may be superficially affordable, but the cost of transit goes up, both in literal money terms and in terms of time. Unless or until we get fast transit from the exurbs to other places—self-flying flying cars would be nice—we’ve got technological limits on how far we can go.
It’s hard to address the issues of people whose model of the world is simply wrong; if someone believes that “bloodletting” is a cure for disease, and ignores the evidence to the contrary, at some point, one will conclude that dealing with a “person who has a wrong view of the world.”
Regular people see that most of the long-term homeless do appear to have substance abuse and mental health issues, and then think that substance abuse and mental health issues are the sole cause of homelessness, while ignoring correlations betweeb the cost of housing and the rise of homelessness—in other words, they’re not thinking at the margin (I suspect “thinking at the margin” is pretty rare). Houston is getting homeless people housed. Why isn’t Los Angeles?