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“Homelessness is a Housing Problem”: When cities build more housing, homelessness goes down

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?

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant-making process is slow, even during a pandemic

StatNews reports that the NIH is “a slow-moving glacier” and that the agency’s “sluggish and often opaque efforts to study long Covid draw patient, expert ire.” The news get worse: Congress allocated $1.2 billion to study long COVID, but “so far the NIH has brought in just 3% of the patients it plans to recruit.” The major defense of one NIH employee? The $1.2 billion effort is moving “much faster than we’ve done anything else before” and the NIH’s “usual pace can be even slower.” How reassuring. Unfortunately, the NIH’s Covid-19 response is typical; as we wrote in August 2021, the federal grant-making apparatus is so slow that the private “Fast Grants” initiative attempted to do just what its name implies: make grants fast. And it did: within days at first, and then within two weeks. By contrast, the NIH has never learned how to go fast, and, as far as we can tell, neither have other federal agencies (although HRSA did eventually kick out some telemedicine money faster than we’d have imagined).

Why haven’t federal agencies learned to go fast? I think part of the answer is poor feedback mechanisms. No federal agency goes out of business from moving slowly—no one loses a job, money, or anything else. If even a pandemic can’t shake NIH out of their torpor, what will? A war? Maybe. We couldn’t even bother to make substantial modifications to the absurd clinical trials process during the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead relied primarily on throwing more money at the problem, while NIH continued to crawl at a snail’s pace.

America does the same thing with infrastructure construction: instead of reforming and eliminating bureaucratic rules to reduce the cost of building new infrastructure, we attempt to throw money at the problem until we manage to (partially) bulldozer our way through it. The problems being that the “throw money at it” solution takes way too long, costs too much, and leaves us with too little infrastructure at the end. But there is no single Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) for bureaucratic rules, so nothing changes—much like the stalled COVID study. The StatNews article notes that “A group of two dozen COVID-19 experts recently released a report that excoriated the NIH’s progress as well, noting that recruiting for the study has been painfully slow” and that “The experts argued the Biden administration should create a long COVID task force to hold agencies accountable for progress.” Unless the task force has the power to fire, demote, and restructure, it’s unlikely to achieve much.

Speed is important for many reasons, one being that the faster you can do something, the more you can do of the thing, and the sooner you can get feedback. One sees this feedback process—sometimes called the “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act” (OODA) loop—in all sorts of endeavors: as the loops tightens, more of the thing gets done, or learned. In computer programming, for example, compiling or deployment that used to take hours or days now happens instantly, allowing for fast feedback to programmers, and letting the programmers get better, fast. Something similar is true in writing: the faster a person writes and gets useful critical feedback, the quicker the revision process becomes (assuming the editor is good and the writer in an improvement mindset).

The opposite is also true: as noted above, our bloated infrastructure rules from laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mean that building things like subway or light rail line extension takes a decade and costs billions of dollars. So we build that infrastructure with such agonizing slowness that we never get network effects going, and most people talk of “toy trains” that “go to nowhere,” and, unfortunately, they have a point: if it takes 10 or more years to build a few miles of rail, most people are going to scoff at that rail. The road to improving the U.S.’s transit emissions starts with reforming NEPA. The law is supposedly designed to improve the environment, but instead it locks in the current system, which is not very climate friendly—the law is having the exact opposite of its intended effect.

By the time the NIH completes its studies, the studies might not matter any more. It’s like a person taking five years to decide to ask someone to get married: by the time person 1 asks, person 2 may already be married and have kids. If you wait sufficiently long, opportunities disappear.

Failure to study COVID with sufficient speed will leave people suffering, and possibly dead. That is bad. Despite it being bad, no one seems able or willing to attempt to overcome the problem.

If you don’t think speed and attention matter, try writing anything substantive with interruptions every few minutes: you’ll never get anywhere, and the end result will be unpalatable.

I wish I had a solution to these problems, but I don’t. The normal grant-making process works on a “good enough” basis, and it is typically more about redistributing money to favored communities and populations of focus than truly achieving the nominal goal of whatever the grant-funded program happens to be. Once you realize that, the rest of the system’s apparent peculiarities fall into place. Unless and until Congress wants to make substantial changes to how the federal government works, I think we’re likely to see business-as-usual continue. By far, the most successful part of the federal response to COVID was Operation Warp Speed, which rapidly kicked money to the usual suspects, in the form of pharma companies, and made pre-committments to buy large numbers of vaccine doses even if the clinical trials didn’t work out, such that trials could be conducted quickly and, if the money is “wasted” on ones that don’t work out, that “waste” is trivial relative to the amount of benefit from even a single successful trial.

Warp Speed operated at warp speed, while the NIH is still ambling along in a buggy. That’s been our experience with federal grant-making agencies: they stroll along, and nothing can or will hasten them. That’s a shame, because the country and world face real problems. As with NEPA and CEQA, however, many problems are mandated by legislators, or increased by the rule-making machinery, and no one with sufficient clout seems interested in solving them. These problems also don’t map neatly to right or left ideological talking points. The answer to whether we need “more” or “less” government, for example, is that we need more efficient and effective government, which is neither “more” or “less:” it’s orthogonal to that question, and the solutions aren’t amenable to sound bites.

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Unexpected consequences of MacKenzie Scott’s big donations to housing nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity

You might’ve read that MacKenzie Scott, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, is making huge donations to some nonprofit organizations, including donating $436 million to Habitat for Humanity. Relative to buying a giant yacht, or yet another Manhattan aerie, or giving money to universities so wealthy that they can’t spend the endowments they have and are so bureaucratic that they can’t support their own researchers during a pandemic, that’s a great thing to do. This isn’t a “you suck” post, because she doesn’t and I like her unusual approach to philanthropy. But there are two notable undercurrents that the lightly edited press releases don’t cover—likely because journalists know little about how nonprofits work or the American housing market—one is the distortion effect on many competing local nonprofits, and the other is the challenge of pouring more money into a constrained, near-zero-sum system.

Regarding the first point, local grant and human services systems will probably be distorted by unprecedentedly large donations to a particular nonprofit like Habitat. While national nonprofits like Habitat do some nationwide work, most of their activities are conducted by local affiliates, which are usually nominally independent nonprofits. When you see a media story about a new Habitat development in Worcester, MA, (I made this example up) a local affiliate is sponsoring the project. Local affiliates of national nonprofits like Habitat are required to conform to certain standards set by the national entity, but essentially do their own thing. A few years ago we worked for a local Habitat affiliate in a big East Coast city. As we worked on the project, we were startled to learn there were actually two Habitat affiliates in the same city: each carved out its own turf, and they even engaged in legal and public relations battles with each other! Many local nonprofits compete with on another for donations, grants, volunteers, and the like, even if they are playing for same team. So, it’s possible some of Scott’s Habitat donation will go to one affiliate, but not the other, in the same city.

A sudden huge donation from Scott to a national nonprofit that in turn sends a big bag of money to a particular local nonprofit, like the imagined Worcester Habitat, might create a toxic mixture of envy and disdain among other local nonprofits, much like a large inheritance or a lotto win often generates resentment among the people around the windfall recipient. The local Habitat affiliate is going to find many other local nonprofits attempting to attach themselves to any project it undertakes, in an effort to become subcontractors on that project or otherwise share in the largess. Since Habitat has the big money, other nonprofits will work overtime to get a piece of that that money. Nonprofits that realize they’re going to be outside the golden circle might quit collaborating and, in some cases, try to sabotage the lucky local Habitat. Letters of support will dry up, which won’t be a short-term problem but may become a long-term one; although “collaboration” among nonprofits is often silly, funders like to imagine it’s happening. Many don’t want to acknowledge that nonprofits compete with each other like businesses to a greater extent than most people realize—though sophisticated GWC readers already know this, either from personal experience or reading us. Another aspect is the the suddenly well-endowed local Habitat affiliate will be able to offer much higher salaries that their competitors and will poach local talent.

We saw this blowback effect happen in spectacular fashion a few years ago to one of our clients in a mid-size Midwestern city. Many nonprofits and even public agencies will become extremely unhappy when one of their peer organizations succeeds wildly. One year, at least half a dozen proposals we wrote for this otherwise ordinary nonprofit client got funded. His organization got millions of dollars in grants, which represented a huge amount of money in his low-income, high-risk community. Every other nonprofit CEO knew about his organization’s success. Superficially, all the players in our client’s service area congratulated our client, but our client, unfortunately, began to believe in his own greatness. Because he did, the quality and quantity of his interest in future grant-writing efforts declined.

Simultaneously, many local collaborators became less eager to help him. Organizations that used to provide letters, as he did for them, stopped being able to provide letters, albeit for innocuous reasons (“staffing changes,” “priority shifts:” those sorts of things). His ability to execute his organization’s mission became compromised by intransigence from the city and from other local nonprofits, all of whom were envious. These factors led to peril for our client’s organization, which eventually went under altogether; by the time he realized the danger, he was already on the deck of his sinking nonprofit ship. He should have handed out more subcontracts and acted with greater humility, but he did not. Will Habitat avoid his fate? We shall see. This is not a new tale, as Greek Tragedies, Shakespeare, movies, and politics are filled with such tales of hubris.

The second point involves housing policy itself, a topic we’ve dealt with before regarding Los Angeles’s Prop HHH initiative. Housing constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009—an enormous amount most people don’t appreciate (imagine your organization’s budget being 36 percent larger, and your paycheck having 36 percent more dollars in it). Numerous factors impede the construction of affordable housing: parking minimums, improper building lot setbacks, height limits, neighborhood reviews, and more. Supply restrictions are everywhere, and few states or municipalities have gotten serious about alleviating them. If you add large amounts of additional money into a market that is supply-constrained, prices will go up in the face of constant demand, but more supply won’t come online. This results in numerous negative knock-on effects. There are some efforts afoot to change this dynamic—some are now calling for an “abundance agenda,” in contrast to the artificial scarcity mindset and policies now common in housing policy. In the meantime, however, we’re stuck with bottlenecks in the zoning and permitting process, which impede housing developers of all sorts—including Habitat. On top of those bottlenecks, inflation and supply chain problems have kicked up in the last few months, such that even if states begin enacting an abundance agenda, builders are still behind because of a raw-materials and skilled labor deficits. We’re constricting our population itself, as people have fewer children because so much of their money is going into housing costs.

Habitat for Humanity is likely to suffer worse than than for-profit builders. Habitat doesn’t advertise this, but they take forever to build housing units, particularly relative to commercial builders like Lennar (Lennar built 60,000 units in 2021) or Toll Brothers. While merchant builders can churn out single family homes in four to six months, it can take Habitat up to two years to finish a comparable house. I looked at the 2021 Habitat National Annual Report and IRS 990 Form, which obfuscate results with lots of happy talk, but I couldn’t find a clear statement of how many units were actually finished in 2021. Draw your own conclusions. Although Habitat hires subcontractors for the skilled trades that are required for home building, they nominally rely on volunteer labor and the “sweat equity” of buyers. As far as I can tell, Habitat mostly builds single-family units, rather than multi-family, both because those units are easier to build and provide easier roles for volunteers and homeowners, as well as making for better photo ops. But we really need more missing middle housing, rather than more single-unit one-offs in the exurbs. Everyone in the business knows how Habitat works, but don’t expect to see it in the media which has been in love with Habitat since Jimmy Carter picked up a hammer 40 years ago.

The biggest problem in American housing policy isn’t “lack of money” per se: even many nonprofits can find some amount of HUD, state, local, or foundation funding to build affordable housing. The biggest problem is the regulatory regime, which makes building new housing excruciatingly expensive, time consuming, and difficult. Until we improve the regulatory regime, we’re not going to do much to make a real dent in the housing affordability problem (housing can’t both be cheap for end users and a “good investment,” which is one of the many reasons American housing policy is incoherent).

Housing affordability is the income-related issue for our age. If someone is concerned about “income inequality” but doesn’t have “housing abundance” at the top of their agenda, are they virtue signaling, or serious?

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Housing the homeless: the “traditional approach” versus “housing first” for grant writers

We’ve been writing grant proposals for housing and supportive services for people experiencing homelessness (this is the PC phrase, but “homeless” is used in the rest of this post) since 1993, so we’ve been at it for long enough to see changing funder and client preferences around approaches come and go. For many reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, homelessness remains a growing and in some respects an intractable challenge in much of urban and rural America; essentially, homelessness is a housing shortage problem. Until we address housing abundance, we’re not going to be able to solve or substantially ameliorate homelessness as a problem.

Recently, we wrote a post on the emerging trend toward harm reduction instead of traditional SUD/OUD treatment. A similar phenomenon is going on with respect to providing housing and supportive services for homeless folks. This is the concept of “Housing First:”

Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.

At first glance, Housing First looks like a reasonable and compassionate approach. In the 1980s, when homelessness as an issue entered public discourse, the sentiment was that Mary and her two kids live in their car because she got laid off from the Piggly Wiggly and was evicted from her apartment. While there are many people who find themselves in this sort of predicament, the majority of homeless have SUD/OUD and, in many cases, are co-diagnosed with serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI). But homelessness is easier to avoid, even for people with SUD, OUD, and/or SPMI, when rents are low. That’s why “it’s not the case that homelessness is high where vacancy rates are high. Indeed, it’s the opposite — the vacancy rate is lower in places with more homelessness.”

Housing for the homeless initiatives have traditionally focussed on a step-down approach similar to that which we described in the post on OUD/SUD treatment versus harm reduction. In the traditional paradigm, homeless people receive housing and other services along a continuum of care starting with a high level of care, and then they “step down” to lower care levels in increments, leading to eventual independent living. Following engagement, referral, or self-presentation and development of an individual housing assistance plan (“IHTP”), the step-down levels often proceed something like:

  • Detoxification/stabilization (if needed)
  • Shelter bed in an emergency shelter (usually limited to 30 to 60 days). Significantly, most shelters are “dry,” meaning that drinking and drugging aren’t allowed in the facility. Still, after breakfast, most people living in shelters spend their days out of the shelter on the street, with the idea that they’ll look for a job, attend treatment sessions, etc., and return at night to sleep. While this is more or less “two hots and a cot,” treatment and other supportive services are sometimes provided in-house and/or by referral.
  • Placement in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel, transitional housing, or supportive housing unit with in-house and referral supportive services (e.g. SUD/OUD and SPMI treatment, legal assistance, workforce development, primary/dental care, etc.) usually provided in the latter two. In supportive housing, such services are usually case-managed and these facilities are usually dry. While there is typically no length of residency cap for SRO units, there is usually a 12 to 24 month max for transitional and supportive housing facilities. Unfortunately, SROs are largely illegal under the modern zoning regime, which may forces many precariously housed people on the street.
  • Independent living, usually with a Housing Choice Voucher (formerly called Section 8) or in another subsidized housing development, or with family.

The levels can be broken down further, but the above was the common approach and was formalized in the 1987 passage of the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento), administered by HUD. The problem is, though, is that even if a person gets clean and sober, if he or she can’t afford rent, that person is likely to end up back on the street—and thus in high-stress, difficult situations that encourages coping via substance abuse. Covering $700/month in rent is much easier for a person with mental illness and substance abuse challenges than $2,000 a month.

Although McKinney-Vento funds 15 programs with a spectrum of services, the most significant ones are Supportive Housing, Shelter Plus Care (provides site-specific HCVs for the housing development and on-site services), SRO, and Emergency Shelter. One of the first large funded grants S + A wrote was a $4M Shelter Plus Care proposal for a nonprofit in Northern California to convert a vacant motel into a supportive housing facility in 1994. Over the years, McKinney-Vento has disappeared from public view, as these programs have been folded into HUD’s very confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) system. McKinney-Vento programs still form the structure for most federal efforts to help the homeless, but applications are made to the local CoC agency, not directly to HUD—which means local politics come into play, along with typical quiet deals cut among local players. Good luck breaking into CoC funding without an “in.” Well-meaning people in a given community often want to find something to do to help with the issue of homelessness, and they try to find sustainable for it, only to run into the local power structure.

For our first 20 years, most of the proposals we wrote for homeless housing and supportive services followed the above model: the emphasis was always on working with the homeless people to get them clean and sober, with SPMI under control, before moving from a shelter to longer term housing. About 10 years ago, we began to work with clients who wanted to use the Housing First approach: in this approach, underlying SUD/OUD and SPMI challenges are addressed, to an extent, but the overall goal is to provide fast housing—hence the term “Housing First.” This paradigm treats housing as the first step for life improvement and enables access to housing without conditions beyond those of a typical renter. Although supportive services are usually offered, participation is not required. This means the formerly homeless can continue to drink and drug and/or not comply with the SPMI treatment protocols. Utah was the first major state proponent of this approach, in part because Utah allows housing to be built relatively easily, but even Utah has run into problems.

This shift to the Housing Fist model has created something of a battle between the traditional homeless services providers like the faith-based “missions” that are found in most major cities, and the new Housing First kids on the block. This battle is being played out on social media and, most importantly, in public hearings and applications for CoC and other grants. Like any local structured grant system, such as CoC, Ryan White grants for people living with HIV/A, or Title 10 family planning, a “mafia” soon emerges. The mafia is composed of the existing agencies being funded, advocacy groups, and local politicians who have an interest in making sure favored nonprofits get funded. The mafia structure makes it harder for new, innovative agencies to secure a spot at the grant feeding trough. We’ve heard from some of our clients that the Housing First crowd has taken over CoC processes to the detriment of traditional providers. Housing First is clearly the church of what’s happening now.

We’re just grant writers, so we don’t have an immediate opinion as to whether the traditional approach or Housing First is more efficacious, though neither is likely to be highly effective without land-use reform that increases the total number of housing units. Without an abundance agenda, we’re merely reallocating slices of the pie, rather than increasing the pie’s size. Extensive homelessness is a symptom of deeper problems, and it can’t be effectively addressed without dealing with the root cause. Most studies on the subject of “traditional” and “Housing First” are somewhat questionable. While I’ve been in many shelters and other homeless housing settings over the years, I’ve never been in a Housing First facility, but I imagine that things might get a bit out of control come Saturday night. I also don’t know how housekeeping is handled. Also, most people with SUD/OUD and/or SPMI will relapse multiple times, which may send them back to the streets, jail, or residential treatment/hospitalization, meaning that their Housing First unit is actually their Housing Last unit.

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Links: Microgrants programs, dynamism, the CDC during the pandemic, grant performance, and more!

* “So you want to build a microgrants program.” In this, Scott Alexander notes: “(2) Most people are terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE grantwriters.” That’s why we have a business: this stuff is hard. Telling effective stories is hard, especially when having to respond to confusingly worded RFPs. Scott Alexander’s RFPs don’t suffer from that problem, but he still seems to have found terrible grant writers. Many people who are great at doing what they do are simultaneously poor at explaining to others what they do and want to do. We help with that.

* “Building American Dynamism.” One might ask what a typical organization is doing to do that.

* Failures of the CDC as an agency. This is consistent with our interactions with most government agencies; organizations working with most government agencies get things done in spite of those agencies, not because of them. Michael Lewis has a good book, The Fifth Risk, that also discusses these issues.

* “College professors have a right to provoke and upset you. It’s a part of learning. Whether from the right or from the left, calls to silence faculty voices on America’s campuses are inconsistent with the values of a university.” Seems obvious to me, though I quaintly still think it important to encourage students to think, without telling them what to think.

* Emergent Ventures’ life-changing actions. I doubt we’ll ever seen governments fund this way, or most foundations fund this way, but it’s great to see someone doing it. Funders should experiment more and signal to their peers less.

* “A Multigenerational Home in Amsterdam Can Be Reconfigured for Changing Demands.” This is the sort of thing that overly restrictive mandatory single-family zoning in the United States prevents. Much of the U.S. tech and entrepreneurial sectors are creative, fast-paced, and adaptive, while anything related to land use and housing is slow, sclerotic, and ossified. We can and should do better. Still, some large homebuilders like Lennar offer flex-space options to create more or less a small, second unit within the house with a bath, kitchenette, and separate entrance—in jurisdictions that allow this, creating a multigenerational but “single-family” house. The better solution is to legalize missing middle housing everywhere, but, again, sclerosis is the rule.

* “Moth minds: a software grant platform for investing in individuals or others.” We talk a lot about the process of applying for grants, but it’d also be interesting to make the process of giving out grants easier. Re-using infrastructure is good and useful. Existing foundations have whatever infrastructure they’ve cobbled together, and individuals can randomly cut checks, but there’s very little between the two. This is an effort to be between those two structures; it’s somewhat like Fast Grants or Emergent Ventures, it would seem.

* “Alumni Withhold Donations, Demand Colleges Enforce Free Speech.” Something like the University of Austin might be an alternate choice for donations.

* “The global pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness in America.” See also me on Lost Connections, which deals with what the title suggests from a pre-pandemic frame.

* “How to keep your organization out of culture wars.” What’s your focus? You can only have one. Choose it well.

* “The Quiet Scandal of College Teaching.”

* The Arc Institute is “for curiosity-driven biomedical science and technology” and it’s got “open positions for Technology Center group leaders, research scientists, and operational staff” right now. It’s designed to be on people more than particular projects. Like many of the links in this batch, Arc is trying to improve how we fund science and other projects in the United States. It’s hard to look at our pandemic response and think we’re doing things optimally.

* “Alexander Berger On Philanthrophic Opportunities And Normal Awesome Altruism.”

* “Burn the Universities and Salt the Earth.” An overstated rant, but not wholly inaccurate, either.

* “Battery Storage Soars on U.S. Electric Grid: Falling costs and green mandates are boosting demand for batteries capable of storing large amounts of wind and solar power for later use.” All those SBIR/STTR Dept. of Energy proposals we’ve written are bearing fruit. Now we’ll have to see if flow batteries make it: most existing battery installs are li-ion formulations. If your organization is seeking R&D funds for renewable energy and batteries, call us.

* More on ClimeWorks, a firm attempting to scale carbon capture and storage. If you know anyone who says they’re seriously concerned about climate change, ask if they have a ClimeWorks, Project Vesta, or similar subscription (I do). The answers will be revealing.

* “Hospitals Still Not Fully Complying With Federal Price-Disclosure Rules: Some healthcare systems post incomplete pricing data or nothing at all.”

* Against Identity Politics.

* “Democrats’ college degree divide: More educated Democrats are more progressive across the board.” This seems important but also under-emphasized.

* We’ve put up a bunch of landing pages related to grant writing, which will not be of interest to most of you.

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The effects of early childhood education programs don’t look good: a large, randomized pre-kindergarten study

There’s a large, new study out on the “Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade,” and it’s important and unusual because of its results: it finds that pre-k education doesn’t help later educational or behavioral achievement and, if anything, hurts later student achievement. This study is also significant due to its comprehensiveness; the study follows 3,000 kids, who appear to be randomly assigned to pre-k services or not, and the study follows those kids for a long period of time—at least seven years, it seems, and possibly longer. I’ve not got the full manuscript yet but am seeking a copy. Most education studies are observational, in that they observe two or more cohorts, but they don’t use randomized controls, like this one does, and observational studies are particularly prone to bias. The new study is also pre-registered—that is, the authors say what they’re looking for, what success looks like, and how they’re going to measure success before they get their data. There’s a “replication crisis” in social science and medicine, because it’s possible to torture a positive result out of all sorts of data, and this study avoids most if not all of the common pitfalls.

The study’s abstract says:

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention

Wow: that’s counter to the intuition of most people, politicians involved in early childhood education, and “common wisdom.” The study is not the last word—no study is—but it is persuasive. For most practitioners, this won’t be immediately relevant, because Head Start and Pre-K For All aren’t likely to see real changes in the near term. But we may see the political winds change over time.

This post is not a policy recommendation: as grant writers, we don’t do policy recommendations, although I do think a lot of students are in college who’d be better served by alternatives, and yet society as a whole hasn’t yet figured that out or properly grokked it, even as total student loans owed passes $1 trillion. But, if America wants to do some form of daycare for all (“universal daycare”), as is proposed in the stalled Build Back Better legislation, that’s a fine goal and we should call it that, instead of pretending it’s possible to have academic, “educational” experiences for the vast majority of kids under the age of five. Four-year olds are not falling “behind,” because, except in the case of unusual prodigies, there is nowhere to fall behind. If anything, excess regimentation and premature optimization are likely to be bigger problems than “falling behind.”

I’ve long been somewhat suspect of early childhood “education”—not from studies per se, but from being around small children. Most don’t have the executive function to do much in the way of what might be called “education.” Trying to create “education” in the sense that we see with older kids or adults seems improbable for very young children. The veneer of “education” using “curriculums” like “The Creative Curriculum” and “The Creative Curriculum GOLD” that we cite in grant proposals seems faintly ridiculous; whether or not a four-year old can identify different kinds of leaves or songs or animals by name doesn’t seem to indicate how that four-year old will do in middle or high school, or college. But there’s a lot of social and economic anxiety around class, economic achievement, and housing; we’ve collectively adopted policies focused on creating scarcity, not abundance, and that’s resulted in intense, and probably pointlessly intense, competition in many fields.

Trying to indoctrinate small children into social, academic, and economic competition culture seems difficult to me, and yet that’s been one response to scarcity policies. Making early childhood teachers, who are really more like caregivers in the classroom, have degrees or advanced degrees seems like a way of raising the cost of childcare without providing much in benefits; everyday human experience seems to be sufficient for taking care of small kids. Maybe small kids are learning cultural markers and such in the early early childhood education setting that will help them later, but, if so, that later help isn’t showing up in the data. There’s a lot of desire to make education a panacea for various kinds of social and economic inequality, but that desire keeps running up against uncomfortable ideas (I won’t call them “truths,” although some might).

Head Start was launched in 1965 as on the initial programs in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty;” if there’s been a large boost in real educational attainment (which is different from “degrees achieved”), I’ve not seen it. I’ve been teaching college undergrads since 2008, and in that time my anecdotal impression is that smartphones and social media have been net bad for learning, noting however that some people do leverage Internet technologies to learn more and faster than they could without. Anecdotes are not data, but, since the late ’90s and early ’00s, we here at Seliger + Associates Grant Writing have been writing proposals for programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), and in that time we’ve not seen learning substantially improve from the dissemination of computers and the Internet. In 2013, I wrote a post about a pair of studies finding that computer access appears, if anything, to lower educational attainment. In 2015, I wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology. “Computers in education” is not the same thing, obviously, as early childhood education, but both are attempts at improving education and life outcomes that are popular but may not be efficacious. If you work in the education industry with students ages 10 or higher—ages old enough for smart phones to have penetrated the population—ask those around you to look at their Apple “Screen Time” app or Android “Digital Wellbeing” controls. Those show how many minutes or hours a day a smartphone is being used, and what a person is doing on that phone. From what I’ve observed, very few people are using the book apps, the Duolingo systems for language learning, or Anki for space-repetition learning. Ask around, see what you find. Think about what that might mean.

Real education is hard. I’ve tried to impart some to students. Probably it’s always been hard and always will be. We should collectively try to do better while also understanding what might be limited, what might be futile, and what might be counterproductive. I’m struck by, at the college level, how little time is spent trying to learn how to teach more effectively, and friends who teach in K – 12 often report the same.

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How many troubled Head Start programs are out there? Looking at ACF’s re-bid practices

Diligent grants.gov readers will occasionally see a bunch of notices for individual service areas for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Head Start Program. Recently, for example, a dozen Head Start RFPs were issued, for places like “Kent and Sussex Counties, Delaware” or “Bates, Cass, Cedar, Henry, St. Clair and Vernon Counties, Missouri.” I did some research on grantees in those areas and found that many Head Start programs in them had been taken over by something called the “Community Development Institute” (CDI) Head Start, which appears to be an ACF multi-area Head Start grantee whose job is to take over the miscreant Head Start programs and operate them until a new local operator can be found, wrangled, tackled, press-ganged, etc. To understand what’s going on, it’s necessary consider the long history of Head Start and its kin, Early Head Start.

Head Start, one of the original “War on Poverty” programs, has been around since 1965; ACF says over 1 million children are enrolled in Head Start annually, and there are Head Start programs in most parts of inhabited America—urban, suburban and rural. Many Head Start programs are operated by the 1,000 or so Community Action Agencies (CAAs), another 1965 War on Poverty relic, funded through the DHHS Office of Community Services (OCS).

Head Start grantees, like HRSA-funded Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), aren’t guaranteed funding and must periodically compete in new RFPs processes. But not every area has a competent grantee in it—particularly in sparsely populated rural areas or extremely poor areas, where services are often most needed. We’ve worked on numerous projects for organizations that are working through various permutations of this problem, our favorite being a SAC applicant who forgot to apply for their Section 330 grant when their Service Area Competition (SAC) NOFO was open, causing the applicant’s HRSA program officer to call, after the deadline, to say, “Where is your application?” HRSA allowed a late application, which is unusual, and we were able to write their SAC proposal in less than a week. These aren’t ideal or recommended conditions, however.

Searching local news in many of the counties listed by ACF as needing new Head Start grantees yields articles about whatever is going on at these troubled Head Start grantees, but those local news articles lack detail. Still, the regularity with which ACF issue these service area level RFPs shows the challenges not just of getting a Head Start grant, but of running the program successfully. Overall, Head Start is one of the few federal grant-funded programs that shows up regularly in popular media in heartwarming feature stories about low-income kids learning in a nurturing environment—and that sometimes happens. Head Start has also been the subject of much research, which increases its visibility. The research has generated much debate about Head Start’s efficacy at improving educational outcomes for at-risk kids; given its long history, the grandparents or great grandparents of kids in Head Start today were also very likely were in Head Start. Intergenerational Head Start enrollment doesn’t necessarily argue for the program’s real impact, but we’ll leave discussions of “impact” for another post.

Head Start is as much a jobs program as it is an early childhood education program. Head Start grants fund tens of thousands of jobs for low-income folks to work as non-credentialed or lightly credentialed “teachers.” These jobs have traditionally been filled mostly by single moms, whose kids are usually enrolled in Head Start. Thus, the local Head Start programs meet two critical needs in low-income communities—heavily subsidized early childhood education (or “child care” for the cynics) and reliable, easy-entry jobs with some career-ladder potential. Thus, when a Head Start program goes under, it can be a real crisis in low-income and especially low-income rural areas, which is probably why ACF tries to use the Community Development Institute and similar outfits to plug gaps. If any readers have a good story to tell about recycling of Head Start grants, write a guest post and we’ll post it anonymously.

Need your Head Start, or any other proposal, written? Call us at 800.540.8906 ext. 2, or send an email to seliger@seliger.com.

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Links: Keys to organizational success, changing the college narrative, a Dept. of Labor (DOL) RFP, and more!

* “Willingness to look stupid,” which is often key to getting things done and learning new things.

* “Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis.” Depends on the degree, above all else, but at least a third of degrees aren’t worth it in financial terms. If you were told to take out $50,000 of debt for a one-third chance that you’ll never make anything from that debt, would you take the risk? For as long as I’ve been grant writing, “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree.” We’ll know things have really changed when the Dept. of Education changes its perspective and emphasizes skills more than degrees.

* “Plans for Telosa, a $400-billion new city in the American desert, unveiled.” I’d move there: Phoenix, but with better urban design and transit. Sounds great! There is the minor issue that, historically, attempts at building utopian cities in America have all failed badly, no matter the intent. Will this one be different?

* “The housing theory of everything: Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.” Housing shortages are entirely self-imposed, too.

* “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking.”

* “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost’: The number of men enrolled at two- and four-year colleges has fallen behind women by record levels, in a widening education gap across the U.S.” Colleges and universities, or “institutions of higher education” (IHEs—as they’re known in the business), are used to setting up special programs and services targeting women: “Some schools are quietly trying programs to enroll more men, but there is scant campus support for spending resources to boost male attendance and retention.” But note: “Yet skyrocketing education costs have made college more risky today than for past generations, potentially saddling graduates in lower-paying careers—as well as those who drop out—with student loans they can’t repay.” Word about the dangers of college is getting out: going, taking out loans that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, and not graduating is extremely perilous.

* “The feared eviction ‘tsunami’ has not yet happened. Experts are conflicted on why.” So why have we been denying landlords’ property rights for so long? This also demonstrates that many of self-described “experts” don’t actually know much.

* “So You’re About To Be Cancelled: A group called Counterweight assists people whose bosses and co-workers are forcing them to endorse ‘social-justice’ beliefs.”

* “Increased politicization and homogeneity in NSF grants.” This is, needless to say, bad, for science and our society.

* There is a Dept. of Labor RFP from Aug. 10 for “Improving Gender Equity in the Mexican Workplace.” I’m not sure why that activity would be in the DOL’s purview, however worthy said activity might otherwise be. We like to point out silly seeming RFPs when we see them.

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Grant writers and climate change: The Department of Energy’s Direct Air Capture program

The Department of Energy (DOE) just issued an unusual RFP, for a subject I can’t recall seeing the DOE previously wanting to fund fund: direct air capture (DAC) of CO2, the whole name of which will exhaust even patient readers: “Direct Air Capture Combined With Dedicated Long-Term Carbon Storage, Coupled to Existing Low-Carbon Energy.” Right now, DAC is in its infancy; this 2019 article summarizes the DAC situation, and Stripe Climate covers the overall need for DAC; Seliger + Associates hasn’t yet worked on a DAC project, although we have worked on projects related to geothermal energy, lithium metal, lithium batteries, flow batteries, resource recovery, and probably a few more I’m leaving out.* In these assignments, we utilize the approach described in “How we write scientific and technical grant proposals,” and we’re eager to work on DAC projects—if you’ve found your way here and are looking for a DOE grant writing, by all means give us a call at 800.540.8906 ext. 1, or email us at seliger@seliger.com. DAC’s immaturity makes it a particularly striking area for work, and, while the DOE program only has five awards available, it does have $15 million for grants “to better understand system costs, performance, as well as business case options for existing DAC technologies co-located with low-carbon thermal energy sources or industrial facilities.”

Specific activities are listed, too: “The objective of this FOA is to execute and complete front-end engineering design (FEED) studies of advanced DAC systems capable of removing a minimum of 5,000 tonne/yr. net CO2 from air based on a life cycle analysis (LCA), suitable for long duration carbon storage (i.e., geological storage or subsurface mineralization) or CO2 conversion/utilization (e.g., including, but not limited to, synthetic aggregates production, concrete production, and low carbon synthetic fuels and chemicals production).” It’s likely that the firms specializing in FEED don’t specialize in grant writing or storytelling, and that’s where we come into play.

DAC is still extremely expensive and infeasible on a scale that would affect global climate change, but it’s also getting cheaper fast—and that’s the same pattern of falling costs we’ve seen with batteries, solar, and wind—all of which have consistently fallen in price far faster than even their most ardent advocates would’ve hoped. Solar, wind, and batteries now appear to have a lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE) than methane plants, in many parts of the world, and, if another power source deals with baseload power, they can provide around 50% of total energy.

Ideally, forty years ago, humans would’ve collectively acted on the need for carbon emission reductions by building out nuclear power, introducing carbon taxes, and taking similar measures. We collectively did the opposite, and global CO2 levels are now in the 420 parts per million (ppm) range, and they’re almost certainly going to rise above 500 ppm in the coming decades. Pre-industrialize global CO2 rates were in the 230 – 250 ppm range, and, the last time carbon dioxide ppm was this high, the world was in the range of five degrees celsius warmer than it is now—or has been through human history. In the scheme of the world economy, $15 million isn’t a lot—but it’s a start.

*Several times over the years, we’ve gotten calls from inventors pitching the elusive perpetual motion machine. While fun to talk to these guys (and they’re always guys) we’ve so far declined to accept one of these jobs!

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Head Start grantees and early childhood education program staffing woes

Head Start grantees are likely suffering, and grant writers looking to produce Head start budgets in the future are going to have to change, according to an article with a title that is exhaustingly long but still conveys the general point: “‘The pay is absolute crap’: Child-care workers are quitting rapidly, a red flag for the economy: Child care employment is still down more than 126,000 positions as workers leave for higher-paying positions as bank tellers, administrative assistants and retail clerks. Parents are struggling to return to work as daycare and after-school programs dwindle.”

Baseline pay for Head Start frontline workers has never been high, based on the budgets we’ve prepared and been given by our clients. But Head Start generally won’t increase grants to grantees who’re unable to hire workers in with their budget, and there is a minimum staff-to-child ratio—so grantees can’t simply deploy fewer staff for the same number of kids. I’m supposed to be the guy with the answers, but in this situation I’m not sure what grantees are going to do, or can do. Money for staffing is the big problem right now among Head Start and other similar early childhood education providers:

day care workers typically make about $12 an hour for a demanding job year-round. Public schools and other employers, which are also scrambling to hire workers, are poaching child-care staffers by offering thousands of dollars more a year and better benefits. A nearby Dunkin’ starts pay at $14 an hour.

If you’re paying less than fast food, you’re going to have trouble keeping and recruiting early childhood education staff, and there is no clear way around that blunt fact.

More than a third of child-care providers are considering quitting or closing down their businesses within the next year, as a sense of hopelessness permeates the industry, according to a report last month from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

It’s possible some of those providers will attempt to convert to Head Start operations, but many probably can’t, because some other organization already holds the local Head Start contract.

Although this article focuses on worker wages, the other big problem is rent: almost all municipalities have draconian rules around new construction and parking minimums, and those bad policies raise the cost of land and especially new buildings. The “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) movement has arisen to attempt to combat unfair land-use laws, but the legislative process is slow and Head Start operators need relief now. Tech companies and the like may be able to pass those high land and rent costs onto customers, but low-margin businesses like Head Start or daycare can’t, so they merely suffer. There is a parent-and-family-focused argument for land-use reform, though relatively few people are making it (apart from me!). Still, “The housing theory of everything: Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates” covers the topic. We’re not only short of housing—we’re also short of commercial buildings, like child-care facilities. In rural areas, most Head Start operators have no problems finding facilities. In urban ones, it can be excruciatingly difficult, due to local public policy.

The WaPo article focuses more than it should on shoving more public money into the problem; while that would be nice, so would cutting the cost of non-staff childcare costs—like rent—through land-use reform. Overall, we’re not far off from the inflation worries Isaac described a few weeks ago.

One woman says:

“Our country needs to look at what we really value. We should value our youngest learners,” Cover said. “Our youngest kids should be cared for and educated in settings that are no less than what they receive in K-12 school districts.”

Amen. But our youngest learners don’t vote, and our oldest do. There’s a cliche in economics and politics that goes something like, “Don’t tell me what you value, just show me your budget.” A cursory look at both federal and most state budgets reveal what we really value, as opposed to what we say we value.

This post first appeared on Grant Writing Confidential. Call us at 800.540.8906 for a fast, free fee-quote on any grant writing assignment.