Affordable housing, homelessness, and a political void

Homelessness in Los Angeles and other high cost cities may be just the tip of the iceberg of a larger housing issue in the United States that gets little political attention:

“To say it’s been a real wake-up call would be putting it mildly,” says Raphael Sonenshein, the director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University’s L.A. campus. “It continues to be the No. 1 issue voters keep pointing to. This is going to be the issue of our time for the next few years out here. I think it’s going to dominate the rest of the mayor’s administration.”

Homelessness is by no means a problem unique to Los Angeles, of course. It’s a national crisis of varying degrees in cities from San Francisco to Boston, and one that officials at all levels of government seem hard-pressed to know how to address. Ahead of the first presidential-primary debates, the issue has barely registered, if at all, on the 2020 campaign trail, even as the bursting field of Democratic contenders issues policy proposals to address a wide range of other social and economic problems. But the candidate’s may be forced to confront the issue before long if the crisis continues to spread across the country…

California’s problem may be especially acute, but the lack of affordable housing, like homelessness, is a widespread problem in a national economy where income inequality has grown steadily for years. Yet of the leading presidential candidates, perhaps only Elizabeth Warren has outlined a detailed national plan to address the lack of affordable housing. She has proposed a program that would encourage states and localities to drop restrictive zoning laws that limit multiple dwellings and drive up housing costs in exchange for grants that could finance parks, roads, and schools. Her plan is comparable to a state proposal floated by California’s new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

One major problem is widespread public opposition to greater density; a city like Los Angeles epitomizes urban sprawl, but it also enshrines the ideal of a backyard swimming pool and garden. The California state Senate recently shelved a bill that would have allowed the overriding of local zoning laws to permit construction of mid-rise apartment buildings near transit hubs and employment centers, even in neighborhoods currently limited to single-family homes. The bill fell victim to intense opposition from local neighborhood groups and some progressives, who feared it would benefit developers but not create more affordable housing. A study published in February by researchers at UCLA found that Newsom’s goal of 3.5 million new homes by 2025 is unrealistic because no more than 2.8 million could be built under current zoning laws.

I have argued before there is little appetite for a national discussion about affordable housing. To some degree, housing issues are related to numerous issues at stake in the 2020 elections including economic concerns, matters of justice and inequality, and providing opportunities to all Americans. However, it is difficult to make the argument that housing is behind all of these other concerns. I think this case could be made: where people live has many consequences in life.

I’m guessing housing issues will continue to mainly be local issues for a long time. It is unclear whether even state-level solutions can make sizable dents in these issues or how many states would have an appetite for sweeping policies that would affect all municipalities.

If there is limited movement on or even discussion of affordable housing across the United States, could this mean any progress in other areas will be limited?

 

 

Fighting homelessness without building homes

A piece at McSweeney’s lists reasons residents do not want to build more housing near them:

Ending homelessness doesn’t mean building more homes because this town is full of homes already, especially mine, which is a single-family mini-mansion on an acre lot that I inherited from my parents and/or managed to purchase with the kind of job and bank terms and economic equality that don’t exist anymore for anyone and only ever really existed for well-educated white Americans. Either that or it’s a magnificent luxury condo with expansive views that I don’t want marred by more luxury condos or — god forbid — affordable housing.

Every room in my Instagram-worthy abode is either filled with clutter or rented out nightly to hipsters from another gentrified, monotone city also suffering from a homelessness crisis — this is a national epidemic, after all. I’m a good person, a generous person, and what made me the person I am is having to work hard for everything my parents gave me, and everything I will, in turn, give to my children.

Listen, I know that the unholy concentration of wealth in America is a big, big, problem, but so is having to constantly say no to people asking for change as I whizz into Whole Foods in my Tesla or Prius (depending on how my startup investments pan out). What’s the point of having all this money if I have to feel bad about it? Also, has anyone actually verified that the homeless people claiming to be veterans aren’t just pulling some elaborate fraud? I’ve never actually met a veteran and I forget for like, decades at a time that the military even exists because the bubble of privilege where I reside is literally impregnable, but I’m suspicious nonetheless.

I know we need more housing, but I was here first and I’m not giving up even one blade of grass on my water-guzzling, pesticide-leaching lawn or a single burner on my twelve-burner Viking range that I never actually use to house another human soul. Tough luck, homeless people. You and your allies can call me names but I won’t hear you over the lushness of my climate-inappropriate rose bushes and the stucco walls I’m paying some desperate immigrant under the table to build for me on the cheap before I low-key call ICE and have them deported.

I’m not sure this has to be tied to addressing homelessness; many communities and communities do not want to support cheaper or affordable housing. The public arguments may be couched a bit differently than what is listed above – such housing could affect the character of the community, lower property values – but one does wonder how much of what is written above is what is really behind the opposition.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

San Jose residents don’t want tiny houses for the homeless nearby

Several cities have looked into tiny houses for the homeless (examples here and here) but residents in San Jose don’t like the idea:

But finding sites for the tiny home villages — which could house up to 25 people — proved to be a major challenge. The city looked for publicly owned sites that were a half-acre in size, near transit and with access to utilities. But after an outpouring of complaints, San Jose officials added even more restrictions — 100 feet away from homes and creeks and 150 feet from schools and parks, leaving just a handful of potential sites.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more viable opportunities from this list,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s acting deputy director of housing. “But we were constrained because land is so hard to find in this community. Some of the major concerns that we heard were about the potential impacts, from traffic to noise to new people coming into the neighborhood. We’re trying to be respectful of neighbors and the community.”…

“They’re almost segregating homeless families from existing neighborhoods and that’s not what San Jose is about,” Campos said. “If we can do this right and not give in to NIMBY-ism, then we set the path for other cities in California to address the homeless crisis in their own communities. This sends the wrong message.”…

But there’s push-back on those remaining sites as well. Councilman Johnny Khamis said at least 30 people came to his “open house” office hours last Saturday to voice concerns about the tiny homes site at Branham Lane near Monterey Road in his district. Residents were concerned about security and the “vetting process for the homeless,” he said, fearing crime, especially related to drugs and assaults, will rise.

How can a city address homelessness if few local residents want to live anywhere near the formerly homeless? Cities are sometimes criticized for sending the homeless out of town but it sounds like this could be an outcome here through restrictive options without officially sending them away.

There are several options available here but they aren’t that good. Homelessness, like many urban issues, is not just present in the big city but rather is a regional issue. Could multiple communities chip in? (Unlikely.) Perhaps the city could loosen their restrictions – such as needing a half acre of land – since these are unique housing units. (The neighbors might even be less happy if tiny houses are squeezed in smaller lots.) Try to shame the public into addressing homelessness? (Not a good long term strategy with voters and whatever shame might not be as compelling as the idea that their property values could fall.)

Addressing homelessness in wealthy Orange County

Suburbs in Orange County, California are working to address homelessness:

The vanishing benches were Anaheim’s response to complaints about the homeless population around Disneyland. Public work crews removed 20 benches from bus shelters after callers alerted City Hall to reports of vagrants drinking, defecating or smoking pot in the neighborhood near the amusement park’s entrance, officials said…

At the county’s civic center in Santa Ana, homeless encampments — complete with tents and furniture and flooring made from cardboard boxes — block walkways and unnerve some visitors. Along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium, whole communities marked by blue tarp have sprung up. In Laguna Beach, a shelter this summer is testing an outreach program in which volunteers walk the streets offering support and housing assistance to homeless people.

Cities across California — notably Los Angeles and San Francisco — are dealing with swelling ranks of the homeless. But officials in Orange County said most suburban communities simply don’t have the resources and experience to keep up.

Susan Price, Orange County’s director of care coordination, said officials are trying to build a coordinated approach involving all of the more than 30 disparate cities that takes into account the different causes of homelessness, including economic woes, a lack of healthcare and recent reforms in the criminal justice system.

With a location like this, the headline just writes itself: “While homelessness surges in Disneyland’s shadow…” Juxtaposition! Yet, this shouldn’t be a surprise in this suburban era. Fewer suburban communities and residents are far removed from what they may have once considered to be “urban problems.” The changes across suburbs in recent decades – more diverse populations, continued job opportunities though there is an increase in the service sector, higher housing prices (particularly in places like California) – have pushed many suburbs to consider new issues.

If Orange County does indeed enact a regional approach to homelessness, it could be a worthwhile study to compare the outcomes with those in the city of Los Angeles. Can wealthier suburban communities successfully address homelessness compared to cities who have addressed the issue for longer periods of time? (Success would not be allowed to be defined as moving the homeless elsewhere.)

Would cities consider tiny house villages to combat homelessness?

One writer explores how villages of tiny houses can address problems of homelessness in American cities:

Tiny-home villages for the homeless have retained the idea of everyone having their own tiny structure to sleep and find privacy in, but have, for the most part, consolidated bathroom, kitchen, and recreational space into one or two communal buildings with some combination of plumbing, electricity, and heat. In many ways, they are a multi-roof version of the old-fashioned urban SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel or boarding house, with separate bedrooms but shared baths and kitchen, that provided the working and nonworking poor with affordable living options in so many cities before gentrification turned those properties into boutique hotels or market-rate apartments…

In this regard, they may be solutions that not only alleviate homelessness, but also prevent it by creating more affordable housing. They provide an option below the lowest rungs of market rent, which in cities such as Portland and Eugene can start around $700. In the gap between such rents and low-income units (such as those subsidized by the federal Section 8 program), for which there are often long waits, homeless people often have no options except for shelters — which afford no privacy and, more vexingly, usually kick people out between early morning and late afternoon — or the streets…

They may sound prefab, but tiny-home villages, governed and operated at least in part by the villagers themselves, offer a modicum of safety, stability, warmth, cleanliness, autonomy, and privacy. The feds “have very high standards for [traditional] affordable housing and it’s quite expensive,” said Kitty Piercy, Eugene’s mayor, “so Opportunity and Emerald are ways for us to be able to help some people at a much-reduced cost.”

Add to that reduced fear and stress on the part of residents. “I don’t wanna live here forever,” I was told on a visit to Opportunity Village by a wiry, sweet-natured, 42-year-old recovering alcoholic who goes by the name Johnny Awesome. He was building a small greenhouse onto the front of his cheerful blue cottage, festooned with colored flags and a small disco ball. “This isn’t the top rung of society,” he said. “And the weather dictates a typical day here too much.” Sunny days found residents outside, gardening and building; rainy and cold ones found them holed up in their cottages or congregating in the 30-foot-diameter communal yurt containing computers with Wi-Fi, a large-screen TV, and a pantry.

As the overview goes on to note, this may not just be an issue of being able to build some tiny houses and forming a community. Rather, such villages raise larger questions that cities need to address. Are they willing to let some profitable land be used for such purposes? Where might they allow zoning for such villages? Are cities truly committed to affordable housing? Are cities willing to address the complex issues of homelessness rather than simply trying to regulate or legislate homeless people away? These are not easy questions for cities to answer as they all feel the need for more revenue and exciting new developments. Tiny house villages might be effective ways to address homelessness but they come with an opportunity cost of the land not being used for something else.

I wonder if there is a major city outside of the particular area profiled here – “So far, they seem to be occurring in and around mid- and small-size Western cities whose cultures have some mix of permissive, progressive politics and a certain pioneer DIY spirit” – that would be willing to run an experiment with such a community.

Persistent homelessness in the Chicago suburbs shouldn’t be a surprise

Homelessness is an ongoing concern for Chicago suburbs:

Advocates say her story reflects an ongoing dilemma for those working to end homelessness. The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago’s suburbs each year. In DuPage County, nearly three-quarters of the homeless are from the county, officials said.

Although the number of people served by homeless support agency DuPage Pads has remained steady at about 1,400 people for the past three years, officials counted an additional 29 people who refused shelter this year in favor of sleeping in parks, building entryways and other public areas, said Carol Simler, executive director for the agency.

Many of these homeless people are affected by mental illness, substance abuse or debilitating health conditions. Yet stringent suburban law enforcement — which keeps homeless people from congregating or loitering — coupled with an increase in foreclosed buildings in some areas make the fringe group difficult to reach, advocates say…

In Lake County, 2,000 people receive assistance or shelter from PADS Lake County each year. Officials estimate that an additional 200 choose to sleep outdoors — a group that can be elusive, said Joel Williams, executive director of PADS Lake County.

A few thoughts:

1. Homelessness in the suburbs might be even more pernicious for those without a home because it is harder to access local services or they are less present. As this article notes, there are several organizations in the Chicago suburbs tackling the issue and the PADS organizations in DuPage and Lake County take advantage of the Metra lines or busing, respectively.

2. It shouldn’t be surprising in 2013 to see “urban” issues in suburban areas. For example, the number of people in poverty in the suburbs now exceeds the number in poverty in big cities. Or, see the recent set of articles in the Chicago area about an uptick in heroin usage in the suburbs. Yet, it is still common to see articles like this or reactions from suburbanites that say things like, “isn’t it strange to see urban issues in the suburbs?” It could be that there are still suburbanites who aren’t expecting these issues or who intentionally moved to the suburbs to get away from such concerns. Yet, I also wonder if this isn’t really code for something: this is really more concern in wealthier suburbs who would like to keep these sorts of troubles far from their borders.

Homelessness went down in last decade but not much coverage of this policy success

Here is a story you may not have heard: homelessness in the United States has gone down in the last decade.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leader in homelessness service and research, estimates a 17% decrease in total homelessness from 2005 to 2012. As a refresher: this covers a period when unemployment doubled (2007-2010) and foreclosure proceedings quadrupled (2005-2009)…And what about the presidents responsible for this feat? General anti-poverty measures – for example, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — have helped to raise post-tax income for the poorest families. But our last two presidents have made targeted efforts, as well. President George W. Bush’s “housing first” program helped reduce chronic homelessness by around 30% from 2005 to 2007. The “housing first” approach put emphasis on permanent housing for individuals before treatment for disability and addiction.

The Great Recession threatened to undo this progress, but the stimulus package of 2009 created a new $1.5 billion dollar program, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. This furthered what the National Alliance called “ground-breaking work at the federal level…to improve the homelessness system by adopting evidence-based, cost effective interventions.” The program is thought to have aided 700,000 at-risk or homeless people in its first year alone, “preventing a significant increase in homelessness.”

Since then, the Obama administration also quietly announced in 2010 a 10-year federal plan to end homelessness. This is all to say that the control of homelessness, in spite of countervailing forces, can be traced directly to Washington—a fact openly admitted by independent organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The article goes on to suggest why there hasn’t been much coverage of this success: homelessness is not much of a social problem in Washington or the national media. The social construction of homelessness as a social problem that should receive a lot of public attention either hasn’t been very successful, was never really attempted, or other social problems (like various wars on crime, poverty, terrorism, etc.) have captured more attention.

But, if all the numbers cited above are correct, it seems a shame that a positive effect of public policies regarding a difficult problem is going relatively unnoticed…

Innovative solution to homelessness: taxpayer funded stadiums in Florida have to host homeless

It sounds like this idea has a long way to go in the Florida legislature but it is an innovative attempt to deal with homelessness: insist that owners of taxpayer funded stadiums host homeless residents.

As reported by the Miami Herald, state legislators have unearthed an obscure law that has not been enforced since it was adopted in 1988. It states that any ballpark or stadium that receives taxpayer money shall serve as a homeless shelter on the dates that it is not in use.

Now, a new bill would punish owners of teams who play in publicly-funded stadiums if they don’t provide a haven for the homeless. Affected ballparks would include the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and several spring training facilities. It also includes the homes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Miami Heat, Jacksonville Jaguars and Florida Panthers.

The newspaper estimates that owners might have to return $30 million in benefits that were already bestowed if the bill passes and they can’t prove they were running homeless shelters (to the newspaper’s knowledge, no teams have been).

I think the overriding concern here based on one thing: governments (and others) are lacking money. This could be an innovative solution: use an existing structure that often sits empty which then cuts costs for building/renting other homeless shelters. Lawmakers have some leverage here because they helped secure funding for these stadiums. A growing body of research suggest that these taxpayer funded stadiums are not boons to the local community. Research suggests that taxpayer funded stadiums don’t help out communities as much as help line the pockets of owners. In other words, communities don’t get the money back that they put into stadiums in the form of taxes and team owners reap the benefits. Also, when teams leave, certain businesses may suffer but eventually residents spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere in the city so the city doesn’t lose out in the long run. Why shouldn’t stadium owners have to give back a little bit more?

I wouldn’t be surprised if more cities try to pursue similar ideas that attach more strings to accessing public funding.

The lack of seating in cities and the response by New York City

The New Yorker draws attention to the lack of seating in many urban settings and how New York City has responded:

A dimension that is truly important is the human backside. It is a dimension many architects ignore,” the urban sociologist William H. Whyte once observed. Planners and designers of urban space have often stinted on seating, leaving the rest of us to colonize ledges, lean against planters, perch on fire hydrants, set up camp chairs, and fold coats to dull the pain from pointy iron rails. Lately, though, New York has begun to recognize the needs of the temporarily sedentary. This is quietly becoming an excellent city for sitting…

In the latest initiative, the Department of Transportation has rolled out a new program of sidewalk seating by request. New Yorkers can go to the DOT website and suggest a location for a sleek, sculptural CityBench designed by Ignacio Ciocchini (who also authored the garbage cans and shop kiosks at Bryant Park). Each of the three side-by-side berths is made from a sheet of perforated steel, folded into a back and a seat, and separated from its neighbor by a low armrest. The benches look tough, cool, and modern, but the effect of installing 1,000 of them on sidewalks in all five boroughs will be to make the city a more relaxed, inviting place.

Some will no doubt resent the new proliferation of benches and chairs as yet another encumbrance. New Yorkers would prefer the rest of the world to think that we move at a constant lope, defying cars in intersections, and pushing past slow-moving tourists. The truth is, though, that some of us are also old or infirm or have only just learned to walk. It’s precisely because we spend so much time on our feet that we find ourselves sometimes schlepping groceries, dragging reluctant kids, nursing bum knees, and suffering in high heels. The old solution was to segregate weary shufflers in parks, leaving the asphalt to the hurried. But Whyte noted that in crowded public plazas, people don’t choose to sit out of the way of foot traffic, but rather plop down amid pedestrians who happily weave around them. The reason is that sitting down is a social act. Public seating is a crucial element of a vibrant metropolis, which is why the Department of Transportation is also now functioning as the Department of Staying Right Here.

Interesting. Compared to the sedentary suburban lifestyle which consists of a lot of sitting within houses and workplaces as well as numerous short car trips, the city life is much more on one’s feet.

Two thoughts about this:

1. This short piece doesn’t say much about how we got into this position. I suspect one reason is homelessness. Seats are places wheres the homeless can spend a lot of time during the day and sleep on at night. With the increasing criminalization of homelessness in many cities, either seats have been removed or they have been altered to not allow laying down. Cities may want seating but they want it for certain types of people to sit there.

2. I wonder if many cities haven’t provided as much seating to save money or to limit having to deal with problems (like homelessness) by simply leaving seating to private spaces. Of course, the problem with this is that most businesses would have you pay in order to have a seat. If public spaces are only for walking, standing, and milling around, they are less attractive and the wealthier can retreat to private settings to find seats.