America should be ashamed that, despite being the wealthiest country on earth with one of the most vibrant business scenes, we still have a massive amount of homelessness. To address this issue some people have proposed building tiny homes for the poorest to make homes more affordable. The thought behind this idea is that smaller homes are cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain. This logic does make sense, but only up to a certain point. However, there is a harsh reality that we have larger social and economic issues creating homelessness that tiny homes cannot and will not solve. Some people take this as proof that homelessness cannot be solved and anyone attempting to do so is naive.
Homelessness IS Curable.
To address this issue properly we must first look at if it is even possible to eliminate homelessness as a society. It turns out, it is possible. Homelessness as a societal issue can and has been cured in the entire country of Finland. Homelessness, defined as rough sleeping, has been completely eliminated. Not only that, Finland has save “as much as 15,000 Euros for every homeless person in properly supported housing” when combined with an effective social safety net. Now that we know it is possible to end homelessness, it is important to look at the direct causes here in the United States. Before we go there, let’s just check to see if we have enough housing for everyone. Turns out, we do.
Housing supply is sufficient.
What does this mean? This means that we have more than enough vacant rental housing in the United States to house every single homeless person. To illustrate this on a national scale the 2018 rental vacancy rate was 7.0 percent. This represents about 3.1 million vacant rental units in 2018. For comparison, the homeless population in the entire U.S. was counted at 552,830 on a single night in 2018. While this may be an underestimate, the number at least gives us a sense of the scale of the issue we are facing. Moreover these numbers force us to confront the uncomfortable reality that we have more than enough housing available in the U.S. right now to house every single homeless person. On a positive note, this number has been decreasing significantly over the last few years due to federal, state, and local adoption of the successful Housing First principles implemented in Finland. Please read the articles linked in the “Homelessness IS Curable” section for more information on the Housing First principle. However, having more than enough housing on a national level doesn’t prove that we have enough housing where it is needed. Turns out, we have that too.
Housing is available where it is needed.
When looking at housing supply and homelessness at a national level it could be easy to miss the geographic supply and demand mismatches on a local level. Homelessness appears to be most severe in urban areas when measured by total numbers and on a per-capita basis. Due to the geographic nature of jobs and where people locate, it is important to look at these numbers on a metro area or city by city basis. This can help us identify supply demand mismatches on a local level that may not be visible in the national numbers. Any reasonable person would agree that it is unreasonable to expect people to move to Nebraska from New York City simply to have access to a home. A long move like this is not only expensive but also likely separates them from their friends, family, jobs, and other support networks they may have. In addition, the rates of homelessness are typically highest in urban areas. Therefore, let us take a look at the two metro areas with the highest absolute number of homeless people, New York City at 78,686, and Los Angeles at 49,955 and see if there are enough apartments to go around in the two largest population centers in the U.S.
Los Angeles (L.A. County)
In 2017 the rental vacancy rate was 3.3 percent in Los Angeles County. There are a total of 3,561,069 housing units in the county and about 54% of those are rentals. Multiplying these numbers we get over 1.9 million rental units on the market and over 63,000 vacant rental units. This means there is a surplus of at least 13,000 units more than the number of homeless people. Even in an area with a tremendous amount of homelessness there were more than enough rental apartments to house every single homeless person in 2018 and likely this is still the case now. In addition 33 percent of homeless people are couples or families with two or more people that can be housed in one apartment unit.
New York City (5 Boroughs)
NYC is a combination of 5 counties in the homelessness data and most other measures of NYC proper. To ensure that the data is comparable the 5 counties that compose NYC are combined into one number when looking at total housing units as well. With a total of 3,493,254 housing units these 5 counties have almost the same number of units as L.A. County. In addition, the vacancy rate in NYC is pretty similar at 3.63 percent in 2017. However, the percentage of these units that are rentals is higher at 63% which makes for a total of number of rental units at 2.2 million. Of these, almost 80,000 are vacant rental units. With almost 79,000 homeless individuals in NYC this leaves a surplus of only roughly 1,000 rental units and clearly points to the need for NYC to construct more housing for its residents. That said, the vacant rental home supply still just barely exceeds our total communal need for housing. This is true even in NYC with the 7th highest rate of homelessness in the entire nation (91.24 per 10,000 residents) and the highest population density of any major city in the United States.
So why do we still have homeless people?
This is a more difficult question with a plethora of factors. For the purposes of this post we will just look at the direct causes. Insufficient income is a close cousin to housing affordability and together they are the leading cause of homelessness in the U.S. What this means is that we have a fundamental and structural market mismatch between the cost of the housing units available for rent and the ability for everyone as a group to afford the units that are available. We won’t go into racial disparities and other aggravating factors for specific at risk communities such as veterans. Basically, from a macro scale, builders are only adding luxury units to the market resulting in cheaper rents for expensive apartments and a continued shortage of affordable units driving the cheapest apartment rents higher and higher.
What is being done?
Luckily, there has already been a recognition of this issue in many cities and even some actions. In some cities, like Minneapolis MN, density restrictions have been raised and single family zoning eliminated across the entire city, allowing denser housing to be built where the market wants it. In addition, exclusionary zoning laws from bygone eras are being re-examined for their impacts on homelessness as cities begin to recognize the value of mixed-use structures for community cohesiveness and affordable housing. Since 2010 the U.S. has also had a new Federal agency coordinating the national and state level response to homelessness among the various Federal agencies and tracking effectiveness of various initiatives. Last but not least, many communities have made moves to streamline and improve their permitting processes. These moves enable housing developers to save money by moving through the process more quickly and predictably and minimize financial risk.
What’s left to do?
I would be remiss if I did not mention that this battle for human dignity is not over. As we speak some politicians and business people are attempting to eliminate these evidence based initiatives that are proven to work and replacing them with policies based on unproven and regressive notions that drugs, alcohol, and laziness are the cause of homelessness. Let’s not let these politicians ruin the progress we have made towards ending homelessness. Since this is an urban problem we can continue to support and inform our local, regional, and urban leaders about the realities of homelessness, its causes, and the effective and proven solutions for ending homelessness. Please do your part and share the good news that we can end homelessness. Contact your local leaders and make sure they are aware of what can be done and how to do it.
Additional related links:
- Los Angeles Shelter Shortage
- Empty Mega Mansions
- California Homeowners Have Extra Bedrooms
- World Economic Forum – How to Solve Homelessness
Kudos to Anzilah for helping me improve my writing and editing this article!