Popular Economic Weekly
I said in an earlier column “that part of the solution to the housing and homeless crisis has to be the responsibility of governments.”
A recent Project Syndicate article by UC Berkeley economist Laura Tyson, and Lenny Mendonca, Chairman of New America, highlighted just how much government support will be needed to take some of the half million homeless off the streets, a number that has grown sharply just since 2017 as housing rents and prices have soared with the economic recovery.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were roughly 554,000 homeless people living somewhere in the United States on a given night last year. “A total of 193,000 of those people were “unsheltered,” meaning that they were living on the streets and had no access to emergency shelters, transitional housing, or Safe Havens. Despite a booming stock market and strong economic growth, a large swathe of America is still struggling to make ends meet.”
And affordability is the real problem. “Of 3,007 counties in the US, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour can afford a one-bedroom rental in only 12,” said Project Syndicate. “In San Francisco, where the median house price is over $1.5 million, a single mother earning the minimum wage would have to work 120 hours per week to meet her basic needs. And even outside of high-cost regions, nearly two-thirds of US households lack the savings to cover a $500 shock such as a car repair or health-care expense. For these families, one bad turn can result in homelessness.”
The most common-sense solution would be to build more homes for all socio-economic strata, but surveys have shown that a majority of the home owning public thinks in NIMBY (Not-in-My-Backyard) terms; which means the most affordable housing is being built on least-desirable land usually far from population centers.
StrongTowns.org is one such advocate and clearing house for the building of affordable housing under its Mission Statement: “For the United States to be a prosperous country, it must have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. Enduring prosperity for our communities cannot be artificially created from the outside but must be built from within, incrementally over time.”
For instance, California would need to build around 180,000 more new housing units each year – about 100,000 more than are currently being built – just to keep up with population growth. Since 2010, eight times as many jobs as housing units have been added in San Francisco, where the average cost of building “affordable apartments” has jumped to $425,000. King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, estimates that it would need 14,000 more units to house its homeless population.
Not providing lodgings and services for the homeless can be even more expensive. There are many studies that show how costly it can be to leave the homeless on America’s.
Many local and state governments have developed what have been called ‘Housing First’ programs to help subsidize the 30 percent of homeless with mental illnesses in particular. Chronically homeless people are regular visitors to emergency rooms, and each visit results in a hefty bill. They also frequently use mental health and addiction treatment services and tend to rack up arrests, leading to costly jail terms.
“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,” said its program statement. “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.”
Philip Mangano, the former homeless policy czar under President George W. Bush was an early government official that had the foresight to expand housing-first programs — with federal dollars behind them — into cities around the country.
Using data from the 65 cities — of all different sizes and demographics — the cost of keeping people on the street added up to between $35,000 and $150,000 per person per year, said Mangano.
Conversely, after the housing-first programs had been established, Mangano said he looked at the cost of keeping formerly homeless people housed. That range: $13,000 to $25,000 per person per year.
We must find a way to care for the homeless and those rendered hopeless by the Great Recession, loss of good-paying jobs and record income inequality that has now lasted decades. Or, the richest country on earth risks becoming the poorest provider of care for our citizens, the hallmark of a healthy democracy.
Harlan Green © 2018
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