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America’s Affordable Housing Crisis Is Driving Its Homelessness Crisis

There’s a clear link between a lack of places to live and the number of people sleeping out of doors at night. And the solution is clear, too: Cities need to double down not just on homeless services, but on building more affordable housing, and quickly.

America’s Affordable Housing Crisis Is Driving Its Homelessness Crisis
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan in February to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis by opening 90 new shelters across the five boroughs. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to spend $138 million on ending homelessness in his city by the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Earlier this year, a state senator in Hawaii introduced a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe housing as a cure for homelessness, which would be classified as a medical condition. In San Francisco, often thought of as the epicenter of the nation’s homelessness crisis, Mayor Ed Lee and a coalition of private partners have pledged $100 million to have the city’s homeless population in the next five years.

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Across the country, city leaders and advocates are scrambling to find a way to end–or at least reduce–homelessness. But their efforts have fallen short of the need: A new federal study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development has found that for the first time since the Great Recession, America’s homelessness population has risen.

[Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images]
On a given single night this year, 553,742 were sleeping on the streets, a 0.7% rise from 2016. Those numbers come from a mandatory homeless street count that cities perform every two years, and because the count is performed by hand, it likely doesn’t capture the extent of the issue.

In part, the economic upswing following the recession–and particularly the attendant rise in housing costs–is driving this increase in homelessness, The Guardian reports. “The improved economy is a good thing, but it does put pressure on the rental market, which does put pressure on the poorest Angelenos,” said Peter Lynn, head of the Los Angeles homeless agency. It’s no coincidence that the crisis is most pronounced in cities like Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, where housing costs have skyrocketed since the Recession with the influx of major tech companies.

Despite Garcetti’s multi-million dollar pledge to end homelessness, Los Angeles has seen the nation’s most dramatic spike in street sleeping over the past year; just half of the $138 million the city budgeted to spend on homeless services has actually been deployed, and the planned construction of housing toward that effort has yet to begin. Efforts on the part of other city leaders have also fallen short. New York City, for instance, has seen a 4.1% increase in homelessness; in October, de Blasio admitted to failing to holistically address the issue from the start of his term.

The rise in rates of homelessness illustrates the devastating reality obscured by economic growth and a drop in national poverty levels. In 2016, 13.5% of Americans were living in poverty–a rate on par with the pre-2008 recession levels. But it would be a mistake to look at the decline in poverty and assume it means that people’s lives are back on track. The way we measure poverty in the U.S., as Vox has reported, is woefully out of date, and based on three times the “subsistence food budget” for a family. This measure was developed in 1961, using family consumption data from 1955. In no way does it capture the needs of a household in 2017.

Nor does the poverty measure capture the fact that the median hourly wage has remained stagnant since the 1970s, increasing just 0.2% per year when accounting for inflation, according to the Harvard Business Review. Wages have fallen so far behind housing costs (in New York, for instance, you’d need at least an hourly wage of $27.29 to comfortably rent a one-bedroom, but the median is just over $20) that many Americans are now forced to spend nearly half their income on rent–far over the 30% deemed reasonable.

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The solution is clear: Cities need to build affordable–truly affordable, not just below-market-rate–housing, and they need to do so quickly. As noble as the efforts of mayors like de Blasio, Garcetti, and Lee are to funnel more money into shelters and homeless-services programs, they won’t be real solutions until they also make investments in building and preserving more affordable units. San Francisco, for instance, is facing an affordable-housing shortfall of at least 40,000 units. Cities should be turning to alternative funding streams–like Seattle’s proposal to introduce an extra tax on corporations that will go toward homeless housing–and investing in permanently affordable housing options like community land trusts. Especially as the Republican Party’s tax plan threatens to gut the financial resources of the lower and middle classes for the benefit of the already wealthy, it’s crucial that cities take more care to account for the reality of living in them, and provide a way for everyone to do so safely and securely.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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