What a leftist talking point gets right and wrong
My wife works in affordable housing. When she tells me about the families that end up moving into one of the units she develops, they usually weren't homeless before, but they often lived (and continue to live) in insufficient housing -- things like 5 person families in a one-bedroom apartment. Plus other negative factors (crime-ridden neighborhoods, lots of deferred maintenance on their units, etc. In one memorable case, no bathrooms in the unit. Safety code violations).
So there's a ladder, right? At one end, you have people who literally live on the street in cardboard boxes. One tiny step up from that, people who couch-surf or live in their cars. Another step up, people who live in extremely cramped or otherwise heavily compromised unit. Then you have people who aren't like four to a bedroom, but still live in very small units that have significant compromises. Then people who are like "well, the kids share a bedroom and the kitchen is a postage stamp." And so forth and so on, up to the level of "we have a beautiful large house with a big yard and nice views and..."
I think there's an understandable impulse to draw a line somewhere on that ladder and say, "Well, above this line, it's not really a problem and we don't care if people at that rung want to be a rung higher." And so you get lots of progressives who only want to talk about "affordable" housing to some definition of affordable, or who only want to talk about homelessness. But I think it's really important to see that crowded higher rungs put pressure on lower rungs.
My family is very fortunate when it comes to income. We have a nice house, nobody shares rooms, etc. But it's still a house that, when I was a kid, I would have associated with someone significantly lower income than we actually are -- because we live in the Bay Area and housing is ultra expensive. I'm not saying anyone should be crying about my life -- my house is nice. But because I bought this house for $1.6M, someone who has a six figure income, but not as nice a six figure income as I do is staying in a starter house, maybe a two bedroom. And you shouldn't cry for them either. But because they're in that house, someone else is staying in a condo. And there's nothing wrong with condos. But because that person is staying in a condo, someone else is in an apartment. And that means that someone else is in a smaller, dingier apartment where they're sharing rooms. And because that apartment is not available, someone else is crammed like sardines in a tiny little apartment.
Which all seems relatively obvious, but god, it doesn't seem to be very obvious to a lot of people.
My apologies for bringing partisanship into one of the first comments, but I was struck by the top 5 states for homelessness: New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington. All deep blue, controlled by Democratic majorities. As one of the Matt's conservative readers, I find myself questioning my own pre-existing beliefs and biases in the face of some of his compelling arguments. I've even moved left on a few issues! I wonder if this happens for left-leaners on a topic like this?
It's not just that homeowners don't want new housing built, though, it's that they explicitly don't want housing prices to fall. And they tend to be more engaged in local politics than renters, so politicians are incentivized to listen to them and support pseudo-econ tall tales about how Nimbyism is really just fighting gentrification/racism/Manhattanization/etc.
How do you cut through that and get the politically engaged to want to build when if it has its intended effect it really will cut into their net worth?
Hot take: Matt needs to extends his advocation for denser housing past zoning reform to housing regulations such as legal requirements about the amount of space per person in an apartment. We need to bring back flophouses and rooming houses as those would actually provide affordable housing. It's better for a someone to live in a flophouse than on the streets. Considering the high cost of construction, even with much looser zoning rules, we still wouldn't be able to build cheap enough housing that the homeless could afford them. We need true naturally affordable housing and with such more regulations on what makes housing legal to rent, there's little way for that to occur.
The problem here is that for an enormous population that cuts across traditional political lines, _moving_ is an act that ranges from intrinsically suspicious to explicitly hostile and damaging, so any set of market and policy conditions that enables it is to be opposed at all costs. The unifying goal of both suburban reactionaries and urban “neighborhood defenders” is that _you_ should stay the hell away and neither actively nor passively create even a tiny bit of visual change in their precious built environments.
I’m not sure that talking about the desirability of functional housing markets really is likely to change any of their minds.
We absolutely need more affordable housing but the homeless problem is much more complicated than that. When we are talking about homelessness, I wish people would specify which classes of the homeless they are talking about. In the Bay Area, it's clear to me that when people complain about homelessness , they are complaining about people with mental health or drug abuse problems who spend their days in the streets (some of who aren't actually unhoused). They aren't so much worrying about homeless people living out of their cars b/c their jobs don't pay them enough to afford housing. This population needs far more than just housing to be properly treated.
The vast majority of this population is peaceful but there's many several recent high profile incidences where members of this population have randomly assaulted people. In a Seattle , a social worker in a housing first project, was stabbed to death by one of her clients.
In the Bay Area, cities have tried to implement Housing First problems but they have seemed to do little to stem the problem. For example, in SF, many homeless have rejected placements in SF's permanent supportive housing units. There's a sense of frustration among people that they have repeatedly approved ballot measures to fund homelessness programs but the problem has continued to worsen instead of improving.
This is a well-argued rebuttal of left-NIMBYism that gives a good overview of the YIMBY/left-NIMBY debate for people who aren't already super into the housing issue. However, from observing how YIMBY Twitter characterizes the left-NIMBY position and the vacancy issue in particular, I think the gap between those two camps is larger than most YIMBYs realize.
The left-NIMBYs fundamentally refuse to recognize the fact that the housing market operates according to supply and demand. They take the high prices in large metro areas as an unchangeable fact of life. They espouse a theory of gentrification where building more housing raises rather than lowers rents.
A large part of this seems to me to stem from the idea that housing *shouldn't* be subject to supply and demand; that we should "decommodify" housing by I guess having the state own all of it.
I don't think YIMBYs quite realize this. For example, I've seen knowledgeable YIMBY Twitter folks question why left-NIMBYs want homelessness to be higher than vacancy. They'll say, given that some amount vacancy is natural, isn't it better that there be fewer homeless rather than more?
But that misses the real homeless/vacancy point, which is, given that building more won't lower rents, the fact that the are numerically enough vacant units to match each homeless person means we should not build more. They think not having sufficient housing is not the problem.
YIMBYs, because they believe in supply-and-demand, seemingly can't even comprehend this line of reasoning. Obviously rents are high because there is demand to move to the area and if you gave all the vacant units to the homeless that would solve the homeless issue but exacerbate the housing cost issue.
Left-NIMBYs use the same vacancy to counter calls to upzone as well. There's enough housing for everyone, so why upzone? Of course it doesn't make sense to say, there's enough housing as is, so it's fine to build single-family homes but not apartments. It's just a leverage point that's "free" for them to use because they don't believe more supply will alleviate housing costs (it'll all become vacant luxury investments or something). According to their thinking, any benefit only accrues to developers.
A lot of this stuff makes more sense when you fully grasp the consequences of left-NIMBYs really, truly not believing in supply and demand.
"The unhoused are often suffering from a variety of problems in life and it can be tempting to get trapped by a “root causes” mentality that wants to focus on addiction, mental health, or employment services rather than housing. "
If you want to ensure the NIMBYs win then that should be your plan. It's vital that the drug addicted and mentally ill are required to be in treatment and if they become a burden on the community then they need to be sent to a locked supervised facility. When this doesn't happen, housing the formerly homeless in your community becomes a tremendous burden on that community.
I can't find the article right now but the LA Times did some great reporting on their housing first program and the burden it put on neighbors and the community was immense.
Obviously this argument is made to some extent in bad faith but clearly unhoused people are not the only ones who indicate excess demand for housing and would like to live in vacant units if they were commandeered. 43,000 people are supercommuting from Stockton and Modesto to the Bay Area every day. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people are being priced out of the Bay Area and moving to places like Boise and Austin--many of them would surely stay if housing were more abundant. There are also many young people who are still in roommate situations or living with their parents but would like a place of their own. Everyone agrees that these are major problems in other contexts, but in the "unhoused > vacancies" point they are all completely whitewashed as indications that demand > supply.
The odd thing is that if you've ever spent time in the equities trading industry, you would know that a small float + tons of demand is always going to result in massive price spikes... every time. The whole vacancy leads to homelessness argument is so bad that I have a hard time believing it's not bad faith on it's face.
I live in Seattle where the homeless population is large and growing even though city goevernent is spending a lot of money trying to get people into housing. The Pandemic has hit the city hard, turning a vibrant downtown into boarded up storefronts, sidewalks unnavigable because of the tents and trash and empty office buildings. Apartment buildings are offering three months free rent and reducing lease pricing significantly. The cost of housing in the suburbs and even further out are skyrocketing. A decent three bedroom house in North Bend, about 30-45 minutes outside the city center can cost nearly a million dollars! And they sell fast with multiple offers. I hope office workers like those working at Amazon and Google will come back to the office towers to work but I suspect they may not return to the high rise apartment buildings. Maybe some of those buildings can be converted to low cost and subsidized buildings. I also think some of the office towers could be turned into low cost housing.
I think the research on housing-first for homelessness is pretty sound. This could possibly be one of the thorniest electoral issues imaginable, and would only be more contentious in a market with housing supply scarcity.
A second-order problem that goes un-discussed: Managing the units occupied by the formerly homeless.
In this case, I am not talking about low-income families and individuals that have been pushed into homelessness due to affordability problems. For most landlords (including myself), they are fine tenants.
The bigger issue would be with the long-term homeless, where mental health and substance abuse is likely a problem. That is an entirely different kind of landlord than the kind who deals with low-income tenants. These landlords would need to be well paid (as a % on the revenue) and have pretty quick access to courts and other channels to deal with problem tenants. They would be extremely easy to demonize, even when they are doing the right thing. When you factor in the slow process of eviction in many blue, coastal states, you would find few people up for that job.
It's a shame because as awareness has grown, paradoxically, it seems as if capacity to deal with problems has gone down.
What if this conversation started with a graph of homelessness vs temperate climate/distance to ocean?
Another way you can think about this discussion point is that vacant housing is a surplus. If there's no surplus, and all of the existing supply is consumed, then by definition you have a shortage - there's no unused supply available to purchase.
Vacant housing may be unoccupied, but it still plays a role within the housing markets because of this, and I would argue is the primary mechanism by which Yimbys should think about how boosting supply improves affordability. More empty homes in a city puts pressure on landlords and developers to compete on price and on quality, as they and consumers all know that consumers can more easily find an alternative. High vacancy rates give renters and homebuyers economic power, and turn a seller's market into a buyer's market.
I did a quick and dirty analysis for English cities here - we have super low long-term vacancy rates, including below 1 per cent in a number of cities, and the urban area with the highest vacancy rate, Burnley (a poor mining town in Northern England) still has a lower vacancy rate than Tokyo - https://www.centreforcities.org/blog/why-we-need-more-empty-homes-to-end-the-housing-crisis/ That's because our housing shortage is especially bad because the English town planning is especially bad, way worse than any zoning regime in the US except perhaps SF.
What are the policy solutions of people who blame developers? It's seems vacuous to me b/c developers don't have to crowd out more government intervention.
One of the markets I always want to see compared when we talk about housing in the US is Germany. They have an incredibly high rental population and have managed to create an abundance of homes in urban areas that drives relatively inexpensive housing stock. What are they doing to achieve this in a relatively litigious and expensive first world country like ours?