California and New York have unusual housing scarcity, not unusual levels of mental illness
I worked in the Texas Legislature last session and one of my bills was to help facilitate free market zoning reforms (HB 2989/SB 1120). My goal, working with advocates, was to try the exactly the political strategy you laid out in today's post.
A Democrat filed the bill in the Senate and a Republican in the House and we had an impressive cross-ideological stakeholder coalition behind it. We found there was very, very little appetite for reform from the Republican members. The House Committee hearing was a shitshow and the members were way more receptive to citizen's concerns about neighborhood character than high-minded ideas about the free market.
The Senate companion bill didn't even get a hearing, as the (very conservative) Republican Committee Chair opposed it. It became just another front in the anti-city culture war. Republicans were more willing to listen to a lobbyist hired by a Austin-based left wing activist who opposed zoning reform than they were willing to listen to the Realtors, Builders, and Habitat for Humanity.
1st mistake. Austin is expensive because its desirable. Homeless are attracted to Austin because it's desirable. Not all desirable and expensive cities have large homeless populations.
2nd mistake. Everyone who speaks about homeless conflates two completely different populations. The transitory homeless who get counted but we never see, and the visible homeless we do see.
3. The transitory homeless make up at least half of all homeless. These are people who get evicted, or lose a job, and are usually out of homelessness in a few weeks. They are the ones who will move from expensive places to less expensive places for jobs.
4. The visible or chronic homeless are the ones we see on the streets of San Francisco. They are there because of mental health issues and substance abuse. They are attracted to place with generous services, nice weather, and lax drug policies.
5. A significant portion of the chronic/visible homeless refuse housing. The success rates when in drug programs are less than 50%. And this is taking into consideration that the most addicted won't even attempt counseling.
Now, is housing part of the solution. Yes, obviously. But the real solution to homelessness is a combination of housing, treatment, and enforcement.
A fixation on lowering the costs of housing will help the transitory homeless, but to make dent on our visible homeless, some tough love is needed.
I think some of the complexity around homeless is that not only does the population vary by location, it also can relatively rapidly vary across time.
I've biked to work (pre-Covid) along the Guadalupe River Trail through Downtown San Jose for about 10 years. There have always been homeless along the trail, but for the first 5-6 years (roughly 2010-2015), it was mostly the core demographic that folks think of when they think of the homeless. I would see the same people day after day for years. Lots of muttering. It seemed stable, in that the folks living in the park were mostly people capable of living in the park for years, but also I would have agreed that the "average" homeless person was both mentally ill and, to a certain extent, wanted to be outside and away from authority.
In the last 5 years pre-Covid, that completely changed (and then it completely changed again with Covid). The homeless population has increased dramatically, from a few people intermittently along the trail to several quite large semi-permanent encampments, and the population is now younger, healthier, and often seems to have one foot in the normal world. I'm guessing many have some formal or informal job. Many seem to have at least partial access to a support network (bathroom, food, etc). With Covid and some changes in policy, many have now brought cars out onto the trail.
San Jose has a pretty active homeless support program that definitely believes in housing first and they would just say that the scale is too big for them to make much forward progress. That being said, I am quite comfortable with the idea that getting from current levels of homeless back to 2015 levels is basically just housing. If you want to get below 2015 levels, then it probably gets more complicated.
This essay has some good arguments, but completely misses the fact that different cities have different political cultures, different attitudes towards vagrancy, differing availability of drugs as well as different infrastructures of welfare and NGOs. Conservative cities are generally less common, but along with cheap and easy building policies, we also see a greater willingness to crack down on chronic homelessness, more strictly enforced vagrancy laws, etc.
The end result is that people who suffer from addiction and mental health issues tend to migrate to places like Austin and Portland and SF. If NYC didn't have such a cold winter, I imagine the homeless population (of mentally ill people struggling with addiction) would dwarf that of the Bay Area.
It seems to me that a lot of this (in the USA) is due to the deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill which owes much of its popular support to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--a work of fiction--and the 1973 Rosenhan or "Thud" Experiment which turned out to have been mostly fabricated.
Of course all this also happened in the backdrop of increased societal tolerance for individual autonomy over group wellbeing, which is reflected in a legal apparatus in the that makes it almost impossible to institutionalize someone against their own will. I think a lot of this grows from the horror that many of us feel when we contemplate being (unjustly) institutionalized against our will, but of course we are forgetting how cruel and awful are the lives of those who really need support but end up leading lives of savagery on the streets.
If high real estate prices were the cause of homelessness--not the "I'm temporarily out of a job" variety, but the defecating on the street variety, why don't we look at the places with the most expensive real estate per square foot? Here's the list:
Monaco, Europe – $5,262.80 per sq ft.
Hong Kong, Asia – $4,392.81 per sq ft.
New York, USA – $2,465.57 per sq ft.
Tokyo, Japan – $2,265.05 per sq ft.
Geneva, Switzerland – $2,123.16 per sq ft.
Shanghai, China – $1,934.44 per sq ft.
London, UK – $1,891.75 per sq ft.
According to this list, Monaco and Hong Kong should have a lot more homelessness--and if Matt is right, it should be the drug addicted mentally-challenged variety. Yet the streets of Monaco are famously pristine, and Hong Kong has nothing like NYC's army of street people, to say nothing of the Bay Area. San Francisco, at $1,060 per sq. ft. doesn't even make the list, and I can think of few places in the rich world with as much disorder caused by the homeless.
None of this means that Matt is wrong--clearly a lot of cities in the USA are suffering from an excess of zoning rules that tie the hands of developers and lead to overly expensive real estate. But the idea that this will solve the problem of the mentally ill and drug-addicted population that are one of the primary drivers of urban chaos seems unlikely.
I think the frustration in California is that we have authorized our government to spend just insane amounts of money to fix the homelessness problem but it isn't resolving. I know the issue is complicated but a lot of people are of the mindset "look, I was fine with paying more taxes to fix this, what is going on?". There is a very general liberal idea here that we should all pony up some cash and then it will be fine but it's not happening. That's the sentiment I hear from peers.
The issue causing political tensions in California and Austin isn't homelessness, it's encampments. The idea that Echo Park or a park in Austin can be turned into a tent city and the city won't/can't do anything about it for months on end (this was pre-COVID as well) doesn't feel like a housing OR a mental health issue. It's easy to link large numbers of homeless to housing policy, but the size of the tent cities seems something else entirely, and that's what's driving the politics right now.
California has been fighting the NIMBYs for years and has had some success, but it is slow going. A political position that you can't sweep the encampments unless until you solve the housing crisis is simply unsustainable. The two councilmembers in LA who hold that view are both facing recalls and at least one seems likely to succeed.
It's amazing that lib-owning is the #1 core value for Republicans, but they'll make just one exception so as not to support dense housing construction. It's like when they said we should emulate Sweden on the lone issue of not trying to mitigate the spread of COVID in Spring 2020.
Warehousing. Not housing.
It's time for the nanny state to rev up and get the sick, chronically homeless off the street and into housing with mandatory treatment and a regimented lifestyle. People who are failing at basic activities of daily living aren't going to be helped by a little polishing and smoothing their clothes out.
One thing that I don't see Matt or anyone talk about is the zero-sumness of actually tackling homelessness. That is, if you are a city that starts to successfully tackle homelessness, other cities will send their homeless to your city, thereby maintaining your city's homeless problem. This is more or less what happened when Salt Lake City started providing housing to the homeless. I think this will also happen if land use/ zoning reform is done by one city but not the rest, as people will emigrate to areas with cheaper housing and high wages up until the point that the housing crisis will repeat itself in that city. If someone has some counter evidence to these ponderings I'd love to hear it.
“ Does the nice weather cause mental health issues?”
Would CA have fewer homeless with North Dakota’s climate? Of course it would.
I very much agree with the need to build more housing. And that will do wonders for the often temporarily homeless like the single mom sleeping in her car. But those with catastrophic mental health and substance abuse problems need mandatory treatment in a supervised (and in many cases) locked facility. The two populations are both homeless but the causes are different.
Some general notes:
-I don't think high property prices are the primary driver of homelessness. Big cities have high housing prices, and homeless people flock to big cities because they have to. All humans need food, fresh water, and shelter, in that order. If you depend on soup kitchens and some light dumpster-diving to keep yourself fed, then you can't live on the street in a small town. There aren't enough free resources to sustain you. And panhandling is a dead-end in a small city with low foot traffic. Smaller cities rarely offer the kinds of drop-in shelter they need; if there's a cold snap, there's nowhere to go. If you live rough in a large metro, you can go to lots of different shelters, or subway stations, or all-night businesses that will let you warm up for a bit before kicking you out. Smaller cities don't have those places. Finally, going to a city with a large homeless population is better if you want to stay under the radar. Being the only homeless person in a town of 8,000 means walking around with a target on your back for cops and bullies. Being one of 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco is a lot safer.
-There's also a cultural component. A lot of commenters here blame "liberal" city governments for large homeless populations. That's nonsense, but culture does matter. Hippie cities attract more homeless people. Athens, Georgia has a homeless rate twice the state average; its not (just)because of high home prices or a liberal city government, its because Athens (and San Francisco, Venice Beach, Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Bend, etc.) is a countercultural institution. There aren't a lot of squares living in homeless camps; many of the perpetually homeless/homeless-by-choice are "members" of the counterculture themselves.
I live in Missoula, which is officially the third-largest city in Montana. It is also a hippie town, and has the highest rate of homelessness in the state. Bozeman is more expensive (at least right now), and has fewer homeless, because its not a counterculture pitstop. Billings is twice the size of Missoula and has fewer than half the homeless, despite better employment opportunities and lower cost-of-living. Missoula's city government has tried "get tough" approaches, including arresting people for "blocking" the sidewalk, and moving the shelter from the heart of downtown to a busy four-lane artery far from any public greenspace, and it hasn't made an appreciable difference. Homelessness, writ large, is about housing prices, mental health, and addiction. Locally, its about the same three things, plus local culture.
In Austin, the problem is Abbott doesn't actually want more people to move there because it would accelerate the bluing of Texas.
Plus, GOP attitudes to homelessness are based on the disgust response not compassion for the homeless people themselves, so in practice proving the superiority of your housing policy by eliminating homelessness would be a poor way to "own the libs". Much better to keep dunking on dangerous liberal cities full of gross homeless people.
I wonder if YIMBYs and NIMBYs are talking past each other and missing a solution.
I live in an old line suburb of a mid sized city, defined by architecturally and aesthetically well designed single family living spaces (homes, parks, roadways) - all very well planned. A couple of miles away is a neighborhood plagued by post industrial urban desolation with huge empty tracts of land.
I am very much on team Matt when it comes to housing (and 1b Americans to boot). But I would struggle with indiscriminate density in my town. But what are the downsides of allowing for dense *planned* development of the post industrial tracts nearby? It would provide substantially similar access to jobs in the employment districts as my town. It would benefit from latest understanding we developed in what makes neighborhoods successful. It would allow for proper calibration of required transit intensity. And it would obviously help reinvigorate the overall metro.
You may say that most people don’t have vast tracts near employment districts. To which I say I have lived in Boston, Chicago, NYC, and have spent meaningful time in many other metros. They all have that. If you are able to link permitting to making sure that existing residents are provided with opportunities to participate / thrive in newly built environment (guarantee of housing, employment / education programs), I wonder if this would work?
Those who want guns to remain freely available also like talking about mental health. It’s a great way of deflecting. People who shoot other people often do have mental health problems. If these problems were magically fixed, there would be less gun violence. The catch is improving mental health is like improving lifespans. The ship turns slowly and even massive expenditures don’t always improve things very much. One can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars “treating” someone who is bipolar and, as soon as he is off his meds for a few days, the treatment has zero effect. The principle effect of therapy is the want/need for more therapy. Just like out of school factors drive educational outcomes, genetic and environmental factors dominate mental health outcomes.
This is an interesting article about a move to make it easier to force treatment on the chronically homeless.
"For years, Diane Shinstock watched her adult son deteriorate on the streets. Suffering from severe schizophrenia, he slept under stairwells and bushes, screamed at passersby and was arrested for throwing rocks at cars.
Sometimes he refused the housing options he was offered. Sometimes he got kicked out of places for bad behavior. Shinstock, who lives in Roseville and works on disability issues for the state of California, begged mental health officials to place him under conservatorship—essentially, depriving him of his personal liberty because he was so sick that he couldn’t provide for his most basic personal needs of food, clothing and shelter.
But county officials told her, she said, that under state law, her son could not be conserved; because he chose to live on the streets, he did not fit the criteria for “gravely disabled.”"
1. Why is he allowed to chose to be a public nuisance?
2. To what degree is his choice morally valid?
3. How can he be deemed to be competent?