HOUSING - A consistent message from homelessness and housing agencies is that homelessness is primarily a crisis of affordable housing. As rent increases outpace wages, more people have been forced into homelessness. Building new multifamily housing that can be rented at affordable rates is exceedingly difficult in the local stratospheric real estate market. A few months ago, the L.A. Times did an excellent series of articles on the overcrowding that has resulted from a dearth of affordable apartments in and around the City’s core. Indeed, central L.A. is one of the most overcrowded places in the United States. There is undeniably a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing in Los Angeles.
Homeless advocates cite this shortage as the primary driver of homelessness, using it to justify the strong bias towards construction of new housing, (Housing First). However, there is a large and growing body of evidence that shows we are dealing with two different crises affecting two very different groups. The housing crisis affects the lower middle class and working poor. The homelessness crisis has been caused by a combination of untreated mental problems, substance abuse, and misguided policy. Both crises require different solutions.
The affordable housing crisis affects far more people than homelessness. Hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers are either forced to live in cramped and overcrowded apartments, or have to move to more affordable areas far away from their jobs. These are the people who support our lifestyles by working in restaurants, stores, car washes and other service industries. Many work multiple jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table. Without them, L.A.’s economy would collapse. There are many causes of the affordable housing crisis, including development policies favoring higher-priced residential construction;, market and demographic forces that lead to increased rents, an onerous eviction moratorium that is driving small landlords out of the market, and building policies that make it cost-prohibitive to upgrade or expand existing properties. Societal biases also play a significant role; there is a common belief that working-class housing reduces the property values of surrounding properties, and that certain neighborhoods should have only one kind of housing, be it single family or multifamily.
Solving the affordable housing crisis will take a multi-pronged approach. Certainly, new construction of community-appropriate lower-cost units is essential, perhaps coupled with subsidies for very low income wage earners. Policies that temper rental market forces with local labor requirements would help. And we all need a better understanding and acceptance that working-class housing benefits a community by allowing wage earners to live near their work, making it easier to provide everyone with the services they need.
One of the major impediments to solving the affordability crisis has been advocates conflating it with the homelessness crisis. By insisting homelessness is caused by economic forces, advocates are applying the wrong remedies to the wrong crisis. Many professional and academic studies suggest anywhere between 50 percent and 75 percent of the unsheltered homeless have chronic mental health and/or substance abuse problems. The increase in homelessness has coincided with the flood of methamphetamines and opiates on the streets. . A lack of adequate mental health services has been a growing crisis since the 1970’s, yet government agencies have done little to address it. Advocates respond by saying many people who become homeless, out of despair and chronic stress, fall into mental illness or substance abuse. While long-term homelessness can certainly affect someone’s mental health, other studies, and many interviews with the homeless themselves, reveal that preexisting behaviors, such as alcoholism or substance abuse, as well as untreated medical conditions. precipitated the initial homeless episode, and then homelessness exacerbated those conditions. As Jess Echeverry, leader of SOFESA, a west side service provider says, homelessness is caused by broken relationships. SOFESA interview. Mental health problems caused by a variety of factors, including family trauma, or substance abuse problems, are often behind broken relationships, and without family support, people descend into homelessness. Regardless of when the onset of mental health challenges or substance started, simply placing someone in an apartment with no services achieves nothing.
A recent story in the L.A. Times provides an excellent example of the fallacy of treating homelessness and affordability as one crisis. A mother and her daughter have been in a shelter awaiting housing for 11 months. She told a Times reporter she lost her apartment because the landlord raised the rent by $500 per month. The budget of L.A. County’s Homeless Initiative, the County’s homelessness agency, exceeds $500 million per year, or about $7,200 for each of the 69,000 homeless people in the County. This woman has been caught in the disjointed city/county bureaucracy for nearly a year. The County could have simply given her a check for $500 each month, and for an annual cost of $6,600, she and her daughter could have stayed in their home and their community.
By insisting homelessness is an affordability crisis, advocates, who control the policy narrative, are failing at resolving both crises. Advocates ae also disingenuous when they claim success of Housing First policies. They claim someone is “housed” when they are dropped in an apartment, often without needed support services. As a result, many people are soon back on the streets, either by choice or because their behavior forced their eviction. Their behavior also affects others in housing facilities, especially families, who do not want their children exposed to dangerous situations: Advocates and the agencies they control intentionally blind themselves to the real problems many of the unhoused are experiencing. Dealing with the reality of the homeless population is absolutely essential to solving the crisis. Christopher Legras offers an excellent roadmap in his All Aspect Report column: . After spending $20 billion in six years and seeing no progress, the State Legislature may be waking up to the fact Housing Alone has failed.
We need the support structure to identify the needs of each homeless person and provide the services that will best keep them off the streets, whether its job counseling in a transitional environment, or intense inpatient treatment. This would, of course, require profound changes in the way homelessness is addressed, including changes to existing laws. And more voices, other than Housing First advocates, must have a seat at the table.
(Tim Campbell is a semi-retired public sector performance audit manager, who knows about successful and failed programs, a resident of Westchester who lives with the real-world results of years of poor policy decisions every day.)