Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | The solution to homelessness is housing abundance

CW File

On April 22, the Supreme Court is hearing City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson. Lower courts had ruled that it was “cruel and unusual punishment,” and therefore against the Eighth Amendment, for Grants Pass to effectively criminalize homeless populations’ existence.

Unfortunately, the conservative Supreme Court majority seems likely to overturn the lower courts’ ruling. If they do so, no matter what they write in their majority opinion, they’ll really be paraphrasing Anatole France’s famous saying that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

No one can deny that America has a homelessness problem, with more than 600,000 people homeless on any given day and thousands of deaths every year. But we already have a potential solution, and it’s not exiling the homeless from the cities or locking them up for the crime of not having a home, as some politicians claim.

In a campaign video released last year, former president Donald Trump complained that “our once great cities have become unlivable, unsanitary nightmares surrendered to the homeless, the drug-addicted, and the violently and dangerously deranged.” He went on to call for the arrest of homeless populations and their forceful relocation into “tent cities” staffed by medical professionals.

“This strategy will be far better and also far less expensive than spending vast sums of taxpayer money to house the homeless in luxury hotels without addressing their underlying issues,” Trump explained.

To be blunt, Trump’s proposed solution would avoid addressing the actual causes of homelessness, save money only at the expense of homeless populations, and just push the problem a bit further down the road.

Like many conservatives, Trump blames homelessness on drug addiction and mental illness. But we would still have a massive homelessness problem even if no one suffered from either condition.

After all, if homelessness were the result of mental illness and drug addiction, then you would expect to see a correlation between the prevalence of mental illness and drug addiction and the number of homeless people in a city or state. But we don’t.

Not having a job isn’t the real cause of homelessness either. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reports that “as many as 40%-60% of people experiencing homelessness have a job.”

It might sound tautological, but the cause of homelessness is simply housing being unaffordable.

And the solution to housing being unaffordable is to build far more housing, invest in public housing and provide legal protections to vulnerable renters.

I’ve written about this a couple times before, but it is far too hard to build affordable housing in America’s cities today. When it’s not flat out illegal to build dense housing because of onerous zoning laws, affordable housing projects and homeless shelters are stonewalled by unrepresentative, so-called community input meetings.

Luckily, in some states the worst of these barriers to building enough housing for everyone are being torn down, but we still have a massive backlog of much-needed construction. The private sector might be able to fill this gap eventually if we make building legal again, but it could take decades. Plus, low-income families will always struggle to afford livable housing at market rates.

To fix homelessness, it’ll require more than technocratic changes to the zoning code and parking requirements, no matter how much good those changes could do. It’ll require a full-scale mobilization by both local and federal government.

On April 19, the Chicago City Council approved issuing $1.25 billion of bonds in order to finance five years of investment into affordable housing. The proceeds will be used to build affordable rental homes and affordable “owner-occupied housing” (read: homes occupied by people who have the deed).

Alongside Montgomery County, Maryland, Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson is creating the model for a new way of thinking about housing production.

Private construction and developers will make up the majority of the American real estate market for at least the next few decades, but that doesn’t mean the status quo is optimal. Housing production is incredibly cyclical and heavily dependent on interest rates. If a homebuyer enters the market at the wrong time in that cycle, they’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

More government involvement in housing construction can even out construction rates over time, and make sure that newly built housing is affordable, either through placing conditions on subsidized loans or by the government itself owning and renting out apartments at below market rates.

However, even with subsidies for affordable housing development, many renters will still be at the mercy of their landlords. The very nature of renting means that renters enjoy shelter only at the pleasure of their landlord.

Despite years of opposition from New York landlords, “good cause” eviction protections finally made it into some proposed legislation this year. Good-cause laws restrict the reasons landlords can use to refuse to renew a tenant’s lease, and the New York law would also encourage not increasing rent more than 3% or 1.5 times the rate of inflation, whichever is greater.

Many critics argue that good-cause laws will affect housing production similarly to rent control, and only further throttle investment into old buildings and construction of new ones. However, paired with lifting unnecessary roadblocks and government investment, there’s no reason to expect that good-cause eviction laws would do anything besides make renters more secure in their homes.

Unfortunately, according to the analysis of advocacy group Housing Justice for All, recent changes to the proposed legislation mean that even if passed, it will apply to only a tiny slice of New Yorkers. For now at least, renters in New York will still have to worry about their landlords’ whims every lease renewal, no matter what happens in Albany.

Homelessness is a major problem, but we do have the right tools in our toolboxes to fix it. And no matter what Trump says, the solution isn’t just forcing the homeless out of the cities they’ve lived in for decades and into tent cities, out of sight and out of mind.

State governments and local governments across the country are passing some of the right laws. But to actually face the issue head-on, America needs an all-hands-on-deck approach, combining zoning reform, government funding for affordable housing, and renter protections.

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