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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Researchers find housing markets explain variation in homelessness among cities

Carlos, a homeless man, stands in front of his tent in Portland on June 4. New research indicates that the overall wealth of a community, causing higher housing costs, may be a big driver in increasing the city's homeless population.  (Paula Bronstein)
Carlos, a homeless man, stands in front of his tent in Portland on June 4. New research indicates that the overall wealth of a community, causing higher housing costs, may be a big driver in increasing the city's homeless population. (Paula Bronstein)

One key dynamic of urban homelessness is laid bare in a new book by a pair of Seattle researchers.

When they compared major cities across the country, they found that homelessness was not strongly associated with high levels of poverty in a community.

What it was very strongly correlated with was high levels of wealth.

The authors of this new book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” found that many cities with very high levels of poverty – from Detroit to Dallas to Miami to Philadelphia – have relatively low rates of homelessness.

Meanwhile, many expensive coastal cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, have comparably low poverty rates – and much more homelessness.

Homelessness, in other words, is “more a symptom of affluence than of poverty,” the book concludes – because of the effect on the overall housing market. Communities with a lot of poverty, but sufficient affordable housing, have among the lowest rates of homelessness.

This is food for thought as we struggle with our own homelessness crisis and housing shortage. The relationship between our tight, increasingly expensive housing market and the number of people living on the streets is direct. As affordability and access shrink, the number of people who fall out of that market rises.

That may seem commonplace, and others have made a similar point. But in this new book, authors Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington real estate professor, and Clayton Page Aldern, a neuroscientist turned journalist and data scientist, have produced a set of comparisons among American cities that dramatically reinforce that reality.

Their book does not attempt to address individual causes of homelessness, whether it’s addiction, mental health or bad luck. (Though they emphasize that research indicates the approach with the most success among individuals is permanent supportive housing with voluntary, not mandated, support services.)

It takes as a given that those problems exist everywhere, and attempts to answer why there is so much variability in homelessness among major cities.

The title gives away the conclusion.

“Regional variation in rates of homelessness can be explained by cost and availability of housing,” they wrote. “Housing market conditions explain why Seattle has four times the per capita homelessness of Cincinnati. Housing market conditions explain why high-poverty cities like Detroit and Cleveland have low rates of homelessness.”

They continued, “Variation in rates of homelessness is not driven by more of ‘those people’ residing in one city than another. People with a variety of health and economic vulnerabilities live in every city and county in our sample; the difference is the local context in which they live. High rental costs and low vacancy rates create a challenging market for many residents in a city and those challenges are compounded for people with low incomes and/or physical or mental health concerns.”

The authors compared cities on a variety of measures, including all the usual suspects in the public discourse about homelessness. (Spokane was not among the cities included.)

These cities varied from those with very high rates of homelessness such as New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco (which have between 9 and 10 homeless individuals per 1,000, according to federal statistics for 2019) and those with lower rates such as Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis (at 2 to 3 homeless individuals per 1,000).

King County and Multnomah County, Oregon – Seattle and Portland, basically – were both around 5.

What they found should give a lot of people pause about their assumptions.

On mental health measures, they found no correlation between high rates of reported mental illness in a given state and homelessness – in fact, they found the opposite: “Homelessness rates are higher where serious mental illness rates are lower.”

When they examined rates of drug use, they found no correlation: “Accordingly, we can only conclude that the disproportionate rates of homelessness in cities like San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Seattle are not driven by more drug users residing in those locations. Something else is happening here.”

When they looked at unemployment rates, they concluded they have “no predictive value” for whether a city has a lot of homeless people.

Along the way, the authors debunk a few shibboleths. When they looked at the assumptions underlying the infamous “Seattle is Dying” documentary (which focused narrowly on drug abuse and which proposed sending homeless people to McNeil Island) and a “study” on the “ruinous compassion” of shelter by Christopher Rufo (which identified robust shelter capacity as one cause of homelessness), they found no supporting evidence.

They examined the “if you build it they will come” mythology – the notion that providing services lures people into homelessness. They concluded: “The balance of the academic evidence suggests that public assistance benefits and services work to limit homelessness rather than accelerate the phenomenon.”

They also looked at the idea that Democratic policies cause the problem, but concluded by noting that several blue cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland do not have large homelessness problems.

In short, every potential explanation but one fell by the wayside: the cost of rent and the availability of rental units, which are affected by the expense and availability in the overall housing market.

To simplify: A low-income renter in Detroit can find an apartment relatively easily for between $600 and $700 a month, while a similar renter in San Francisco would have a harder time finding one for three to four times that amount.

And that dynamic is affected by a housing market where costs at all levels – mansions to hovels – are high.

“The point is that the housing market – as a whole – helps create the conditions in which homelessness varies from region to region,” the authors write. “It’s not merely a shortage of low-income housing: it’s an overall housing shortage that matters.”

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