Behind every person living in the United States without a home there’s a unique story, but what if there’s a single, deeper reason behind why more cities have large homeless communities and others don’t?
Gregg Colburn, professor at the University of Washington and co-author of the book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem”, made this pitch to a sizeable crowd at the Idaho State Museum on Thursday at a talk in support of the City of Boise’s ongoing campaign to effectively end family homelessness by 2026. During the talk, he covered the broad findings of his book, arguing that the systemic, root cause of homelessness has nothing to do with drug use, mental health, poverty, who is in political power, or any other factors.
It’s the supply of housing determining homelessness in a community, he says.
He compared the housing market to a game of musical chairs, where the lack of a chair means someone always ends up losing out and on the street. And if you’re playing the housing game with low incomes, an eviction on your record, drug addiction, or some other complicating factor, Colburn says “it’s like playing musical chairs against Usain Bolt.”
“We end up focusing on those vulnerabilities, and we don’t focus on the underlying structural explanation, which is we don’t have enough housing,” he said.
And in large west coast cities where housing has been slow to be built for decades, Colburn says it creates a system where housing is so hard to find and unaffordable that it pushes unprecedented numbers of residents to the streets where they are subject to crime and drug addiction.
Colburn: Data doesn’t support common explanations
Everyone seems to have a pet theory these days about why homeless encampments are popping up in some American cities and not others.
Colburn said as part of his research, he set out to examine the data behind the common denominators between cities with high homeless populations and common explanations for homelessness. He said communities with high poverty rates, drug abuse, and rates of severe mental illness didn’t have any more homelessness than cities without them. For example, he pointed to West Virginia, which is the epicenter of the opioid crisis and has high poverty rates but little homelessness.
He said it might seem like places with large numbers of people living on the street, like Los Angeles and Seattle have higher rates of severe mental illness than other places around the country, but it only seems that way because someone is more likely to be homeless in those cities and their problems are more visible.
Weather, another common explanation for homelessness in warm climates like Southern California, also didn’t prove out in Colburn’s research because it doesn’t explain how warm cities like Dallas and Phoenix don’t have the same problems. More generous welfare benefits also don’t correlate to more homelessness because the small amount of money more recipients get is negligible once you factor in the cost of living, he said.
Liberal policies also don’t seem to be a driver.
“The 30 largest cities in the country, Democrats run them,” Colburn said. “If you want to blame Democrats, that’s fine, but then you need to explain why Democrats don’t create huge rates of homelessness in St. Louis and Cleveland and Baltimore? It’s an explanation that doesn’t hold up.”
Lack of housing supply drives higher rates of homelessness
Instead of focusing on the individual behaviors for why someone becomes homeless, Colburn said the context of the housing and development market underpins why homelessness happens.
He said his research found cities with the highest rents and, correspondingly, the lowest vacancy rates were most likely to have homelessness. One of the avenues he explored was whether rapid population growth was driving the spike in homelessness in these cities, but that didn’t prove out either because it doesn’t explain how cities with rapid growth, like Charlotte and San Antonio, Texas, aren’t dealing with Seattle scale homelessness.
“Charlotte has built so much housing, and as a result, they’ve been able to keep vacancy rates above 5%,” Colburn said. “They’ve been able to maintain from a vacancy perspective a surplus of housing despite super rapid population growth. And they’ve done that by building a bunch of housing.”
There are two major factors Colburn found in studying why markets don’t build enough housing: Geography and government regulations. He said places that are hemmed in by mountains, water features or other difficult geographic features cannot build at the same rates because of limited land areas, and if the government makes it difficult for developers to build units, it can explode into a full-blown housing crisis. San Francisco is a prime example of both of these factors colliding.
To combat the problem, Colburn said the country and cities need to create more open regulatory markets to build more market-rate housing and also focus on subsidizing more units for low-income residents so they can weather the rising costs. He said Boise is doing remarkably well for how low our vacancy rates are, but without more and more housing to keep up with demand, we could end up like major west coast cities.
He pointed to recent successes across the country with cutting veteran homelessness by providing special housing subsidies, affordable housing units, and wrap-around services to keep this generation of service men and women off the streets as a possible road map for success.
“We gave them housing and vouchers, and we gave them the services they need,” he said. “Will we extend that same logic to people who didn’t serve? That’s a political question. We know it works, but the question is, do we want to extend that to a broader population and that’s what our political leaders need to think about.”