Why Is Homelessness a Municipal Issue?
Most of us live in metro areas, not cities
What’s a “right”? After taking umpteen college courses that pondered that question, my position became: Who cares? It barely matters. You can declare rights until you’re blue in the face, but it’s pointless unless you have a way to deliver those rights. To wit: The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is admirably thorough, but it remains inadvisable to walk into a police station in Myanmar and say: “Article 20 of the UDHR gives me a right to peaceful assembly, so where should I hold my ‘The Government Can Suck It’ rally?”
Is housing a right? Maybe, I don’t know…it doesn’t matter. I’m going to skip the pontifi-bation about whether housing is a right and just say this: Housing is good. It’s in all of our interest for everyone to have a safe place to sleep. A civilized society should strive to make shelter available to all, and the United States — a country so rich that our house pets enjoy a quality of life that a mere century ago was known only to sultans — should be able to make that happen.
But how do we make that happen? That’s the question. A walk through any city makes it clear that we haven’t solved the riddle yet. Cities have made huge investments in shelter and services for the homeless with underwhelming results. Any honest assessment of homelessness acknowledges that it’s caused by a confluence of factors.1 And, obviously, I don’t know how to solve homelessness — my forte is dick jokes, the policy analysis is just a side hustle — but I increasingly think that one mistake we’re making is to think about homelessness as an issue for cities instead of as an issue for metropolitan areas.
Homeless is usually seen as a municipal issue. That’s the framing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit used in a momentous 2018 ruling; that ruling has had a massive impact on homelessness in nine western states. The Court found that cities can only enforce bans on public camping if they have enough shelter beds for the city’s entire homeless population. Few cities have been able to meet this requirement; it’s why parts of Los Angeles look like a mix between the Fyre Festival and the hospital scene from Gone With the Wind. An alliance of liberal and conservative leaders are begging the court to overturn the ruling. This alliance includes California governor Gavin Newsom, who is absolutely not running for president, how dare you even think such a thing, erase that thought from you head right away you irredeemable cynic.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept the idea that if we ban public camping without providing shelter space, then we have criminalized homelessness. Who’s the “we” in that sentence? The 9th Circuit tells us: “We” = “the municipality”. But if you think about it, that’s a strange formulation: By what virtue does a person become the responsibility of a particular city? By virtue of their presence in that city? That might make sense in the short run, but people move. Populations shift with time, as do conditions that alter where people want to be and what they want to do. This is especially true in metropolitan areas, where towns blend together seamlessly. I defy anyone traveling west on DC’s Silver Line to tell me precisely when they’re in Arlington, McLean, Falls Church, or Vienna — it’s just a big mash-up of Home Depots and Tropical Smoothie Cafés out there, and probably only tax assessors and Steve Kornacki know where the borders are.
Because populations, generally, and homeless populations, specifically aren’t static, the 9th Circuit’s logic leads to nonsense. Suppose that Eugene, Oregon has 1,000 homeless people. And suppose that Eugene builds 1,000 shelter beds, because Eugene is a groovy hippie city-slash-commune that might do that type of thing. But then a recession hits, and Eugene’s homeless population suddenly swells to 2,000. In this situation, the 9th Circuit has made it clear that Eugene has to build an additional 1,000 shelter beds before they can prevent anyone from running an open-air opium den in a public park. Of course, building shelters takes time, and it’s entirely plausible that by the time Eugene reaches 2,000 beds, the recession will be over, and the homeless population will be back down to 1,000. Also, suppose that at some point, 500 people walk across I-5 to Springfield, Oregon; at that point, Eugene will suddenly have way too many beds, while Springfield will have too few. But it doesn’t appear that that 9th Circuit would allow Springfield to use Eugene’s excess beds — it seems that Springfield would have to provide beds of their own. In the real world, it’s impossible to perfectly calibrate a city’s shelter capacity to its needs, and that will always be a problem. But it will be less of a problem if adjacent cities can pool their resources instead of having several micro-regimes within what is, in all practical ways, one area.
And then there’s the price of land. Did you know that San Francisco is expensive? There are many reasons for that, the most annoying being that San Francisco’s zoning laws make Colonial Williamsburg look a modern urbanist utopia. But, regardless: Building things in San Francisco is difficult, and that would be true even if they didn’t have some of the most anti-growth laws in the Western world. But assuming, again, that a person has a right to shelter, does it follow that they have a right to shelter in San Francisco, i.e. on some of the most expensive real estate on the planet? Might it be reasonable to argue that they have a right to shelter in, say, less-expensive Oakland, or Daly City? Even if San Francisco dropped its predilection for being a twee assemblage of two story houses suitable for a model train set, it will still be a beautiful piece of land in a vibrant part of the world, so it will always be pricey.
And now for a trademark I Might Be Wrong “and it gets even worse”: So far, I’ve only been talking about shelter beds, not housing. Shelters are a stopgap; they get people off the streets. But it’s better when people can find a permanent home. The challenges of citing, building, and perpetually funding a shelter system are minor compared to the challenges of permanent housing. Which, again, raises the question: If we, as a society, accept that we have a responsibility to provide housing, does that housing have to be in San Fran-fucking-cisco? Or in LA, or New York, or any of the most expensive tracts of land on the entire planet? Might it be reasonable to tell people: “We can provide housing, but Manhattan is not in the cards for you — welcome to Jersey City”? That doesn’t seem harsh; that seems like exactly the reality I accepted when I moved to — or more accurately, near — New York (I ended up in Jersey City, which is fine, BTW). On some level, most people accept this reality; unless you’re one of the 50 hedge fund managers who live in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, you probably live somewhere that’s not your first choice.
Some homeless advocates would consider it cruel to tell people “you can’t live here”. Of course, some homeless advocates consider anything short of providing a palazzo on the Grand Canal to anyone who asks for one cruel, but I’m not here to strawman. I acknowledge that people might have good reasons for wanting to stay in a specific place. Some homeless people are employed, and some have familial ties to an area. I’m not saying that high-rent areas should become No Homeless Zones. I’m saying that we need to acknowledge that different land has different values, and therefore to talk about housing units in the abstract — as if a unit is a unit and they’re all interchangeable — is daft. The unit’s location matters a lot.
This is why viewing homelessness as an issue for metropolitan areas, and not individual cities, could help. If, say, the Bay Area — as opposed to San Francisco — was charged with providing shelter for homeless people in that area, then they’d have more citing opportunities and more access to land. They’d be able to do more with less. Intra-metro-area churn would also be less disruptive to individual cities and to the system as a whole. It would make an extremely difficult problem a bit less difficult.
The challenges of coordinating efforts across several municipal governments might scuttle efforts to create a metro-wide system. On the other hand, the obvious logic of a regional approach might appeal to city governments. After all: At present, they’re all struggling to develop individualized plans. And, to be completely crass about the potential dynamic: Rich cities would surely love to be able to build housing on less expensive land governed by less-stupid rules, and poor cities would surely love to have the rich cities foot most (or maybe all) of the construction bill. It’s not a match made in heaven, but it’s a match made by economic realities that we’re subject to whether we like it or not. And I always favor strategies that apply to this planet, not some hypothesized one.
The 9th Circuit ruling effectively creates a right to housing.2 And now, cities are struggling with the practical realities of providing that right. Even if Western cities get out from under the thumb of the 9th Circuit — and they’ve had some success on that front recently — housing will still be a challenge. After all: Maybe housing is a right, maybe it’s not, my position remains: “Who cares? It’s good when people sleep indoors.” Finding everyone a place to sleep will require a mix of policies relating to housing, land use, law enforcement, and social services. That mix of policies might be easier to achieve if we recognize that populations and economies broadly exist at the metropolitan level, not the city level.
Before a bunch of MSNBC addicts pop up in the comments and say “actually, homelessness is a housing problem!”, let me just say: No. Not even the authors of Homelessness Is A Housing Problem believe that. There is a strong — I would say persuasive — argument that levels of homelessness correlate with housing costs; this is one reason why I often call for laws to make it easier to build. But variance in housing costs between cities only correlate with variations in the level of homelessness; they don’t explain the entire phenomenon. And then there’s the issue of homelessness vs. unsheltered homelessness, which is a whole other can of worms. Which is to say: Yes, housing costs are important, but attempts to explain homelessness entirely through the lens of housing are incomplete.