This Week in Homelessness and Housing Policy

affordable housing, homelessness, Housing Policy

In the past week, there have been a lot of innovative ideas about how to ameliorate homelessness and improve housing policy that have been discussed in mainstream and not-so-mainstream media sources. Here’s a brief re-cap. Thank you to Dorothy Holt for finding and sharing much of this information!

First, Amazon announced that it will permanently operate a homeless shelter in Seattle. CLICK HERE to read the coverage of this new Amazon initiative in the New York Times. Last year, Amazon was allowing homeless people to live in a motel owned by the company. The motel began to be known as a safe shelter with the moniker “Mary’s Place”, however the future of the shelter was unknown. Now, Mary’s Place will operate out of a new Amazon-owned-and-operated office building that will be constructed in fall 2017. According to the report published in the New York Times, there are many early supporters of this plan. “Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said she was unaware of any other private corporation integrating a homeless shelter into its building. ‘Too often, homelessness gets pushed to the other side of the tracks,’ Ms. Roman said. ‘Keeping them as neighbors is nice.'” Reporter Nick Wingfield who wrote the news story also noted that this move may make Amazon look more appealing to consumers who are concerned with issues of social justice. Amazon has been criticized for promoting gentrification and a toxic and abusive work environment. Seattle has been experiencing a “homelessness crisis” and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a “state of emergency” last year to note the magnitude of the problem. From 2015-2016, the number of people living on the streets in Seattle (unsheltered homeless) increased 19% (Woodard 2016). This figure excludes people who are homeless but sheltered (couch surfing, shelter hopping, etc.) or who were missed by volunteers who conducted the Point in Time (PIT) counts of the homeless in Seattle. (For more on how PIT counts are conducted, see a previous blog post on Point in Time Counts).

Second, this week, advocates for the homeless have installed portable toilets along the Santa Ana River which is located in Orange County, CA. This area is home to many people who are without housing in Orange County. County officials immediately criticized the actions as “unauthorized” and are taking actions to remove the portable toilets. The toilets were purchased using donations from the community. For more information, CLICK HERE to access the news coverage of these actions published in the local newspaper, the Orange County Register.  One homeless man who was interviewed in this article expressed that “it is a relief not having to rely on five-gallon paint buckets that many of the homeless people resort to using, dumping their waste in the river bed or disposing of it in the orange trash bags that public works supplies…[other people experiencing homelessness] trek to the Burger King and Jack-in-the-Box restaurants on Chapman Avenue…people living in the tents will police the toilets themselves.” (Walker 2017)

Third, as the affordable housing crisis continues to become more exacerbated in California, policymakers in CA cities around the state are pursuing a potential solution to this problem. The proposed solution involves making it easier for homeowners to build and operate “granny flats” or accessory dwellings (“back houses”, small cottages, garage studios, etc.) on their properties. Currently, it is very difficult for homeowners to build these dwellings on their properties due to zoning rules, parking fees, and utility-access restrictions. McPhate, the reporter writing the NYT article writes: “the idea was simple: Make it easier to build the units, then watch the housing stock soar and the rents fall…Those opposed to easing regulations on the units have cited concerns about increased traffic and changes to neighborhood character.” CLICK HERE to read the coverage of this policy idea in the New York Times.

Fourth and finally, if you were interested in last week’s blog post on how some of the federal policies that encourage homeownership in the USA have promoted inequality over time, then you may want to check out this week’s article on the mortgage interest deduction (MID) rate in The Atlantic. Check it out here! This article, written by Derek Thompson, examines the MID in more detail with a touch of Op-Ed flair! One quick poignant quote: “Since tax benefits are most useful for people with taxable income, U.S. wealth-creation policy is predominantly for people who already have wealth. These high-income households don’t consider their tax benefits to be a form of government policy at all. For example, 60 percent of people who claim the MID say they have never used any government program, ever. As a result, rich households can be skeptical of public-housing policies while benefiting from a $71 billion annual tax benefit which is, functionally, a public-housing policy for the rich.” (Thompson 2017).

References:

McPhate, M. (May 16, 2017). “California Today: A Housing Fix That’s Close to Home.” New York Times. Accessible at: https://nyti.ms/2qnm38E

Thompson, D. (May 14, 2017). “The Shame of the Mortgage-Interest Deduction.” The Atlantic. Accessible here: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/05/shame-mortgage-interest-deduction/526635/

Walker, T. (May 15, 2017). “Activists install portable toilets for homeless at Santa Ana River bed; county says they’re unauthorized.” Orange County Register. Accessible at: http://www.ocregister.com/2017/05/15/activists-install-portable-toilets-for-homeless-at-santa-ana-river-bed-county-says-theyre-unauthorized/

Wingfield, N. (May 10, 2017). “Amazon to Share New Building With Homeless Shelter in Seattle.” New York Times. Accessible at: https://nyti.ms/2puvNd7

Woodard, B. (June 29, 2016). “#SeaHomeless: What you need to know about Seattle’s homeless crisis.” The Seattle Times. Accessible at: http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seahomeless-what-you-need-to-know-about-seattles-homeless-crisis/

 

This Week in Housing Policy

affordable housing, homelessness, Homlessness, housing, housing discrimination

We’re only on Tuesday and so far, this week has produced a lot of strong media coverage of issues pertaining to the relationship between housing policy and inequality (social, economic, and racial inequalities in particular). Most of the year, it seems that issues of homelessness and housing policy receive meager media attention, so to have multiple news outlets covering these important issues in a span of a few days is very exciting! Whether or not you agree with the framing of these news stories or the policy suggestions implicit in these articles, it is still worth it to read the coverage of these issues, as they often get overlooked.

First on the agenda, the New York Times Magazine published a poignant piece on how the public policies that incentivize homeownership in the U.S.A. have contributed to inequality over time. This article, titled “How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” was written by the acclaimed author Matthew Desmond who wrote last year’s hit book titled Evicted. (If you’re a housing policy nerd like me, then this is a must read!) In the article, Desmond does a great job demystifying some of the more complex and opaque features of the U.S. tax code as it is applied to issues of housing and homeownership. For example, he describes how the mortgage interest deduction (MID) favors middle and high income earners who own homes, but he notes that there is no comparable tax incentive for renters, who tend to have lower incomes. The MID was designed to encourage Americans to purchase residential properties at inflated prices, forcing them to borrow funds in the form of mortgages. This significantly contributes to the widening of the gap between affluent Americans and Americans who are struggling to get by financially. In addition, Desmond explains how racially discriminatory housing policies from the past, such as the G.I. Bill, are still affecting unequal housing outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities in today’s America. He also provides readers with profiles of individuals and families who own homes and rent properties to show the drastic differences in their experiences with housing in America.

To access Desmond’s article (published May 9, 2017), click here: https://nyti.ms/2pZp92k

To access info about Desmond’s book Evicted, click here: http://www.evictedbook.com

Second, the news outlet National Public Radio (NPR) has also paid more attention than usual to issues of housing, homelessness, and inequality in the past week. On May 3, 2017, Terry Gross produced a piece on the “forgotten history” of housing segregation in the U.S.A. This story profiles historian Richard Rothstein’s latest book The Color of the Law (more info on his book is accessible here: The Color of the Law). Gross’s article and Rothstein’s book both describe how redlining created a “state-sponsored system of segregation” in U.S. housing policy.  Rothstein notes that “the term ‘redlining’ … comes from the development by the New Deal, by the federal government of maps of every metropolitan area in the country. And those maps were color-coded by first the Home Owners Loan Corp. and then the Federal Housing Administration and then adopted by the Veterans Administration, and these color codes were designed to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages. And anywhere where African-Americans lived, anywhere where African-Americans lived nearby were colored red to indicate to appraisers that these neighborhoods were too risky to insure mortgages.” This blog has examined redlining in previous posts, check the archives for more in-depth information on this abhorrent practice. Gross’s article, and the book that it profiles, show how these segregationist policies that began in the 1930’s are still negatively affecting African Americans today.

You can access this story (both audio and written commentary) here: “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America”

In addition, NPR, in concert with PBS’s Frontline, produced an interesting piece on the abuse of the affordable housing system in the U.S.A. Published on May 9, 2017, this piece, titled “Affordable Housing Program Costs More, Shelters Fewer”, describes how the federal low-income housing tax credit program (LIHTC) has failed the American people, both affordable housing program beneficiaries and American tax-payers alike. The LIHTC was established to incentivize private companies to build housing for low income Americans. However, the investigation into the program by NPR and Frontline “found that with little federal oversight, LIHTC has produced fewer units than it did 20 years ago, even though it’s costing taxpayers 66 percent more in tax credits.” This means that more tax-payer money is being spent on a program that is producing fewer housing units for low income Americans. In other words, the program is ineffective at assisting poor Americans gain quality affordable housing. This report provides a critical look into the murky world of affordable housing policy and sheds some light on who is “winning” and who is “losing” in the twenty-first century. Spoiler alert: low income Americans who are seeking affordable housing are definitely losing while investors from private equity firms and companies that cater to the housing market are definitely winning.

You can access this fascinating and timely article here: http://www.npr.org/2017/05/09/527046451/affordable-housing-program-costs-more-shelters-less

 

Three Quarter Homes in NYC

affordable housing, homelessness, NYC

Three quarter homes, or three quarter houses, are are unregulated dwellings for people who are experiencing homelessness, people with substance abuse challenges, people receiving public assistance, and people with mental health needs or disability services needs.

In NYC, three quarter homes have operated without inspection or regulation for decades, leaving residents in homes no avenue for filing  tenant grievances.  Increasingly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in three quarter homes across New York City prompted the New York Times to run an investigative series on the dilapidated dwellings in May and June 2015.  CLICK HERE to read the original NYT investigation that prompted city officials to take action.

The City of New York responded by removing residents living in unsafe structures from the three quarter homes.  The City has offered them temporary living situations, such as hotels and motels until city housing officials can find a more permanent solution.  The City of New York also created a new task force in June 2015 to ameliorate conditions in three quarter homes.  While the task force has evaluated its performance highly, many residents of three quarter homes feel that they have been left behind while others are joyful to be living in clean, safe spaces.

The New York Times continued its coverage of this issue in the article “New York City Starts Moving Tenants From ‘Three-Quarter’ Homes, but Others Are Left Behind”, written by Kim Barker and published on August 2, 2015.  The article explains that some residents of the three quarter homes have been moved into locations like the Sleep Inn that are clean and affordable.  However, other residents have not been given access to new housing yet.  Barker cites reasons such as disability and substance use as factors preventing the flight of three quarter home residents from the unsafe and unsanitary homes.

For example, Barker tells the story of one man in his mid-50’s whose recent knee surgery prevented him from packing quickly.  His “spot” at the Sleep Inn was filled by the time he was able to pack and get there.  As a result, he has been left behind, as the City does not have enough housing spaces to accommodate everyone who needs to relocate from the three quarter homes.

Experts trace the modern history of three quarter homes in NYC to the public policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Bloomberg advocated for reducing the city’s homeless shelter rolls, without providing any additional housing for the people expelled from the shelters.  Three quarter homes were developed out of necessity to fill the housing gap for low income residents of NYC.  Three quarter homes are not sanctioned by the City–they are not up to code and they are of shoddy quality–but they provided an alternative to sleeping on the streets for many people experiencing homelessness in the past few decades.

The City of New York has pledged $5 million to repair three quarter homes and bring them up to the building code and move people into higher quality housing.  Let’s hope the pledge doesn’t dissipate before the next election cycle!

NY Times “Room for Debate” Analyzes Homelessness

homelessness, Housing Policy

Click here to read the NYT “Room for Debate” series piece on homelessness and housing policy.  The article features six different “view points” on homelessness.  Conservative writers from the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute argue against embracing affordable housing for all, continuing the usual pattern of blaming the homeless for their own state of homelessness and using the “deserving” citizen/”undeserving” citizen paradigm that has been established for decades in conservative literature on welfare policy.  Four of the authors featured in the series work directly with people experiencing homelessness, and with social sector organizations and government agencies responsible for housing and homelessness policies.  These authors advocate for housing for all and some explore the nuances of serving those with addiction recovery needs and mental health services needs.

NYT article highlights alternative reasons for Homelessness

homelessness

The article “On the Homeless Beat: Reporter’s Notebook”, published in February 9, 2015’s New York Times, draws attention to the complexities of finding housing even if it appears readily available (CLICK HERE to read the full article, written by Winnie Hu).  Reporter Winnie Hu interviewed homeless people living outside in New York City about their experiences with city shelter and housing services.  Hu learned a lot about why some people do not seek shelter, even if that option is available. NYC has a “right to shelter” mandate, which requires city officials to find shelter for homeless people who request housing. Some reasons for staying outside instead of seeking shelter inside include: violence/lack of safety in shelters, restrictive shelter rules, and feelings of personal pride (or shame) deters people from seeking shelter.  These are just a few of the reasons that homeless people often appear to “choose” life on the street versus life in a shelter. But this begs the question, is it really fair to even call this a choice, when both options are dangerous and unfulfilling?

There is little agency in homelessness, so when housed people question the decisions of people experiencing homelessness regarding staying outside versus going inside, they may be operating under assumptions driven by the logic of rational choice theory.  In rational choice theory, actors (in this case homeless people seeking safety) are able to choose amongst multiple options.  In this model, actors have access to perfect information (which is rarely the case for people who are experiencing homelessness), and after weighing all of the pros and cons they are supposed to be able to make an informed decision based on information and needs.  However, in reality, rational choice theory does not stack up.  As Hu’s article shows, powerful feelings of shame or guilt can prove more prominent in decision making than physiological feelings of cold and discomfort.  When discussing the “choices” that people experiencing homelessness make, it is important to interrogate the assumptions that are imbedded in our understandings of the word “choice” and how this concept of “choice” actually plays out in reality for people who are experiencing homelessness.