Affordable Housing Roundtable: Homelessness in America

Homeless man sits on the sidewalk of a busy San Francisco street. Photo by Mussi Katz on

In the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress1, researchers estimate more than 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness on any given night. Thirty-five percent of which were living unsheltered or in places unfit for safe human habitation. The report cites a decline in homelessness from 2007 to 2018, but acknowledges that the size of the homeless population has increased over the last two years.

In our first Affordable Housing Roundtable, Affordable Housing Online staff discusses the state of
homelessness in America and how changes in policy affect the outlook of recovery.

Max Reedy (Moderator): Recently we covered that the EPA will cite San Francisco for pollution as a side effect of its homeless population. At the same time, Ben Carson’s HUD denied a California request for additional Housing Choice Voucher funding. What are your thoughts on framing homelessness as an environmental issue as opposed to a housing?

Joshua Cappell (Data Analyst): I find it disingenuous to classify homelessness as an environmental issue. According to a fact sheet published by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty2 (NLCHP), the lack of attainable affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in the United States. 

Citing 2012 HUD and American Community Survey data, the NLCHP fact sheet reports that for every 10 extremely low-income households only 5.8 affordable homes are funded and in service. Of those 5.8 affordable units, only 1.8 were actually available for rent for an extremely low-income household.

Nathan Brunet (Waiting List Editor): To illustrate the oversubscription of federal affordable housing availability, most HUD waiting lists nationwide are closed. 61% of all waiting lists tracked by Affordable Housing Online are not accepting new applications. And even if applications are being accepted, the wait to receive assistance may be months or years long. 

If a homeless person has no affordable options where they live, there are rental assistance waiting lists that are currently open in many areas of the country. But a lack of centralized information makes it a laborious task for any low-income renter to be informed of programs available to them. And homeless persons face even more obstacles to obtain this information.

Of the 3,800 Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) that operate HUD’s housing programs, almost all of them work independently from each other. And due to a general lack of resources, many offices provide little outreach about waiting list openings. Oftentimes, information can only be found in the classifieds section of a local newspaper. So, many people are completely unaware of housing options available to them; even those in a neighboring city or county.

Waiting list preference systems can help homeless people get housing, but preferences can also work against them. 

Joshua Cappell: This is supported by our data. Residency preferences are the most common preference across all waiting lists that opened in 2018. 149 of the 428 waiting lists that Affordable Housing Online identified gave preference to residents already living within their jurisdiction. Contrast that with only 70 waiting lists with preference for homeless households. 29 of those waiting lists overlap giving preference to both homeless and local households.

While preferences may present yet another barrier to households currently experiencing homlessness, the most common preferences do align with policies targeting homelessness prevention. 132 waiting lists in 2018 gave preference to households with disabilities, 110 gave preference to seniors, and 96 gave preference to veterans.

Nathan Brunet: Housing Authorities are put in a tough position. Do they prioritize assistance to people currently experiencing homelessness or prioritize homelessness prevention among vulnerable populations?

Chris Holden (Affordable Housing Expert): I agree that homelessness is primarily caused by a lack of affordable housing. I think the Trump administration’s framing of homelessness as a public health issue is an avenue for them to assert federal jurisdiction in what should be a local matter. It’s very similar to how the manufactured crisis at the southern border was used to justify declaring an “emergency” to shift other funds to build a border wall.

Max Reedy: Politicians and advocates in California expressed similar thoughts, that this issue is purely political16. Does this action align with the EPAs current enforcement policies?

Joshua Cappell: According to the EPAs Enforcement and Compliance tool3, the EPA has not cited or brought a case against another jurisdiction for the effects of their homeless population.

Additionally, one statement by the President4 seemed to justify the EPA citation with the belief that needles and other paraphernalia used by the homeless population are entering the San Francisco Bay through the sewer system. However experts familiar with those systems have debunked5 that pollution talking point.

Chris Holden: The effort to penalize cities with large homeless populations by way of environmental sanctions also runs counter to Trump’s environmental agenda and actions. The EPA has gutted clean air and clean water protections in the wake of Trump withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty. Specific to California, the EPA recently took steps to revoke the state’s right to set car emission standards that are stricter than the federal ones.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson speaks at a RAD Conversion site in San Francisco, CA. Photo by HUD Photostream on

Max Reedy: After a decade of decline in homlessness, what has led to an increase in homelessness over the past two years?

Chris Holden: Even as many areas are booming after recovering from the Great Recession, housing costs outpace wages. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach6 report shows that there is no county in the nation where a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage ($7.25) could afford to lease a two bedroom unit at the HUD set Fair Market Rent. A minimum-wage worker would have to work 127 hours per week to afford an average two bedroom apartment.

As economic growth drove up housing costs and left wages stagnant, the Trump administration continued to propose reductions in funding for affordable housing programs in general, including programs serving homeless persons. Affordable housing programs, including rental assistance vouchers and homelessness programs, have survived because of congressional appropriators, although amounts still lag behind needs.

Joshua Cappell: Chris brings up a good point, when homelessness prevention resources are limited, programs may give preference to serving the populations most susceptible to factors contributing to lasting homelessness. Families with children, individual youth or young adults, chronically homeless individuals with disabilities, and veterans are the core subpopulations targeted by HUDs homeless prevention policies.

However, the 208,234 individual adults that make up 37.7% of the overall homeless population are solely responsible for the year over year increase in homelessness and may be left out of assistance program targeting efforts.

HUD reports that homelessness for individuals 24 and younger actually decreased by 2,221 (-5.5%) cases year over year. But for individuals 25 and older, homelessness increased by 8,053 (2.5%) cases. 

Max Reedy: Since homelessness is on the rise, what approaches have demonstrated the most impact in reducing and preventing homelessness? 

Chris Holden: The Housing First approach has proven to have the most immediate impact on reducing homelessness. It involves providing a voucher right away to get people off of the streets, then follows up with services to help them stay housed. 

The only real problem with the approach is that there are not enough vouchers to meet the need. Trump’s repeated calls to reduce HCV funding and eliminate VASH vouchers flies in the face of this proven approach to tackling homelessness. Related to this, Carson’s rejection of California’s request for 50,000 more vouchers to combat homelessness and California congressional delegation letter requesting support for the End Homelessness Act.

Joshua Cappell: Chris is right. Permanent Supportive Housing, an approach that combines immediate housing assistance with voluntary supportive programs, has reduced chronic homelessness by 26% since 2007 according to HUD7

Nathan Brunet: HUD continues to fund homeless initiatives, and has policies in place to better assist homeless populations, but the impact so far is difficult to measure. 

A pretty significant policy was amended just a few years ago to make it easier for certain homeless persons qualify for HUD housing. The Obama Administration published Notice H 2015-108 in 2015, which urged PHAs to be more lenient on qualifying persons who have an arrest record for rental assistance. One of the main principles of the guidance was to reduce homelessness; especially for people who are looking to reintegrate into the community after being released from prison.

HUD also provides funding for programs such as Continuum of Care (which helps rehouse homeless households), Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (which gives Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers to homeless veterans), and the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (which is a new program announced just this year that provides rental assistance for youths who have aged out of foster care).

These efforts should be applauded, but on the other hand, there are some cases in which it seems Secretary Carson’s administration refuses to allocate appropriate funding for questionable reasons.

Homeless shelter full of beds. Photo by KOMUnews on

Max Reedy: In Carson’s rejection letter, he suggests that overregulation of the housing market is a cause of increased homelessness rates. An LA Times article9 reports that California regulatory codes lead to large costs for developers that then gets transferred to households. Can deregulation actually help create affordable housing?

Chris Holden: Secretary Carson and White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) say deregulation is the answer. This is somewhat disingenuous, since they don’t say what they mean by deregulation.

Some deregulation can lower housing costs and break down segregationist barriers10. Zoning and other land use laws have long been used to keep low-income renters out, especially those of color. Development fees in many cases are too high. But many of these regulations are critical to public health and safety. 

When folks like the CEA call for deregulation, advocates are concerned they are talking about waiving environmental review regulations, building codes that affect safety, and requirements to hire women and minorities for their projects. 

While we might gain some new affordable apartments, we would also be losing a lot of important protections. 

Joshua Cappell: One metric common in the discussion about deregulation is that creating new housing in California costs over $400,000 per unit. Path Ventures, a non-profit development company that offered a similar figure11, are participating in Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH Supportive Housing Loan Program. 

The program is a voter approved measure that created a $1.2 billion bond to finance a proposed 10,000 new units for homeless households. However, as construction starts, estimates for new construction have dropped to 6,000 units. Developers and advocates cite the high cost of labor and construction materials in a competitive housing market but also estimate that the additional costs associated with financing and regulatory compliance make up 30% of total development costs.

In reaction to high construction costs, other avenues to create new housing are being explored. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) have recently converted a hotel in downtown Los Angeles12 into low-income and supportive housing at a cost of just $70,000 per unit. The hotel conversion was made possible after Los Angeles passed an ordinance streamlining the process to retrofit existing hotels and motels for use as supportive and transitional housing.

Max Reedy: Carson suggested in his rejection letter that instead of the Housing Choice Voucher program, California should apply for the serious mental illness/serious emotional disturbance waivers13 to build institutes of mental diseases. How much could this help reduce homelessness, considering 28% of the homeless population has a severe mental disease?

Chris Holden: And according to HUD’s 2018 homeless count, 24% of the homeless population is chronically homeless. This means being homeless for at least a year, or regular periods of homelessness over several years. Chronically homeless people are also the portion of the homeless population most likely to have mental illness or addiction issues. As Carson seems to be suggesting, treating homelessness as strictly a matter of mental disease would only address the needs of ¼ of people experiencing homelessness.

Homeless advocates agree that mental health services are an important resource, especially among the chronically homeless population. But I suspect that Carson does not have the supportive housing model in mind when proposing institutes of mental disease as a solution.

Joshua Cappell: And programs to reduce chronic homelessness are already frequently bundled with supportive services for persons with mental illness, physical disabilities, and substance abuse. 

Advocates for Housing First programs14 find that voluntary participation in supportive services are more effective than mandatory participation and that expedited access to housing leads to long term well-being and stability for homeless individuals while costing less than traditional shelters.

However, Ben Carson and the Council of Economic Advisors are skeptical of the impact Housing First programs have on ending homelessness. The CEA’s The State of Homelessness in America report claims that Housing First programs are ineffective based on the current absence of data linking housing first program outcomes with long-term homeless population decline.

And that link might not exist, because Housing First programs are not focused on prevention but on serving those currently experiencing long-term homelessness. It is difficult to reconcile the administrations call for institutional beds as a solution to unsheltered homelessness with their downplaying of the demonstrated positive impacts15 of rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.

Max Reedy: I think it is time to wrap up our first Affordable Housing Roundtable. There is plenty of nuance in the discussion about homelessness in America. 

Have you experienced homelessness? What efforts to reduce homelessness do you think show promise? What didn’t we cover here that you think should be part of the conversation? Join our discussion on Facebook or Twitter and let us know.  



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