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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

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Has the Beinoff Homelessness and Housing Initiative Report been discussed yet here? You can read the report here, an executive summary here, and a transcript of the report being discussed on the Ezra Klein Show here.

Released in June, it’s a statewide study on homelessness in California, the largest of its kind in some thirty years. It’s built on “nearly 3,200 participants, selected intentionally to provide a representative sample, and weighted data to provide statewide estimates. To augment survey responses, we recruited 365 participants to participate in in-depth interviews”. No question as to the state of focus: California is just over a tenth of the American population but nearly a third of its homeless population and nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population.

Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder)...Leaseholders reported a median of 10 days notice that they were going to lose their housing, while non-leaseholders reported a median of one day.

Other takeaways are that contra claims that homeless populations are traveling to California for warm weather or social services, 90% of interviewed participants said they were from California (and 75% from the same county they were homeless in), and backed it up with various details about their hometowns and whatnot. This also aligns with the finding that only about a third of the homeless even sought out government services, suggesting that most people are not taking advantage of whatever unique government services for the homeless California offers (which aren't good anyway). This overall makes some common sense imo - if you’re so broke you don’t have somewhere to live then your options for travel are likely limited as well.

The paper is interesting as a resource in its own right, but I think it’s most useful combined with the claims made in a book referenced in the Ezra Klein discussion of the report: “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness. For those who claim that homelessness is mostly a reflection of insanity and addiction, researchers point out that those things are frequently worse in other states with less severe homeless problems (correlations available in the hyperlink).

For instance, West Virginia has worse poverty, mental health, and substance abuse, but has a homeless problem vastly less bad than California's (0.09% vs 0.4%). The only thing California performs worse than West Virginia on is, predictably, housing costs. Or why does San Francisco, with a poverty rate of 11.4%, have such a worse homelessness problem (0.95%) than much poorer cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, all of which have poverty rates more than twice as high around 23% and homelessness rates around only 0.27%? The clearest answer is the most straightforward: San Francisco is simply twice as expensive to live in (a studio apartment in SF is little over $2k vs a little over 1k for the other three cities). This also lines up with the survey responses, with 89% of respondents saying housing costs were a barrier to them finding housing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those mental health and addiction aren’t highly important here are as well, but that there may be a demographic of fairly low functioning people who are able to take care of themselves, just barely, at low costs, but are simply unable to under heavier financial burdens. Jerusalem Demsas compares this to a game of musical chairs: as you take away chairs one by one steadily the slower and weaker kids will find themselves without a place to sit. But if you don’t have enough chairs / are going through a severe housing shortage, of course you’re gonna have a worse chairlessness problem then elsewhere, even if their kids are slower and weaker.

And once you’re out, it can be very hard to get back on your feet. Your credit history is gonna be terrible, as is your appearance. Maybe you live in your car for a while but then it gets impounded because you have nowhere legal to park it and can’t pay for the tickets. Then you’ve lost your shelter as well as your ability to go to a job. From there you’re really in the streets, which is scary - some people may take uppers due to fear of being asleep in public where people can hurt you or steal from you, and thus pick up addictions. Things spiral very fast from bad to worse.

Taken together, these suggest early intervention and a clear policy prescription to build more housing and do what can be done to lower costs - not because every disheveled person on the street is a fresh-faced suburban homeowner waiting to happen, but specifically the opposite - that every poor or unstable person living on the cusp of not being able to afford where they stay bears the risk that it’ll be much harder for them to bounce back from a fall than to sustain where they are.

Interested to hear what other people thought.

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness.

It is right, but wrong. The problem is more about where homeless people want to live, which is in premium areas. Look at where your typical homeless encampment is, then ask yourself, "if there was a studio apartment in this location, what would rent be?" The answer is always "astronomical." Most US cities actually have lower population now than in 1950, yet they still have homeless people, along with lots of unused housing stock. How can this be? Because that housing is not in the urban core, instead they are abandoned, formerly working class, neighborhoods who's sons and daughters moved to the suburbs, and the people moved to Florida/died. Why don't the homeless live there? The housing is already there. It is cheap/free, it had plumbing at one point, and could get it again, etc. They don't live there because those neighborhoods are for relatively hard working people who are willing to do a 20 minute commute on a bus/rail. Which the homeless are not.

Because that housing is not in the urban core, instead they are abandoned, formerly working class, neighborhoods

Such neighborhoods basically do not exist in California.

How can that be? California clearly had vast manufacturing in the midcentury. Where’d the people in this picture live?

At some point, there had to be working-class housing. Unless it was absorbed into Los Angeles sprawl and gentrified, or demolished, it ought to be there somewhere.

They lived in most of the neighborhoods in south-central LA - Inglewood, Hawthorne, South Gate, Bell, Compton, North Long Beach, etc. After the 60's riots most of these areas became heavily black, and now, after a lot of really nasty, but largely unreported interethnic conflict, they are mostly (with a few exceptions) latino.

In that picture? In Inglewood I guess. Population 100k, median home price 700K.

California mid century population was a third of today’s official population, probably a quarter of actual one. Moreover, during mid-century, there were more people per housing unit on average, and there were far fewer single person or two person households.

This means that the mid century California housing stock is pretty much irrelevant for the discussion of today’s housing woes, because it’s only a small fraction of today’s housing stock. The working class neighborhoods of 1950s California are places like Santa Clara or Fresno today.

That’s crazy. I didn’t realize how much it has grown. And more people per unit, when CA cities are known today for squeezing people in?

I wonder how many of those midcentury workers were agricultural. Oversupplied in Steinbeck’s time, their market value seems unlikely to have gone up as they compete with automation and immigrant labor. Combine that with a tripling or more of population…

A lot of the gateway cities which are now completely indistinguishable from any other part of the generic LA sprawl - Norwalk, Artesia, Cerritos, Cypress - which connect LA to Orange County were unincorporated farmlands as recently as the mid 50's. That's to say nothing of the further reaches of the San Fernando and Simi Valleys. That was all agricultural or undeveloped as recently as the 70's.

Also a lot of the housing stock in heavily-immigrant communities is oversubscribed; lots of people try to save on housing expenses by cramming multiple families or large numbers of young men together into a 2- or 3-bedroom house or condo, sleeping in shifts or otherwise living cheek-by-jowl in time-honored tenement-immigrant style.

TFR rears its head here- a very large percentage of the fifties population were children, who in the fifties shared rooms and didn't expect personal space, thus creating very little demand for housing. Today san fran has almost all adults, most of them single, who generate much more per capita demand for space and housing.

Not following how this is a fertility problem, rather than a general "more people" problem. If anything, don't kids increase (the parents') demand for space? That's one of the textbook motivations for the development of suburbs.

I read it more as that pure headcounts suffer from a lack of comparability if the age distribution is very different. For extreme examples, a family of 5 with 2 parents and 3 kids will use a lot less space than 5 single working age adults that have their own flat each, especially if they live in the same area.

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